2018 Grand Jury Report On ECUA Allegations Released With Critical Findings And Recommendations

September 11, 2020

Over two years after it was issued, a grand jury report on the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority was released Friday afternoon.

An Escambia County grand jury completed its review into complaints and allegations involving ECUA in July 2018. But that report was never released due to appeals filed by ECUA seeking to block it from becoming public.

A grand jury was convened and tasked with review of the operations, policies, and procedures of ECUA, specifically the grand jury investigation related to eminent domain proceedings, Florida public records and sunshine law, ECUA Board supervision, and delegation of authority.

Following its investigation and witness testimony, the grand jury concluded that criminal charges were not appropriate and returned a no true bill. However, because the grand jury was “deeply concerned” by the testimony it received, it issued the report. Under Florida law, individuals named in the report were given the opportunity to move to repress or expunge improper unlawful portions of the report. The appeals were ultimately rejected by the First District Court of Appeal.

In reading the findings below and the linked report, keep in mind it was issued two years ago and several aspects have changed. For instance, former ECUA director Stephen Sorrell has since retired, and then board member Elvin McCorvey passed away in January 2019.

TO READ THE FULL REPORT, CLICK HERE (PDF).

In the report, the grand jury made the following recommendations:

“We find that the Board has been grossly negligent in their supervision of the executive director, Stephen Sorrell. This is particularly true in the matter involving Bear Marcus Pointe and in their delegation to Sorrell of unlimited authority.

“We believe that the absence of term limits on Board Members has created a sense of complacency and has fostered an overreliance on the executive director and attorneys. An amendment to the Special Act should be considered that would place term limits on Board Members.

“A clear policy should be established regarding the signing of documents, particularly those involving real property. We believe that the Board Chair should sign such documents. Whenever the executive director is authorized to sign documents on behalf of the Board, there should be clear direction by way of resolution giving that authorization.

“There should be a policy, with deadlines, to honor commitments so that builders and developers can properly plan future projects. ECUA should formalize the development process in order to provide cost predictability related to design standards, requirements, and timelines once initial plans have been submitted. The Board should hold a public forum to discuss the development process.

“ECUA should develop an advisory board to review engineering manuals and standards to ensure that the manuals are consistent with other similar water and sewer agencies. Public stakeholders should be involved in this process.

“We strongly recommend that the Board hire an in-house attorney and support staff who are paid by salary and not on an hourly basis. We believe this would reduce the incentive oflitigation and would foster good will with businesses and individuals that ECUA works with. We also recommend that ECUA maintain a relationship with an attorney who specializes in eminent domain cases.

“Indemnity and hold harmless agreements should be in all easements unless specifically prohibited by law. This is standard practice for Gulf Power Company. ECUA has given such coverage to Gulf Power but refused the same request by the owner of the property.

“There should be specific policies in place requiring ECUA attorneys to provide regular briefing on attorney’s fees and litigation costs in pending cases.

“We recommend that appraisal procedures be reviewed particularly as they relate to eminent domain cases. We have noticed appraisals that were considerably under value that resulted in potentially unnecessary litigation.

ODOM AND BARLOW (ECUA’s attorneys)

“We find that Odom and Barlow heavily misled the Board and failed to keep them informed regarding pending litigation. Information involving settlement offers and discovery sanctions were never presented to the Board. Odom and Barlow did not advise the Board in a timely manner regarding issues with their email system or the missed deadline for the filing of an appeal. This resulted in four years of additional litigation and more than $460,000 in cost to ECUA.

“We recommend that ECUA continue to pursue possible legal malpractice claims against Odom and Barlow.

“Board members have indicated that they have asked for documents regarding legal fees and expenses, but have not been provided that information. Information regarding attorney expenses should be available at all times. ECUA should establish accounting procedures to make this information readily available.

“We find that Odom and Barlow were making policy decisions. This should not continue. We specifically find that they made policy decisions regarding indemnification and hold harmless agreements.
In their testimony, Board members have been very supportive of Bradley Odom. Other witnesses did not share this opinion. In his testimony, we found Odom to be both unprofessional and unprepared. We make these findings because they are important and should be considered by the Board in future decisions.

STEPHEN SORRELL

“We recommend that an independent review be conducted to determine if Stephen Sorrell should retain his position as executive director of ECUA. Of particular concern are his actions in the Bear Marcus Pointe case. We recommend that the employment contract for the executive director be renegotiated every two years with no automatic renewal provision. The current contract has been in place since 2004.

“We recommend that the executive director be formally evaluated annually and that a public feedback component should be included.

SUNSHINE/PUBLIC RECORDS

“We recommend ECUA contract with an outside agency to provide annual training for all employees on the requirements for both Sunshine and Public Record

Comments

12 Responses to “2018 Grand Jury Report On ECUA Allegations Released With Critical Findings And Recommendations”

  1. Brotherhood on September 14th, 2020 7:50 am

    @ Kennie Lyons:

    Good info… unfortunately I think you shook the hornet’s nest… Wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t come after you for being open about what you know first hand… The “Good ol Boys there don’t like it when their butter wagon gets disrupted….. I know as you know.

  2. M in Bratt on September 13th, 2020 12:01 pm

    I’d love to know how much tax payer money was spent on lawyers to keep this report secret until right after the election

  3. kennymcmahon on September 12th, 2020 5:13 pm

    Walker is now out but you still have Perkins and Benson. this goes munch further there is still a lot more you need to look at in this orginazation .there is a lot more .

  4. Melissa Pino on September 12th, 2020 1:39 pm

    Multiple nails on multiple heads, Jay. Perfect assessment of where it’s at and what it needs and means. Sadly, it’s probably also an accurate read on what will happen from here, with a strong likelihood of nothing.

    Deborah Brusso: it’s not too late for people to write your name in, correct? Does it work here legally the way it does other places I have lived…there WILL be room on the ballot for people to write in whoever they want? You got a good percentage of the vote even though you were hampered by covid as a non-incumbent and strapped for finances since so many people had donated to a previous candidate. Got it in the tank for a two-month grassroots push for people to write you in?

    One thing is certain: if all the long-standing rumblings of one of these board members stepping down before the end of her turn to run for County Commissioner has any truth to it, this report should be ample demonstration of what a horrible idea that would be. And way too close for comfort per our household.

  5. J. A. Ingwell on September 12th, 2020 1:05 pm

    Two plus years have passed since the Grand Jury issued their report and the court releasing it to the public. During that time Sorrell has been allowed to retire, Perkins and Benson have been re-elected to four year terms and Campbell just recently won her August primary. So much for swift justice, but then again it is a legal system, not a justice system.

    The Grand Jury’s recommendation for term limits to be placed on the board is a direct indictment of the board’s incompetence and total lack of engagement; not to mention their contempt for their constituents. It’s also an indictment of the Escambia County electorate’s lack of engagement when it comes to ECUA Board Member elections.

    As part of the engaged Escambia County electorate, I’m requesting the immediate resignation of these three board members. Resigning would be the honorable thing to do. Instead they will continue to waste rate payer money on frivolous and harassing litigation, demand excessive lift station standards, fail to supervise the executive director, raise rates and most importantly, collect their board salaries for working four to five days per month. Maybe they will find the time in their busy schedules to conduct an annual performance review of the new Executive Director.

    .

  6. Kennie Lyons on September 12th, 2020 11:45 am

    I’m a former employee with over 31 years of service. I ran for District 3 back in 2016. I can tell you for certain that ECUA is rotten at the top ( Management and Board Members). Randy Rudd is by far the most ruthless and unprofessional of upper management. The good old boys system is alive in well in this organization. And the Inequality amongst people of color is HORRIBLE! Someone need to investigate when Danny Majors was the Director over Lift Stations and Water Wells, he brought in his friend from Layne Central and Joe Tindall to do his under the table magic when came down purchasing pumps and other equipment. There’s a lot of kickbacks that’s going on in this organization with crooked leaders. My heart goes out to the real devoted employees. I was looking forward to in election, but things caused me not to, but I’m truly looking forward to run again in 2024.

  7. Oversight on September 11th, 2020 10:44 pm

    Confirmed by the report and the vote. Term limits enforced by We the People.

  8. R C on September 11th, 2020 9:55 pm

    Please don’t let this go to waste! It is time the elected board do their job and clean this organization up. The citizens who elected you are depending on you to make the hard decisions and clean this mess up.

  9. Melissa Pino on September 11th, 2020 9:22 pm

    Yet sadly, no criminal convictions. Just a hard tsk tsk and a write-up that cushions the board members by making them look merely incompetent when they were actually complicit.

    And of course after this sat for months on end with no action on somebody’s desk, it magically gets wrapped up and made public JUST after the primaries. Par for the course.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is good news, and should help to reform that autocratic monopoly. Perhaps the naysayers who have been chewing over “needless” court action can now see that there was very good reason for the Bear family to bring this to the SAO. How absurd that the ECUA board members could have had this resolved from the get-go simply by admitting to and correcting the egregious errors made.

    Nope. Drag it out to the tune of at least 1.3 M in taxpayer expense while claiming ignorance that defies credulity. Two of the board members up to their necks in this are still there. The voters just returned one of them by dint of the republican primary. Congrats. Well, at least this may put the kabosh on any ideas of running for further offices…

  10. Gum Bumper on September 11th, 2020 7:50 pm

    Man ol man…. Wish’d the Grand Jury had asked me some questions….

  11. J.Larry Seale on September 11th, 2020 7:20 pm

    we just got one them “people” out…..
    now it time for the rest county to get to
    work.

  12. Vfw on September 11th, 2020 6:23 pm

    CRIMINALS





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