by Wes Fager (c) 2005
But when 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 Ed that.
Brent Sembler

The proposal: 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.

At issue: 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:

  • The 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 years.
  • 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Pinellas Planning Council (PPC) acts on the request from the property angle.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Affairs.
  6. 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 case 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