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Posted on June 3, 2011
Free Money!! The City of Tallahassee will give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone–in fact many someones–for the renovation and repair of their old houses. They’ve already done it for many people, and the funds are there to keep going with more handouts! All you need is an old house, and an understanding of how the system works….You start in the office of the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation, and talk to the staff there.
Mr. Michael Wing, an affable, pleasant, soft-spoken man is the Executive Director, who also serves as staff of the Architectural Review Board which will “approve” your house and plan. He also sits on the City’s Historic Property Grant and Loan Finance Committee, along with a few honorary City Department heads and local bankers. Mr. Wing is readily available and eager to talk historic preservation, especially if you have an old house and want help to save it for the future.
So. Here is someone on the City’s Historic Property Grant & Loan Finance Committee, and this person is the only one present who knows details on applicants’ historic properties–in a professional, historic sense. The grant committee is going to pretty much defer to him on each property they review for a grant or loan. That’s why he is there.
Mr. Wing has been on this grant committee since 2005. He has been instrumental in obtaining grants and loans of amazingly large sums for several persons whom he has subsequently recruited for membership on the Architectural Review Board.
Naturally, these recruited members will look to him for guidance and are likely to cast their vote as he recommends on matters coming before the Architectural Review Board. One can presume they really appreciate those thousands of dollars. Who wouldn’t? And it’s not as if he’s a fringe element and the votes would be suspicious–he’s the historic preservation officer. They just go along. One of the current members got $100,000 prior to joining the ARB. Another member received three loans and three grants!
Because of the code-defined makeup of the Architectural Review Board, which requires four members to have historic properties (which are eligible for grants or additional grants), this representative of the City’s Historic Grant and Loan Finance Committee is also looked to for direction on voting from these additional property-owner members. They know that someday they may wish to apply for a City renovation grant and this person will potentially be making the key presentation to the full grant committee. They, too are likely to follow his lead when casting their votes. Why not? He is the Executive Director who has written the application they are voting on, and has prepared the Staff Recommendation to accept it.
Add in another interesting fact: The membership of the Architectural Review Board has gradually changed, and representatives of the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation (TTHP) have increased their presence on the ARB from the code-specified two members to four members. This is a code violation, but fully supported by the City’s staff Attorney, Linda Hudson. Everyone downtown looks the other way: It must be “ok”, since she said so. Personally, I think “two” means “two”, and that’s not very ambiguous. In fact, it’s very exact and specific, and for the City Attorney to let one of his staff say that “two” means “four or more” would implicate him very seriously in this financial and historic property control game.
For clarification, this key member of the City’s Historic Property Grant & Loan Committee, Michael Wing, works for the TTHP, as a paid employee with the title Executive Director. They have placed him in charge of the Architectural Review Board, as well as placing him on the City Historical Property Grant Committee. These roles he fills are defined as part of his job in the contract provided by the City Attorney’s office. There is nothing coincidental or odd here. He is supposed to have those two jobs. He is fulfilling the duties for which he is paid.
So we have an Architectural Review Board which, today, has five members who have either received City grants of thousands of dollars or who may anticipate receiving City grants of thousands of dollars, all guided by Michael Wing of the TTHP. One of these five members works in the Planning Department, the next step for the application….
There are four members of the Architectural Review Board who are also on the Board of Directors of the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation. One of these, in fact, is acting as the Chairman of the Architectural Review Board. This contractor has taken control of a public citizen’s advisory board in violation of both Leon County’s and Tallahassee’s statutes, but with the written approval of the City Attorney’s staff, regardless of the fact that it violates the codes.
The Membership List of the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation, being mentioned in the code as a condition of their contract representation on the Architectural Review Board, should be public information. A FL Chapter 119 Public Records request to the City of Tallahassee was refused outright by City staff attorney Linda Hudson. She said she didn’t have the information and she was not going to ask for it. Thus, a possibility exists that there are additional, undisclosed members of the TTHP on the ARB. Ms. Hudson works directly under the supervision of James English, our City Attorney appointed by the City Commission.
A the TTHP website, Taltrust.org, there is a link to various historic preservation-oriented businesses: a seemingly innocuous, useful source of information. Four of those businesses are historic property design professionals who serve on the Architectural Review Board: two are current members, and two served in the very recent past.
In seeking official historic preservation status as the first step enroute to a substantial grant of free money from the City, who would not consult one of these design professionals? You have to appear before the board with a plan, anyway. At any time currently, or in the recent few years, access to a deciding member of the Architectural Review Board has been provided through their advertisement on the Taltrust.org website. Pay your fee. Get your plan. Get your influence. Go for the vote.
Add all of this up, and except for the multiple members of the TTHP which provide an illegal majority, you will have a “fix” in for historic designation and a City grant, which is technically legal and part of the code or contract with TTHP. This is a system written and designed by the City Attorney’s office. And, ethically, on paper, it’s crooked as hell. We can check voting records, but we cannot know what is in the hearts and minds of people. Fortunately, ethics laws follow the “appearance” of impropriety. But that pesky, illegal membership situation…..
There is a genuine question as to the fairness of the distribution of the City’s historic preservation grants. The structure of the system doesn’t look good.
What is really going on? This is a difficult question. I think, as a community with good intentions, we have set up a system intended for good people to serve who have experience in the procedures for formal historic preservation. The guidance and knowledge for what really “fits” a particular style of building of a particular era is pretty difficult to find, without experienced people volunteering their time and a trustworthy organization keeping the pool of knowledge and talent on tap, so to speak. Without the formal approach, true preservation can be haphazard and irreversable errors can be unintentionally made to fine buildings.
I sincerely believe no one has been working the system for personal gain. But, the system appears to be worked and abused for other reasons. It may be for greater say in the hands of fewer people over property they have no real right to control. Private property is, indeed, private. It may be zealotry for preservation at any cost. The setup of the Architectural Review Board needs to be reviewed. The setup of the contract with Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation needs to be reviewed. The whole system needs to be looked at closely. The entire ordinance structure governing the city’s historic preservation process lacks a certain, fresh, open, unambiguous fairness. One tiny part of the ordinance, for neighborhoods, is now being studied by a citizen group. This effort will be looked at more closely in the second part of this series.
Meanwhile, we need to understand that compromises in ethical structures can leave honorable people vulnerable to public questions of intent. They may be no less honorable for the questions. However, the questions are also valid. It’s how we open a community dialog to improve ourselves and our future. It’s time for that dialog in Tallahassee on the subject of Historic Preservation.
A recent appearance of mine before the City Commission on this issue did elicit some genuine interest from Mayor John Marks. He arranged a very productive meeting with his Chief of Staff, Rick Minor to begin looking into this issue. Mr. Minor brought the newInterim City Treasurer-Clerk, Jim Cooke, onboard, and I was able to clarify for them where the abuses are occuring, as well as answer many questions which will guide them a step further toward solutions. I hope for the best, and heartily thank Mayor Marks for his personal involvement, as well as Mr. Jim Cooke for his sincere interest.
This article is part-one of a two-part series. Thank you to Steve Stewart of Tallahassee Reports’ Website for publishing it. A copy will be posted on HistoricLafayettePark.com. The second article is being researched and should be available soon.
Preview of part-two:
We’ve seen here how a possibly ethically-compromised Architectural Review Board, aided by the City Attorney’s office, and a no-bid, sole-source contractor for historic preservation services can grease the wheels of bureaucracy to obtain grants for those who want to participate in Historic Preservation Overlay (HPO) rezoning. There is a flip-side to this situation: What happens when this same system is used to take someone’s property rights when they had no intention of participating? Those wheels are still greased and the City Attorney’s office will not be on your side! Stay tuned for this exciting second article.
Further information on our historic preservation system in Tallahassee, as well as specific substantiating documents for this article can be found at HistoricLafayettePark.com.
Your comments will be helpful in exposing where our money goes. Please add your voice.
Mark S. Daniel
Editor & Publisher, HistoricLafayettePark.com