Amazing what you see when the curtain parts

PART 2: Going Back to 2020 Indiantown Election — Behind the Curtain

Standing behind Indiantown’s election curtain was a new developer in town, Brian West of Palm City. He visited the village manager more than a year prior to the 2020 election seeking special treatment from Indiantown officials.

According to public records not obtained until 2022, West’s first private meeting with then-Village Manager Howard Brown Jr. was in 2019, six months after Brown first arrived in Indiantown.

The meeting went unrecorded either on Brown’s calendar, in his memos, or in his manager’s reports to council members.

West was purchasing 65 acres for his Citrus Landing project on Citrus Boulevard near Timer Powers Park in Indiantown and wanted to increase the number and types of housing units allowed.

He also wanted commercial zoning, previously banned, along a portion of Citrus Boulevard.

If his changes were included in the village’s proposed Future Land Use Map (FLUM), a part of the village’s new Comprehensive Growth Management Plan that shows how land is to be developed in Indiantown, he could proceed immediately with less public scrutiny and expense. It also would increase its value significantly.

West’s business partner, Miami attorney Alan Sakowitz, claimed in an August 22, 2019, Indiantown Comp Plan workshop that he and West had met privately with Brown, followed later by a meeting with Indiantown’s planner, Bonnie Landry, who was writing the village’s Comp Plan at the time.

Sakowitz, who told the council he represented the Cooper family who owned the property that West intended to purchase and develop, asked Landry why West’s previously proposed land-use changes had not been included in the draft Land Use Map.

Both Brown and Landry publicly denied the existence of West’s land-use plan; however, in Landry’s general comments at the workshop, she stated her reason for rejection, “It is not typical to divide up a parcel into different types for different uses.”

Emailed correspondence written in 2019 among Landry, West and Sakowitz — also not obtained until 2022 — seemed to verify West’s claim that such a plan had indeed been written with the intention of including it as part of the new Comp Plan’s land-use map.

According to those emails, Landry rejected West’s plan after Citrus Landing’s neighbors on Myrtle Drive learned of the proposed density increase “on land that is rural in nature.”

Residents who attended the August 22 workshop in 2019 recall West’s angry reaction to Landry’s announcement that an amendment to the Comp Plan would be required to get the changes he wanted.

West fumed at the back of the Civic Center room as he mumbled that he was being treated unfairly.

In fiery emails to Indiantown officials, West threatened to sue the village, claiming that other developers had already been granted land-use changes that had been included in the draft Comp Plan without issue.

“You did this for somebody else,” he said, “why not for me?”

West laid out his arguments in a detailed email to Councilman Anthony Dowling on Sept. 28, 2019. West “snail-mailed” a copy of that email along with copies of his emailed correspondence with Landry to Dowling and other council members; however, Village Clerk Susan Owens did not retain a copy.

She explained her actions three years later on August 10, 2022, in response to an additional public records request for West’s correspondence with Dowling.

“”We leave the retention of documents up to the individual Council Members,” Owens wrote. “They are all trained on the need to retain the documents they receive.”

Only Councilwoman Susan Gibbs Thomas kept a copy of West’s letter; however, West did not include one and a half pages of the Dowling email inside Thomas’ envelope.

After political operative Robert Burns admitted being paid by West, and more than two dozen complaints against Burns were filed with the state Elections Commission, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators came to Indiantown in April 2021.

They were looking for possible additional charges against West, who had been arrested by FDLE in October 2020 for the alleged bribery of Palm Bay’s elected officials.

They interviewed three council members, Anthony Dowling, Guyton Stone and Janet Hernandez, and concluded that West had not bribed elected officials in Indiantown.

They did not interview Indiantown’s then-manager Howard W. Brown Jr., who ran his own consulting firm with separate financial records and correspondence not subject to Florida’s public records laws.

Investigators asked Brown for the village’s public records, including meeting videos, pertaining to West while unaware that many of the public records regarding West had disappeared. Brown also told FDLE that the Citrus Landing project was a non-issue, because the development application was defunct, according to FDLE reports. It was not.

FDLE also was unaware that council members had lied under oath to investigators during their April 2021 interviews.

Whether or not FDLE reopens their investigation is anyone’s guess. The greater concern to Indiantown residents is making sure the 2024 election is not a repeat of 2020.

—Barbara Clowdus

Part 3:  watch for “Going Back to 2020 Election — Putting the Pieces Together