Indiantown faces old challenges in new year

Can a new manager really make a difference?

It’s no secret that Indiantown intends to hire an interim manager at its Jan. 12 village council meeting to fill the vacancy left after the Dec. 8 resignation of Indiantown Village Manager Howard W. Brown Jr.

His abrupt departure, however, did not dispel the allegations about behind-the-scenes deals, hiding public records, and inappropriate spending that dogged Brown over the past four years of his administration.

In fact, the lack of transparency that seemed to characterize Brown’s management of this rural community of 6,500 may now be embedded in village operations and adopted by some of his loyal hires — a challenging issue for any new manager.

“We cannot move this village forward as long as that culture (of non-transparency) remains,” said Councilman Carmine Dipaolo, a former Martin County police officer. “Perhaps it’s my law enforcement background, but I refuse just to let it go. We owe it to those who elected us to get to the bottom of this.”

Dipaolo was referring particularly to Brown’s laptop, which was wiped clean the day after Brown’s resignation, although the mayor ordered that Brown’s electronic devices be secured and the office’s lockschanged.

A tip from the public to Dipaolo claimed that Brown’s Microsoft Surface laptop had been wiped clean of all emails and documents by Blue Stream, the village’s IT services provider. To verify, Dipaolo turned to Village Attorney Wade Vose, who confirmed that the laptop was taken to Blue Stream the day after Brown left.

Dipaolo’s frustration was evident at the Dec. 15 meeting when he questioned Director of Administrative Services and Village Clerk Susan Owens, also serving as acting village manager. She said her intent was merely to remove Brown’s profile and add Councilman Guyton Stone’s profile to the laptop.

Owens had planned to give the laptop to Stone to replace his lost one, she said. Owens blamed Blue Stream for wiping the device’s hard drive accidentally. At the village attorney’s direction, Owens said the computer’s memory was restored, and the attorney took possession of the devices.

Since that meeting, an email surfaced from Blue Stream to Owens dated Dec. 9 asking for verification that she indeed wanted the laptop “wiped.” Her answer was not included in the email string. A subsequent public records request for all correspondence between Owens and Blue Stream has yet to be fulfilled.

To answer council members’ questions, Blue Stream officials — at the request of Dipaolo and Thomas — will attend the Jan. 12 village council meeting. They will bring with them all documents, including work orders, emails, and notes.

Dipaolo said he likely also will ask the council for permission to ask the Martin County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a forensic examination of Brown’s computers in an effort to retrieve all public records.

Not the first incidence of vanishing public records

More than one page of a Sept. 19, 2020, letter from developer Brian West to then-councilman Anthony Dowling has also disappearedfrom Indiantown’s public records,although the original letter was received at the village office and date-stamped by the village clerk.

Owens did not retain a copy, stating in answer to a public records request for a copy of the original letter, that it was “the responsibility of (individual) council members to retain their own public records.”

None did, except Mayor Thomas, who possesses only one and a half pages of what appears to have been a three-page letter from West to Dowling. The original letter cannot be retrieved from Dowling, thus it appears the letter no longer exists.

The letter is critical due to West’s entanglements in Indiantown in 2020.

West, charged in 2020 on eight felony counts of bribing elected officials in Brevard County to change the zoning on his property there, allegedly paid political operative Robert Burns to interfere in Indiantown’s 2020 election, specifically to run Guyton Stone’s re-election bid, according to a Burns deposition in West’s bribery case.

Stone’s opponent lost by 26 votes after a racist smear campaign launched by Burns one month prior to the Indiantown election.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into West’s involvement in the election during an April 2021 investigation. They asked Brown then for all public records regarding West, according to FDLE public records, which would include all correspondence with council members.

West had sought a change to the village’s comprehensive growth management plan that would increase the density — and thus the value — of West’s planned Indiantown development, Citrus Landing on Citrus Boulevard.

Since Owens did not retain a copy of the letter from West to Dowling in the previous year, it’s highly unlikely that FDLE received the village’s complete record of their dealings with West, as the law enforcement agency requested of Brown.

Ignoring or avoiding a public records request could land a public official in jail, if prosecuted and convicted.

Although the village council did not grant West’s request to change the density at Citrus Landing as he had sought, West’s email correspondence with his project engineer provided evidence alleging that he had, indeed, reached a behind-the-scenes deal with Brown and Bonnie Landry, the village’s contracted planner at the time.

The changes would have incorporated West’s desired land-use changes without a public hearing or notification of adjacent landowners.

Brown and Landry denied during a 2020 special council meeting that they conspired with West to increase his project’s density prior to the passage of the village’s new Comp Plan.

West became incensed and claimed that other developers’ plans had already been included in the new Comp Plan without public scrutiny, which, as it turns out, appears to be accurate, according to partial public records recently released.

The land use for the 57-acre parcel now slated for development adjacent to Indiantown’s Fernwood Forest low-density development was changed from one land-use designation across the 57 acres bound by Fernwood Forest and Famel Avenueto three different land uses, two of which are high-density land uses — without any public input.

The changes were quietly included in the new Comp Plan, prior to the land being sold to the River Oak developer. River Oak’s plan calls for 179 housing units, the minimum required by the village’s new Comp Plan.

Getting access to the public records regarding the writing of the village’s Comp Plan, as well as a complete set of correspondence among all parties involved, however, has been ongoing for more than two years.

Some records were released at the request of Dipaolo, but correspondence is incomplete and the records request remains partiallyopen, leaving the village itself vulnerable to a lawsuit by affected landowners.

Other public records issues also remain unresolved, most significantly, the village’s financial records.

At Brown’s order, all of the village’s financial records prior to July 1, 2020, were converted from QuickBooks to printed paper documents and placed in storage.

They are unavailable to the village’s own finance director, thus, a public records search becomes quite costly since the village charges an hourly rate to search and copy paper records.

In addition to deciding the next steps regarding the files on Brown’s computers and addressing Indiantown’s public records issues, the village council also will select an interim village manager Jan. 12 from among more than a dozen applicants, half of whom are either current or former city managers.

Two other former city managers familiar to Indiantown, Paul Nicoletti and Dan Hudson, who both first volunteered to fill the interim spot, have since changed their minds and withdrawn their offers. No one can blame them.

The Jan. 12 village council meeting will begin at 6:30pm in Suite C in Village Hall on Osceola Street. The meeting is also streamed online on the village’s website: