Hendry County’s lobbyist firm rewarded with 2-year contract

LABELLE — If it weren’t for Hendry County getting state funding of $1.4 million toward fiscal 2020 budget items, Commissioner Karson Turner said July 16, “I would be telling you we should end this contract” that pays Tallahassee law and lobbying firm Gray-Robinson $60,000 a year.

As it transpired, though, the Hendry County Board voted that night to continue its contract for two more years, and possibly three if Gray-Robinson Attorneys at Law can pull off some more wins on other projects for the county. But the commissioners, while agreeing that the legal firm had done well, also decided to add an “out clause” that would allow termination after 60 days’ notice if they change their minds.

Commissioner Turner wanted to give the company more incentive to perform while also setting the bar a little higher for Hendry commissioners’ expectations, so he requested another clause be added as well, laying out a new requirement for reporting to the commission within 30 days of the state budget being signed.

Earlier in the meeting, he’d announced the firm’s success in getting a $1 million appropriation toward the multimillion-dollar wastewater forcemain to be built from Clewiston to Airglades airport.

County Administrator Jennifer Davis said the lobbyist contract was due to expire in August. “We are recommending to go forward with a new contract with Gray-Robinson … at the same rate.” Commissioner Michael Swindle moved to approve renewal, and Mr. Turner seconded but said he wanted to raise others idea for discussion.

He requested they make the approval for two renewable one-year contracts with a third-year option, plus a face to face report from the firm after the governor signs each year’s budget. He also said he wanted he 60-day clause added. Commissioner Michael Swindle made a motion to that effect, and it passed 4-1 with Commissioner Darrell Harris voting no.

“What I’d like to ask for, unless you all disagree, is two one-year renewals with a third-year option. I want to lock and load with these people,” Mr. Turner told his fellow commissioners after Ms. Davis gave her report. A long discussion followed.

“I want them to give us a two-year lobbying plan,” Mr. Turner went on. “I want to use their gray matter — which, there’s a bunch of them. I’ve had a very enlightening conversation with their staff. They have Ken McDougall, the ex-governor’s chief of staff who is sensitive to all things education-wise. I think we’re going to be able to get some bang for our buck there with the same contract, piggybacking off of some things we want to work for with the state legislature with VPK (Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program) and other entities like that.”

He was talking about the Florida Early Learning Coalition’s push to extend free prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds statewide. That is a favorite project to several Hendry commissioners, including Mr. Turner, board Vice Chairwoman Emma Byrd and Mr. Swindle, who is also adult education coordinator for the Hendry County School District.

“I think that their performance is in the dollars and cents, so let’s give them two one-year contracts that automatically renew,” Mr. Turner suggested.

Commissioner Byrd said she liked that idea “because we’ve dealt with them … and now I’m pleased with them. You know when we went to Tallahassee it was great, but I’d like to push them to see what else they can bring us…”

Gray-Robinson has been the lobbyist since winning the contract when the county issued a request for proposals in 2017.

Mr. Turner said, “And then also I’d like to put in specifics. Commissioner Swindle, I’d like to hear from you on this. I don’t know how often we meet with them now from a staff level or our level. I purposely did not meet with them much … until en route up there.” He suggested the contract be tweaked to require the firm report to the commission and staff “within a 30-day window of the governor signing the budget, I’d like to know where we stood.”

He said the contract should specify “a face-to-face meeting,” but not necessarily at a county board meeting. Mr. Turner further proposed further holding Gray-Robinson’s feet to the fire by putting in writing a county priority list for state funding of projects well before the legislative committee meetings begin in the autumn so there’s a clear list giving the firm direction on what to work toward.

“I don’t disagree … well, I somewhat disagree,” replied Commissioner Swindle. “My only thought is I’m just afraid. I’m happy with them; I think they did a good job. This is the first win that Hendry has had in my tenure on the board, and that’s great … (but) if we give them a multiyear contract I don’t want them to get complacent. I don’t want them to go, ‘Hendry who?’ You know, they’ve got some big names they work hard for.”

It was then that Mr. Turner stated that if the 2020 Legislature’s outcome had been different, “I would be telling you we need to terminate this contract. I know how tight it was in this legislative session.” And he suggested the 60-day “out” clause which would let the county opt out of continuing in the contract if commissioners were displeased with performance or communication from Gray-Robinson.

“I’d agree to two years if we have that,” said Mr. Swindle.

Commission Chairman Mitchell Wills said that “the biggest issue is being locked in…”

Mr. Swindle’s motion passed 4-1, with Commissioner Darrell Harris voting no.

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