Rae Ann Burton sat in the Collier County Commission meeting on the morning before Hurricane Ian struck, wondering why she had to be there at all.
With the county already under both a state of emergency and a storm surge warning, the 77-year-old Golden Gate Estates resident watched as county commissioners smiled for photographs and handed out awards. Neighboring Lee County had shut down its government offices the day before.
When Burton addressed the commission during the meeting, she didn’t hold back.
“There’s a serious threat of a hurricane … but we’re here,” she told commissioners. “This meeting should be canceled due to the public being restricted from coming, the threat of hurricane, high winds, hard rains, and flooding, more than we have now, a lot already in the Estates. The school superintendents are wiser — they canceled the schools.”
Then Burton steered her attention to the main order of business on the day, a vote on a controversial housing development on the edge of the Everglades called the Immokalee Road Rural Village.
“Is not the safety of your constituents more important than developers making a profit?” she asked.
The Immokalee Road project, which was under consideration for a land-use amendment, includes up to 4,000 homes and 375.000 square feet of commercial space to be built in an area bordered by the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and includes a tract that serves as a key corridor for the endangered Florida panther.
Burton and some of her neighbors in nearby Golden Gate Estates say the development will destroy the rural character of the area. And their ire is aimed squarely at one commissioner, Bill McDaniel, who serves as county commission chair and strongly supports the development.
McDaniel has a personal history with the project that his detractors insist raises ethical concerns and should preclude him from voting on it. His excavation company conducted site work for the developer, Jeff Greene, and the commissioner previously owned land that’s now part of the development.
McDaniel helped arrange a sale of that land to Greene in a deal that erased a staggering $42.7 million in debt that the politician accrued after defaulting on $20 million in business loans tied to the property.
Burton and other opponents of the project contend that McDaniel should recuse himself from voting on the project due to his personal involvement, the forgiveness of the mountain of debt, the appearance of a conflict of interest and possible quid pro quo.
“There’s also a question of conflict of interest with Commissioner Daniels,” Burton said at the meeting. “Four foreclosed parcels of his in the project, he should excuse himself from voting.”
As she read her prepared remarks, McDaniel interrupted.
“Excuse me, stop,” he demanded.
McDaniel noted that public comments were supposed to concern topics not on the agenda and that she could speak on the project at the appropriate time later in the meeting.
“You are discussing things that are on today’s agenda, young lady,” said McDaniel, who is 16 years Burton’s junior. “Stop.”
“Though this may be legal, to me it’s putting the fox in the henhouse to guard the chickens,” she said.
As Burton spoke, hurricane models were shifting south to forecast a direct hit on Collier County. While the meeting was taking place, county emergency officials issued a voluntary evacuation order for coastal areas. Yet the commission meeting — fixated on the Immokalee Road project rather than the coming storm — pushed forward.
When questioned recently, McDaniel said criticism about his decision not to cancel the meeting as the storm loomed was reasonable, but said he believed at the time that Ian would not make a direct hit on the area. He said the fact that the Immokalee Road project was on the agenda had nothing to do with the decision not to cancel the meeting in the face of the looming storm.
“Certainly I can understand their concern about the focus of our business,” said McDaniel. “But the storm track changed ten times. It changed while we were in the meeting. We can armchair quarterback all we want.”
McDaniel’s massive debt forgiven
The Immokalee Road Rural Village project consists of 2,787 acres in north central Collier County, roughly 200 of which were previously owned by Chairman McDaniel’s company, Big Island Excavation.
McDaniel purchased the property in the early 2000s whereupon he and a business partner obtained a total of $20 million in loans tied to the land. In 2010, McDaniel defaulted on the loans and over the next several years accrued a total debt of $42.7 million.
While McDaniel was running for county commission in 2016, developer Jeff Greene purchased 2,553 acres next to McDaniel’s 200 acres for $38.5 million and hired McDaniel’s firm as the mine operator on the site. Greene also contributed $1,000 to McDaniel’s campaign.
Ultimately, in a complex transaction, McDaniel was able to sell the land and the right to collect that $42.7 million in debt for $900,000 to a local businessman Greg Jarrett in 2017, after McDaniel was elected to the commission.
McDaniel said he suggested to Jarrett that he sell the land — which provided the proposed development access to Immokalee Road — to Greene and that his debt be canceled in the deal. And that’s exactly what happened.
Despite the appearance of a conflict of interest and the potential of a quid pro quo, McDaniel has refused to recuse himself from county business involving the development. He said that everything he’s done in relation to the development has been legal.
“If you think I broke the law, file an ethics complaint and the Ethics Committee will be my judge and jury,” said McDaniel.
He also claimed that he had a legal obligation to vote, even if there was an appearance of a conflict of interest. Florida ethics law, however, specifically states that when “there is, or appears to be, a possible conflict of interest,” elected officials may abstain from voting.
Caroline Klancke, founder of the Florida Ethics Institute, said the ethics commission encourages elected officials to abstain when there is an appearance of a conflict.
“Abstention helps to avoid the appearance of impropriety and protects the public confidence in the vote itself,” said Klancke, a former general counsel to the ethics commission.
In McDaniel’s favor, Klancke said the ethics commission, when determining potential voting conflicts, doesn’t factor in past business relationships. McDaniel, who conceded that the entire situation is “clear as mud,” insisted that he has no current business relationship with the developer and therefore had no reason to abstain from voting on the matter.
“These people are making an argument that I should recuse myself for a theoretical conflict that doesn’t exist,” he said.
McDaniel said he made no promises to Greene when the deal was being made regarding county approval of the project and there was no quid pro quo involved in the sale of the land.
“It did not happen and I’m done defending myself here,” said McDaniel curtly.
“There’s a storm coming”
On the day before the September 27 meeting on the Immokalee Road Rural Village, Golden Gates Estates resident Marcela Zurita sent an email to all five county commissioners asking that the meeting be canceled.
“Many of us do not think the meeting should be held and should be rescheduled,” Zurita wrote. “We ask to at least postpone [the Immokalee Road Rural Village item] due to everyone getting ready for the hurricane that will be impacting us with severe weather and flooding even without a direct hit.”
Zurita said none of the commissioners responded to her email, so she took an unwanted break from hurricane preparation at her home to attend the meeting and speak out against the development and McDaniel’s involvement in it.
While discussing the hurricane during a briefing on the storm at the beginning of the meeting, McDaniel repeatedly said the storm was going “past” Collier County and criticized the “hyperbole” being spread by the media about the potential effects of the hurricane.
“There’s a storm coming,” McDaniel said. “There’s a big storm that’s going past us at this particular stage.”
Zurita, like Burton, addressed the commission and directly criticized McDaniel for what she too considers a conflict of interest regarding the Immokalee Road project.
“We still don’t understand why you’re still not recusing yourself from voting,” she said to McDaniel. “So I respectfully ask you not to vote and to recuse yourself. Thank you.”
At that moment McDaniel made an announcement.
“Now having said that, we have a new weather update,” he said on the dais. “The storm has shifted south. The surge is projected to be higher than was originally prophesied two hours ago.”
McDaniel raised the idea of halting the meeting at that point, but ultimately decided to continue.
In addition to Golden Gate Estates residents like Zurita and Burton, the Immokalee Road Rural Village project is strongly opposed by numerous environmental groups, who argue that it includes construction on what is now a crucial natural corridor for the endangered Florida panther and other wildlife.
Initially the wildlife corridor was left intact, but subsequent plans added a lake and development to the area impeding wildlife movement. Audubon Florida’s Brad Cornell, who spoke at the meeting, called it a “bait and switch.”
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said that blocking the corridor would do egregious damage to the panther population, which he said stood as low as 120 and is losing 11 panthers a year to road deaths.
“The property is right there in the core habitat of the Florida panther,” Schwartz said at the meeting. “… The panther cannot handle, or the other wildlife cannot handle, this level of development.”
The five-member board, McDaniel included, voted unanimously to approve the project, and the meeting, after three hours, was quickly adjourned.
“The storm has shifted,” said McDaniel in closing the meeting. “Go home and take care of the things you need to do.”
Zurita said she rushed home to put up shutters on her house, but was left stinging from the vote on the development that she says will destroy the rural character of her neighborhood.
“We don’t matter at this point,” she said. “We can say what we want but in the end [McDaniel] decides what happens in our area.”
About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.