Mayor Glenda Hood had a glorious message at the start of the Feb. 5 City Council meeting. She'd been on the phone with Gov. Jeb Bush and David Struhs, head of the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and both had cleared the way for the city to temporarily house a private charter school in the city's John J. Jackson Center -- the first step toward Hood's goal of establishing a permanent school in the struggling Parramore neighborhood.
The following week, Struhs followed up with a letter, which said that "based on authority given to me" by state law, Struhs was cutting the strings attached to a $100,000 grant from the state that paid for facilities at the center. (As a condition of that grant, the city had promised to keep the Jackson Center open to all until 2019 -- a condition the city potentially violated by pledging its use to the private-school operators.)
Now, however, it turns out that Struhs had no authority to waive the grant requirement. The section of Florida law that he cited gave him no such right. Rather, state code says the city must file a petition seeking the waiver, which would be considered only after a public hearing and other requirements are met.
Until recently, Struhs didn't seem concerned about fulfilling those requirements. Only after confronted with a copy of an e-mail from one of DEP's own attorneys did Struhs' staff begin backpedaling. The e-mail, written by DEP legal counsel Suzanne Brantley, pointed out exactly what was in the law that Struhs had tried to circumvent.
It enumerated three things that Struhs should have told Hood. "I think that the secretary should say that if the city can comply with `provisions of the state code` he would look favorably on approving it, rather than making it a done deal which could cause legal and public problems," Brantley wrote Feb. 15 -- unfortunately, two days after Struhs sent his approving missive to the mayor.
While the process that Struhs should have been following is a formality at this point -- after all, Struhs already has said he would sign the waiver -- failing to comply with it shows how eager public officials are to overlook technicalities.
Lucia Ross, a DEP spokeswoman, says her office was well aware that Struhs couldn't waive the grant without fulfilling terms of the law. But she says state officials didn't feel it was necessary to include the provisions in Struhs' letter to Hood. "We're just not going to include a list in the letter," she said.
Nor did Hood feel it necessary to include that in her announcement.
In any event, the city's agreement with the state might be for naught. That's because the feds also gave money to renovate the Jackson Center. For the charter school to go forward, the feds, too, must waive similar provisions of their grant. That word is expected in early April. If they don't waive the terms, the city still could find itself scurrying to find the school a new home.