PORT MANATEE -- When Manatee County Port Authority commissioners got their agenda this week for Thursday morning's regular monthly meeting, there was a notable gap in the information they get about each item. Under the one that covered lobbyists for the Port, there was no information at all.
And although they have been paying "Washington's premier independent lobbying presence" of Alcalde & Fay $60,000 a year, members of the Port Authority board - the same men and women elected to the Manatee County Board of Commissioners - said they knew nothing of the firm's work and none of its personnel.
"I would like to know a lot more about what they do," said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
"I'd like to know what we've asked them to do, and what they have done," Port Authority Chairman Larry Bustle said.
Commissioner Donna Hayes, who represents East County and Lakewood Ranch, agreed. She asked Port Manatee Executive Director David McDonald for a report "on what they do." Other commissioners echoed her sentiments.
The Port Authority put out a request for proposals for a Washington-based lobbyist in 2008, Whitmore said, but the firm has apparently never reported back to their employers.
A second lobbying group is paid $75,000 per quarter to lobby for the county and has let its work overlap into port business. On a motion from Commissioner At-Large Joe McClash, a two-time chairman of the Port Authority, that lobbyist, the Twenty-First Century Group, will be asked to detail what it does for the county separately from what it does for Port Manatee. That may reveal whether the Washington group has done anything at all.
"I'd like to know what we're getting for our money," said McClash.
That information became available in depth after a lobbying data collection organization called First Street, which is associated with the respected Congressional Quarterly Press, used its computer software and databases to research the question. It reported that both lobbying firms have worked on important issues, while is was unclear how much Alcalde & Fay had accomplished. The Twenty-First Century Group had clearly brought many tangible benefits to Manatee County.
One commissioner suggested privately that officials on the Port Authority board need to read their email more thoroughly.
In other business, commissioners gave the go-ahead to study a land swap proposed by McDonald to exchange one 10-acre parcel to Manatee County Sheriff's officials for use as a police driver-training course and for another 10-acre strip of land with two drainage ponds for use as a railroad interchange, officials said. That will connect to property on which rail giant CSX has tracks that would use the new property to reverse their trains, which they cannot do on the Port's seven miles of "ladder" tracks.
The new tracks would allow CSX to more quickly and easily load and offload cargo from the port, a potentially valuable capacity. The Sheriff would have to pave his driving course, and that would change its drainage pattern, officials noted.
It remained unclear how commissioners will value the two pieces of land or exchange it at "arms length" since they are on both sides of the swap. Future property values at the Port may boom when the Panama Canal is finished, expanding its locks to double their capacity. Port Manatee's Berth 12, the closest such facility in America to the Canal Zone, will become capable of handling large container ships this year. That could make either strip of land west of US 41, although not necessarily both, worth a small fortune.
A port official said an independent appraisal group might be able to allocate such values to see that both the county and the port get a fair deal.
Also, apparently for the last time, commissioners agreed to withhold a requested $42,000 payment from an international consulting firm for work which was inadvertently approved by Chairman Larry Bustle.
"It wasn't your fault," McClash said. "It wasn't staff's fault." He said that the firm did work outside the scope of its contract with the port when Bustle failed to seek authorization from the board. Bustle was unaware he needed to do so, he has said, but commissioners have said the firm did know, and didn't tell him. The Port Authority considered the issue several times, and now will not take it up again.
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