County Commission candidate for District 5, Donna Melzer, declined the invitation to write her own biography and answer one question for a special Election 2016 section in Martin County Currents; therefore, Currents relied on the public record.
Among Melzer’s accomplishments listed in her campaign materials are her environmental efforts to bring “stricter septic tank rules” to Martin County, yet the county’s new rules limit or ban only those septic tanks that would benefit businesses or farmers, miles from our waterways, excluding the thousands within a few dozen feet of our rivers that are feeding algal blooms.
The new septic rules restrict a landowner with a business on any size parcel of land to one 2,000-gallon tank, which now prevents a 25-year-old Martin County company, Wasterblasting Technologies Inc., from expanding its operations to its adjacent five acres. As a result of Melzer’s and others’ efforts, county residents lose the prospect of an additional 200 high-paying jobs, and county coffers lose additional revenue from taxes and impact fees that would help build a much-needed sewer system.
An earlier environmental crisis in 1998 also brought toxic algae blooms, lesioned dolphins and dead fish to the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. The Stuart News wrote a story in 1998 about a reservoir proposed by a group called the St. Lucie River Initiative, which would be built on 22,000 acres in Allapatah Flats next to the C-44 canal.
Melzer was reported then as saying she feared that the reservoir would be used to provide water for western development, instead of diverting Lake Okeechobee discharges as intended.
Melzer’s rhetoric has remained the same since 1998, but the pollution grows worse.
Melzer, who lives in Palm City, lists her J.D. degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1976 as the first item in her biography on the Martin County Elections Office website, and next she lists her four years as Martin County Commissioner for District 5, 1996 to 2000.
Most Martin County residents, however, think of her first as the chair of the Martin County Conservation Alliance, which she joined in the mid-’90s. At the time, the organization was a consortium of business people, real estate brokers, and environmental engineers attempting to address the decline of water quality in the St. Lucie and Indian River Lagoon.
Melzer took over as president in 2003, remaining as president of the not-for-profit corporation until 2013, when she became and remains chairman of the organization, now supported by membership fees. Contributions are not tax-deductible, because the organization never filed for tax-exempt status. As a result, its contributors, revenues and expenses are not open to public scrutiny.
The registered agent for the Alliance is attorney Virginia Sherlock, and familiar names as directors include Jackie Trancynger and Myra Galoci, who join Melzer and Sherlock at nearly every county commission meeting to make public comment.
Commissioner Ed Fielding was a director for five years prior to being elected commissioner. Although he, and commissioners Sarah Heard and Anne Scott, all touted their membership in the organization during their campaigns, none of them recused themselves from a vote in 2013 that waived court-ordered sanctions against Melzer and the Conservation Alliance (as well as the 1,000 Friends of Florida) for appealing a case against Martin County to the Florida Supreme Court, which they had already lost at district and appellate levels.
Controversy has swirled around Melzer previously for other lawsuits filed against Martin County, according to court records, news reports, and among those who served with Melzer on the county commission in the late ’90s.
They remember her for chairing long commission meetings that lasted, at times, until midnight or later, as well as the lawsuits by disgruntled employees, lawsuits by owners of approved business projects that suddenly were shut down by the county, and grand jury probes for violations of open meetings laws, abuse of power, and other alleged misdeeds.
Melzer invoked her Fifth Amendment right seven times while under oath to protect herself from self-incrimination in possible criminal charges during a deposition for a lawsuit filed against the county by a contractor. Melzer was never charged with a crime.
“I can say that when I served (as commissioner), Donna Melzer was very, very controlling,” says Elmira Gainey, former county commissioner from 1994-2002, who defeated Maggy Hurchalla for her District 4 commission seat. “She controlled not only the agenda and everything on it, but all the county staff, as well.”
Among the unwanted news stories and lawsuits targeting Martin County during Melzer’s tenure were these:
1997 – Reported by The Palm Beach Post, March 1997: The Martin County Commission agreed to pay The Palm Beach Post $15,900 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit alleging violations of Florida’s open meetings law by approving lawsuit settlements totaling $4.1 million in private sessions without a public vote.
During the Grand Jury probe of the Post’s charges that commissioners violated open meetings laws, Building and Zoning Director Mike Sinkey and County Commission secretary Beth Bobango both testified against the commissioners following the complaints of two employees that people “were seeking their (personnel) files to harass them,” according to the University of Florida’s May 1997 Brechner Report, a monthly newsletter summarizing developments in Florida’s open meetings and public records laws.
The county attorney, who resigned shortly thereafter, allegedly had advised commissioners that personnel files were subject to public records requests, thus no criminal charges were filed against any of the commissioners, according to the report.
A lawsuit was filed by one of the employees, but the case was settled out of court, according to Martin County court records.
1998 – In the Palm Beach Post, April 3, 1998, “Official helped pay for suit vs. Martin,” Melzer confirms she made a cash payment of $1,000 to a friend, Krista White. The article explains the reason was so White “could continue her fight against the county for approving a business competitor’s venture before hers.”
According to Martin County Court records, White filed suit against the county in March 1997, represented by Virginia Sherlock’s partner, Howard Heims, in response to the county’s approval of APS Environmental Associates’ recycling project in Palm City.
Two months later, court records show that APS sued the county for canceling its approvals, and White for alleged interference with the APS contract. The suit was dropped after the approvals were restored.
News coverage in The Stuart News by reporter Kevin Osborne followed the APS case against the county, and the conflict of interest and abuse of power allegations against Melzer, from April through August 1998, publishing additional accounts of Melzer invoking her Fifth Amendment right during testimony under oath during a deposition.
An attorney herself, Melzer also claimed attorney-client privilege five times, thus refusing to answer questions on the advice of her attorney, according to The Stuart News coverage; however, no criminal charges ever were filed.
2000 – During Melzer’s re-election campaign, The Stuart News broke a story in March 2000 regarding expenses allegedly charged against the general fund, then repaid from District 5 discretionary funds, for the printing and mailing of a four-page brochure to 10,000 Palm City residents. Then-County Commissioner Elmira Gainey, interviewed by the reporter, questioned the propriety of the use of taxpayer funds for the brochure, which she claimed promoted Melzer’s no-growth interests.
Melzer insisted the brochure focused on transportation issues, of concern to all Martin County residents, according to the news article. No ethics complaints were filed against Melzer.
Lawsuits against Martin County
After Melzer was defeated in her 2000 re-election bid, she remained in the spotlight as the result of nearly a dozen administrative challenges against Martin County’s decisions, the state’s Department of Community Affairs that approved those decisions, and at times the school board, filed by Melzer as a named plaintiff and/or the Martin County Conservation Alliance, including civil suits and appeals, from 2001 through 2013.
All the cases were lost except two, in which she had challenged five amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. She lost the challenge that resulted in only partial modifications to two of the proposed amendments after the case was heard in appellate court, according to court records.
After spending the past 16 years off the Martin County Commission, Melzer now is challenging, incumbent County Commissioner John Haddox for the District 5 seat, as is Palm City resident and former County Commissioner Ed Ciampi.