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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Butler's Money Talks, Part II

The saga over the dirt road known as Southwest 24th Avenue continues, further highlighting the corrupt way that the rich and powerful are trying to subvert the citizen-led plan to make the road part of a walkable, bikable student village.

I've written on this issue here and here. The summary is this – several years ago citizens worked with local elected officials to devise a plan for the mostly undeveloped area north of Butler Plaza and west of Southwest 34th Street, through which SW 24th Avenue runs. The plan called for a grid of two-lane roads, bike lanes, sidewalks and bus bays that would serve student housing, thereby reducing the amount of students driving to the UF campus and the surrounding commercial areas. At least it gave them the option of walking, biking and taking the bus.

But Clark Butler, the owner of the sprawling Butler Plaza, wants to expand his development into the same area, and to get state approval for the massive expansion he needs Southwest 24th Avenue be four lanes, so it will provide the traffic capacity needed to carry all of the cars his expansion would create.

Butler is rich and powerful enough to manipulate our political system. He donates large amounts to political candidates at all levels, and through the debate over Southwest 24th Avenue, we've learned of more insidious ways he gains access to those in power. He donated expensive tickets to a UF event to County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut (as well as donating the maximum to her campaign); Chestnut is now the chair of the commission.

And this week, we learned that County Commission Paula DeLaney owns land close enough to his project to financially benefit from the expansion. DeLaney, who received ample contributions from Butler in all of her political campaigns (she was a three-term Gainesville city commissioners and mayor), was elected last November to the County Commission and is the swing vote that changed the county's two-lane plan for SW 24th Avenue to four lanes.

Chestnut was found guilty of an ethics violations, and DeLaney now says she will ask the state ethics commissions to determine whether her ownership of land near the planned Butler Plaza expansion will be a conflict of interest that prevents her from voting on any issues related to Butler's project.

It should be consider a conflict, but the larger question of the varying levels of access people have to those in power is not addressed. Butler, by virtue of his wealth, has more influence than most. He was able to wrangle federal funding for the four-laning even though the county had nto asked for it. And this week we learn that state Sen. Rod Smith, a strident soldier in Tallahassee for fewer regulations on real estate development, has filed a request for $2 million in transportation funds that he would give Gainesville developer Clark Butler, who would then use to subsidize his portion of the cost of four-laning SW 24th Avenue.

That's awful Sweet of Smith, who of course has received sizable campaign contributions from Butler over the years, in his Senate campaigns and when he ran for state attorney. Also, Butler allowed Smith's wife and stepdaughter to "borrow" his 100-foot yacht for a bridesmaids party.

I don't know about you, but if I called Butler to borrow that yacht, he's probably have me paved over and put a strip mall on top. I have no doubt that Smith's family got use of the yacht because of Smith's powerful position in the state senate.

This is unfortunately how government works. The rich and powerful spend oodles to get their candidates in office, and once there those elected officials are expected to return the favor, or at the very least are expected to give those donors heightened access and, therefore, influence.

Campaign contributions, free tickets, improved property values, borrow yachts – it is all part of the cauldron of corruption that keeps us simple folk on the sidelines while the elite keep their hands on the levers of control. In this case it is growth management, and DeLaney, Chestnut and Smith are more concerned, obviously, with helping Butler get rich than with making sure we properly plan our town for the benefit of everyone.

Thank goodness for people like Mike Byerly, one of the few really honest elected officials I have ever met, and I've met, interviewed and covered almost all of them for the past 20 years in this town. When DeLaney offered to have a citizen meeting to discuss Butler's expansion plans (now that she has decided to throw out the citizen's two-lane plan), Byerly said this:

"Talk is good, but we made the decision and I fail to see the purpose of convening citizens to once again tell us we cut them out of the process. The time to have those kinds of meetings is before the decisions are made. We had a charette. We went through a lengthy process of having the citizens tell us what they want there, and then we disregarded it."

Sing it, brother Mike. DeLaney's disingenuous offer to talk to citizens is too little too late, considering that she obviously has her mind made up. If she cared about citizen input, she would accept the plan drafted at the charette and two-lane SW 24th Avenue.

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