Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

Art for 'Taj Mahal' courthouse still matter of dispute

TALLAHASSEE — Some say art is in the eye of the beholder.

In this case, who's deciding could wind up costing — or saving — taxpayers $357,000.

State officials are once again fighting over how to decorate Tallahassee's new 1st District Court of Appeal building.

On one side is the Department of Management Services, which wants permission to spend $357,000 on framed photographs for the courthouse walls.

On the other is Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. And he's having none of it.

Nearly two years ago, Atwater's agency refused to pay the bill for 400 pictures that judges had ordered to decorate their new $50 million courthouse, dubbed Florida's "Taj Mahal" for its opulence. Atwater's predecessor, Alex Sink, had cited a state law limiting art in new buildings to $100,000.

Last month, the Department of Management Services, which oversees construction of state buildings, removed references to "art" from its bills and resubmitted them as something else. The state is really trying to buy "framed photographs," which don't count as "artwork," the department argued in sworn affidavits submitted with the bills.

In a letter to the department, Atwater's office challenged the new definition, noting his office has "very clearly and repeatedly rejected'' the expenditures as "improper and unauthorized.''

"I don't know if they'll call it a kitchen sink next,'' Atwater said recently as he reviewed the bill.

The resubmitted bill was driven by a lawsuit filed by Signature Art Gallery owner Mary Maida, who found herself stuck with several hundred framed photographs ready for hanging.

But Atwater is standing firm.

Photographs are still art, Atwater said. Furthermore, the money the department wants to use would come from bond proceeds and can legally be spent only for construction, he said.

"Florida's taxpayers have a right to expect their government will exercise sound judgment and great care with the expenditure of tax receipts,'' Atwater said.

The fight is headed to court in Leon County next month. It will be up to Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis to decide whether the state has to pay the bill.

Meanwhile, the walls at the courthouse are mostly bare, and the photos are in climate-controlled storage at a cost of about $800 a month.

The photographs depict watermelon-eating contests, historic courthouses, a possum festival in the Panhandle town of Wausau and dozens of other North Florida scenes.

The district court judges who selected the photos are keeping a low profile. Chief Judge Bob Benton has declined to comment on the fray, saying it is up to Atwater and the Department of Management Services.

Paul M. Hawkes, the chief judge who led the effort to build the posh new courthouse, resigned last month rather than face a trial on misconduct charges brought by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The charges were dismissed but could be reactivated if Hawkes ever tries to become a judge again. He is now an adjunct professor teaching workers compensation law at Florida State University.

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