by Wes Fager (c) 2005
Ed Collins, who has done lots of things for me as a [former Pinellas]
county commissioner, calls and says, "Brent, I've got a client
that I think you'll like." I put them on my calendar - I owe
Silor Optical of Florida, a division of France-based Essilor, owns
some property at 4900 Park Street in Seminole (the city), Florida. Sembler
Company wants to buy it to build a shopping center on it. But there are
problems. For starters the property is zoned industrial. Sembler wants
it zoned commercial. Another problem is that technical staffs on the county
say it is not a good move for the citizens. But the technical staffs don't
make the decision, Pinellas County elected officials do. Both Essilor
and Sembler have hired Timothy Johnson, Jr., founder of Johnson,
Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns to represent them.
On Tuesday Dec. 6, 2005 at 0900 the matter goes before the Pinellas
County Board of Commissioners sitting as the Countywide Planning
Authority (CPA). The staff for the CPA is recommending to the
CPA to deny the request. But since the Pinellas Planning Council
(PPC) has voted to approve Sembler's request, it will take a super
majority of the CPA to kill it.
A major item of
concern: Sembler's track record for getting its way despite objections
by government technical staffs: Last month the PPC voted to approve
Sembler's request by a narrow 5 - 4 margin (4 members did not even bother
to vote!) despite the fact that its own staff recommended against it.
Now the CPA must vote and its staff is recommending against the Sembler
proposal citing the same concerns that the staff of the PPC had. (See
CPA Agenda for 12-06-05.) Of major
concern is that Sembler Company has a history of getting his way with
elected officials despite recommendations to the contrary by the staffs
of those elected officials. A look at that history is quite an eye-opener:
Great Coopers Point land scam. In 1987 Michael Kenton, a Clearwater
employee, passed up a chance to buy Coopers Point, a mangrove swamp,
for $ 1 million. Instead he formed a partnership with Sembler Company.
Sembler bought the swamp for $1 million and Kenton lobbied the city
to buy it from Sembler for $ 2.65 million (an overnight profit of 1.65
million!) They almost got away with it too, but then the St. Petersburg
Times heard of the scam. The Times wrote many scathing articles with
titles like, Something's rotten in the Cooper's Point land deal,
Cooper's Point deal is rotten, and Deal is rotten. Sembler
hired attorney Tim Johnson to represent it. Because of the adverse
publicity Sembler dropped the price to $ 1.95 million. Dr. Heyward Mathews,
an oceanographer, and Dr. Harold Sims, an ecologist, wrote a letter
to the city urging the city not to purchase Coopers Point stating that
no federal or state agency would allow development of the wetlands portion
if the swamp remained in private hands, and stating that the uplands
has no ecological value being a "mixture of second-growth pepper,
punk and lots of other garbage vegetation." Nevertheless, though
the land had been around forever, the city wanted it "right now."
But the city could only come up with $650,000. Tim Johnson was
a good friend of and had been the campaign aid to County Commissioner
George Greer (now Judge Greer). Besides that he had contributed $1,000
each to the campaign of George Greer and his fellow commissioner Barbara
Sheen Todd in their reelection bids in 1988. These two and other Pinellas
County commissioners voted to front $ 1.3 million to supplement Clearwater's
money and the deal was done--Johnson had helped convince the county
to pay 2/3 cost for a property it did not even own! Fifteen years and
$372,406 worth of improvements later, Clearwater finally opened Coopers
Point in 2002 as a limited use park for special groups only like
schools and bird watchers! Additional improvements are planned in 14
- In 1988 Sembler
tried to build a shopping center in St. Petersburg near Tyronne Village.
The residents were so upset they started a petition to stop it. They
complained that "the traffic is murder down here already."
The Times pointed out that there were already 4 - 5 shopping centers
in the area. The city planning commission recommended against zoning
the area commercial because of the existing traffic problems--another
shopping center would just add to it. So Sembler hired attorney Roy
G. Harrell, Jr., immediate past president of the St. Pete Chamber of
Commerce, who was friends with city Councilman Ron Mason, to lobby its
case--ex parte. Also Sembler agreed to build two turning lanes stating
that there would only be a 5% increase in peak traffic and the two new
lanes would alleviate that. In the end the St. Pete city council vote
9 - 0 to let Sembler build a shopping center that nobody wanted. And
then it was learned that the county had just authorized the building
of another shopping center across the street on county property!
- In June 1988 Hillsborough
County Commissioner Pick Talley and Sembler Company president Steven
Sembler formed Summer Property and Development. Six months later Talley
left office as a commissioner and announced he would wait "about
a year" [but added "I'm not making a hard-and-fast rules"]
before lobbying Hillsborough County commissioners for any work.
- The next year
(1989) Sembler tried to build a major addition to University Plaza Mall
near the University of South Florida in Tampa, but the area was zoned
"special medical and university." USF officials objected.
Hillsborough County's planning staff advised their commissioners against
it. In August 1989, ignoring the advice of its own staff, the elected
officials of the Hillsborough County Commission voted 5 - 2 in favor
of Sembler's request! [SPT 12-14-89, Tampa, p. 1.]
- In 1989 Pasco
County Commissioner Curtis Law sold 135.5 acres to Scarborough Constructors
for $ 1.8 million. Sembler was a joint venture with Scarborough. The
year before the Pasco County Commission rezoned the land to allow construction
of homes. The commission also voted to lengthen Collier Parkway--a decision
benefitting Scarborough/Sembler. The Commission also agreed with Scarborough/Sembler
to widen Collier to 4 lanes using county bonds to pay for it. Commissioner
Law said that he did not vote on issues dealing with Scarborough. Then
in 1989 Scarborough / Sembler requested to build King's Mill--a housing
development with shopping center on land then zoned agriculture. Many
local citizens did not want it. Both the Pasco Planning Commission and
zoning staff members recommended against it. We are not sure yet whether
the commissioners passed the measure--but we are investigating.
- On May 28, 1998
the St. Petersburg City Council voted to hold a second hearing on the
$40 million BayWalk shopping center. The city agreed to pay $10 million
for the parking garage. Councilmen Larry Williams was so excited at
the meeting that he urged approval that very night. Councilman Robert
Kersteen quickly seconded. In August 1999 the St. Petersburg City Council
voted 6 - 1 to finalize terms with BayWalk developer STP Development.
City council member Larry Williams was not present. [SPT 8-25-99, p.
1B] Larry Williams is a former partner with Fred Bullard. Fred Bullard
and Mel Sembler were partners in STP.
So where does
the proposal stand at this time? Here are the hurdles that Sembler
has overcome or must eventually overcome to get the property rezoned commercial.
- In November 2004
Sembler approached Seminole's city council about rezoning. (Seminole
annexed the property in June 2000, otherwise Seminole would not have
been in the loop.) City officials gave a preliminary nod this summer.
- The next step
is to see whether the county has any road issues or property issues
with rezoning the parcel. This is a three step process. The county's
Metropolitan Planning Authority (MPO)
looks at the rezoning request for traffic issues and determines the
adequacy of existing and currently planned roads to handle the increased
traffic the rezoning would bring.
- The Pinellas
Planning Council (PPC)
acts on the request from the property angle.
- If the measure
passes the MPO and the PPC, it goes to the Pinellas Commissioners sitting
as the Countywide Planning Authority (CPA) for a vote.
- If the county
commissioners pass it, the rezoning request goes before the state to
see whether the request adversely affects any statewide traffic or property
plans or requirements. The state agency that reviews the request is
the state Department of Community
- If the state approves,
then the measure goes back to Seminole city authorities for final approval.
The staffs of the
PPC and the CPA are concerned about the increased traffic the rezoning
would cause, and about the dwindling availability of industrial-use property
in the county. Lucky for Sembler, the county's 2020 plan already calls
for widening the Park Street / Stacey Road corridor where the property
in question is located from four to six-lanes. The plan states that currently
about 30,000 cars travel daily on the 5-mile section of Park /Stacey The
plan says that by 2020 another 8,000 motorists are expected to drive that
stretch of corridor. But the plan is based on current usage and not potential
rezoning. Local citizens were already complaining about the county's plan
to widen Park/Starkey--not even considering this new Sembler plan. According
to the staff of the Pinellas Planning Council Sembler's proposal would
cause a traffic increase of about 4,500 trips a day. Seminole planners
told Sembler he would have to satisfy the County's Metropolitan Planning
Organization (MPO) and the PPC. So Sembler hired Tindale-Oliver &
Associates, Inc. How can one argue with their findings since it is the
same firm that does the county's own planning.
The county staffs
are concerned about the loss of industrial use property in the county.
Earlier this year Tim Johnson and partner Steve Williamson argued another
for Sembler before the Safety Harbor commission to rezone a property over
there from light industrial to commercial. The St. Pete Times wrote that
the property has remained on the market for over a year because no one
in industry wants to buy it as there are "no rail lines, airports
or major highways nearby." Sembler argues that the current plan to
widen Park/Stacey will handle any increased traffic his proposal would
cause. But Sembler seems not to stress that the widening of Park/Stacey
is part of a $62 million plan to widen the entirety of County Road 1,
running north/south through the entire county. Would this not be the "major
highway" that the Times says is lacking. I heard that Essilor might
be asking too much and a lower price would probably bring a quick industrial
sale of its property. Sembler hired Dr. Hank Fishkind of Fishkind and
Johnson in Orlando. Dr. Fishkind developed the economic model used throughout
the state when he was with the Uni. of Florida. Dr. Fishkind supports
Sembler's plan. Who can argue that?
As of Monday Dec.
5, 2005 Sembler has cleared the first three hurdles (preliminary approval
from Seminole and approval from the MPO and the PPC). And that is where
the matter rests on the eve of a vote from the Pinellas Commissioners
on Tuesday morning, Dec. 6.
For some reason(s)
Ambassador Melvin Sembler, AO, the principal of Sembler Company, has often
been able to convince county and elected officials to agree with him above
the objections of their own staffs. In Part 2 of this report we
look at Sembler's influence over elected officials due in part to political
contributions, in part to his high standing in the local, state and national
Republican Party. In Part 3 we look at Mel Sembler the founder
of Straight, Inc. If elected officials ignore their own staff and back
Mel Sembler, then they must feel Mr. Sembler is a good neighbor. But if
he is a good neighbor, then why did he try to stick his neighbors with
some overpriced swampland at Coopers Point? And why did he operate Straight,
Inc.--the destructive juvenile drug rehabilitation program? When Mel
Sembler went before his Senate hearing to be an ambassador, he told the
Senators that he was there because of the humanitarian work he had done
at Straight. But last Saturday night Air
America, heard on 84 radio stations around the country, aired a segment
it billed as investigative reporter John Gorenfeld reveals the sordid
sadistic history of Bush crony Melvin Sembler, aka Ambassador
de Sade." Last month Mark Levine's Radio
Inside Scoop heard in seven states and the District of Columbia aired
a pair of segments on Mel Sembler titled This Bush Crony Has Blood
on His Hands! and The Bush Crony Who Tortured American Teens, Part
II. Over 40 former Straight clients have committed suicide. Why is
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala on the advisory board of Straight
today--under its latest name Drug Free America Foundation? (DFAF no longer
treats people for addictions).
For the most part
county and municipal elected officials are doctors, lawyers, educators,
bankers and businessmen. They are not usually trained as professional
engineers, architects, economists, environmentalists, and road and site
planners. That is what they have a staff for. Even if they were all engineers
they would not have the time to do the necessary studies themselves. If
they elected officials do not listen to their own staffs, then why don't
they just fire their staffs and save paying them salaries and benefits?
Part 2: A look
at contributions to local county and municipal officials by Sembler and
by Sembler lobbyists
Part 3 How Sembler
and his lobbyists help to normalize cults