February 18, 2015
4 mins read

This was probably a bigger crowd than City Councilwoman E. Denise Lee was expecting. This was, after all, a hastily convened emergency meeting of her ad hoc Hemming Park Committee, announced a few days earlier for a Thursday afternoon inside the tiny Don Davis Room at Jacksonville City Hall. By a few minutes after two, when Lee walked in carrying a paper bag from Jimmy John’s, every seat was taken, mostly by young, Downtown activist types, many in green shirts under sport coats, a sign of support for Hemming Park in the face of apparent adversity. Chairs were brought in from outside, and Lee encouraged the “gentlemen” to give up their seats for standing ladies.

“Good afternoon,” she began. Silence.

She held up her hands. The audience took the hint.

“Good afternoon,” came the dutiful reply.

“That’s better,” Lee said. “We’re family. That’s why we here. We’re family.”

Actually, we were there because a few days earlier, Lee had gotten a phone call from Max Marbut, a reporter for the Daily Record. Marbut had looked through the financial records of the Wayne Wood-helmed group Friends of Hemming Park and found something he deemed amiss: The group’s contract mandates that between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, FOHP must raise $25,000 in order to receive a $150,000 contribution from the city. But the group reported raising only $1,500 — yet the city paid up anyway.

FOHP — backed by a fairly straightforward letter from the Office of General Counsel — had a simple explanation: They knew they were getting the city contract for months before the agreement was inked, and had secured $50,000 in grants. Under the terms of the contract, that counted toward their fundraising goals. Problem solved.

But Lee wasn’t buying it. “How do you consider that?” she told Marbut. “That happened way before the agreement.”

Fellow committee member Bill Gulliford sounded equally dubious. “I think that’s bogus,” Marbut quoted him as saying. “I don’t know how you count that. The grants aren’t the result of the contract.”

FOHP has another fundraising benchmark, $100,000 — and the city has another scheduled contribution — fast approaching, on March 1. None of this sat well with Lee.
“We can’t write another check until this is resolved,” she told the Record.

Without that money, however, one of the city’s most important Downtown initiatives would be very much imperiled. So FOHP sent out an email blast and packed the room. And Lee immediately tried to set their minds at ease. She called the meeting, she explained, because the media was asking her questions to which she didn’t have clear answers. “I think it needs to be clear to Hemming Park — this is not called to criticize you, but to get some questions answered.”

Gulliford, meanwhile, had already had an apparent change of heart. “Legally,” he said, “they already met requirements of the contract.” Don Redman and Lori Boyer, the other committee members, said much the same thing. So did the city lawyers.

And in fact, the contract is rather specific: “Amounts raised in a previous period may be counted towards successive periods.” City officials knew FOHP was raising money before the contract was finalized; what purpose would it serve not to include that in the total, unless you were trying to sabotage the deal on a technicality? In any event, on Dec. 17, the city lawyers had rendered their verdict. In an email to the Department of Parks & Recreation, Assistant General Counsel John C. Sawyer Jr. wrote that “To disallow funds raised prior to the Effective Date runs counter to the intent of the contract language.”

FHOP has money in the bank. (It’s worth noting here that the city’s first payment, due Sept. 1, didn’t arrive until the middle of October.) They’ve also made noticeable progress, even if it’s in the early stages. (“It takes time,” Lee told Wood toward the end of the meeting. “I get that. You all have been doing a good job. No doubt about that.” “By the time this summer rolls around,” Wood assured her, “it’ll be a completely different park.”) So what’s the big deal?

“Obviously they don’t have sufficient funds coming in,” Lee told Folio Weekly the day before the meeting. “I think it makes a big difference.” She also expressed concern about the “integrity of the agreement.”

But mostly, she seemed upset that the Office of General Counsel had made what she felt was a substantive change to the agreement without consulting the city’s legislative body. “I think they [FOHP] were misled by the general counsel,” Lee said. “Obviously the general counsel made a decision without bringing that to City Council. If there were changes to be made, that should be [up to] City Council.”

She continued that thread at the meeting. “It’s got to be cleared up,” she said over and over again. At one point, when Redman called the general counsel’s legal opinion “valid,” Lee responded tersely, “That’s his opinion. It’s not mine.” And then she argued with General Counsel Jason Gabriel over whether the words “previous period” apply to the period before the contract. When Gabriel told her that term was not defined, she told him, “I don’t think you can actually give the opinion you have given. I think the opinion needs to be changed.”

After a little more than an hour of this — with Gulliford looking bored and Redman looking exasperated — they came upon a solution: a resolution specifying that, yes, the $50,000 could go toward FOHP’s targets.

“I don’t think it’s necessary, but I’ll support it if that’s what everybody wants to do,” said Redman, who just a couple of years ago had asked the mayor to immediately remove all the tables and chairs from Hemming Park to push out unsavory characters.

And then Bill Gulliford perfectly summed up the whole affair: “It’s probably redundant, but I’ll vote for it. Whatever.”

Even with that potential crisis averted, and even with that $50,000 counting toward the cumulative fundraising target, the Friends of Hemming Park still faces another big benchmark at month’s end, and still needs a significant amount to get over the hump. But don’t worry, FOHP board member and former Jaguars CFO Bill Prescott told the committee. They’ve got a $75,000-plus grant coming in the next week or so.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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