TAMPA — Before its December meeting, the Florida State Fair Authority got a two-hour training session on the duty to conduct the public's business in the open.
Apparently, the state attorney who gave the presentation on Florida's Sunshine Law didn't make the intended impression.
At the end of the meeting, Chairman Sandy MacKinnon told fellow board members he had been meeting with people who want to develop part of the 330-acre, publicly owned fairgrounds east of Tampa. He couldn't go into detail, he said, but mentioned a possible sports complex. Though it was a public meeting, he ended with an admonition: Don't share details.
"If there is such a thing as keeping it under our Stetson — for guys that ride horses, they know what that means there, I think," MacKinnon said, according to a transcript. "Don't go talking to the media or anything at this juncture because I think it would just … confuse the issue."
Word would finally leak in February about a prospective development that could include a baseball stadium if the Tampa Bay Rays decided to leave St. Petersburg.
MacKinnon's efforts to help the developer keep quiet about remaking the state fairgrounds suggests a disregard for the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sunshine Law, said one expert.
Fair Authority records show MacKinnon has been talking with the developer's representatives — including longtime friend and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco — for more than a year. He has offered them guidance and steered them via e-mail to fellow board members "we can trust to stay mum," including a former publisher of the Tampa Tribune.
The e-mail of board contacts from MacKinnon to Greco and developer attorney David Mechanik is particularly troubling, said Barbara Petersen, head of Florida's First Amendment Foundation. In addition to offering the names of six board members who would keep quiet, it suggests they also could help deliver a favorable vote.
State law prohibits two or more members of the same governing board from discussing issues in private that are likely to come before them in their official duties. It also prohibits people serving as conduits between board members to achieve the same ends.
"We select these folks to represent our interests, and they don't want us to know what they're doing?" Petersen asked. "It's our resources. To try to shut us out of the process? I find that very disturbing."
MacKinnon said he wasn't trying to shut out the public. The development group will make its formal pitch during a Fair Authority board meeting Wednesday at the fairgrounds. The public will have opportunity to weigh in after that, he said.
The authority has been looking for ways to bring in new money, and the proposal could help do just that, he said.
MacKinnon said he has mostly listened, as he said he would to anyone pitching an idea. The developer needed time for the concept to gel before people starting taking shots, he added.
"I know the media like the Sunshine Laws. And I understand the purpose of them," said MacKinnon, chief executive officer for Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia. "I could never run my business that way."
The Fair Authority board has 21 members, including a Hillsborough County commissioner and state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who appoints the others. Bronson, who also has met with developer representatives, said through a spokeswoman that he will insist on public input as the proposal emerges and may press to invite others to submit development plans.
Greco and Mechanik are working for a group that includes Republic Land Development, a large real estate company based in Fairfax, Va. Renderings show plans for upscale hotels, shops and restaurants, and a stadium — as well as a circus-type venue being pitched by someone else — on 200 acres of fair land.
E-mail records show MacKinnon started talking to the group in early March 2009, with the chairman expressing some excitement about the project breathing life into a part of the county that has languished. They arranged meetings.
Fair Authority executive director Chuck Pesano said he sat in a couple of meetings, mainly telling about the fair's history, operations and long-range plans.
There is little record of correspondence until September, when MacKinnon sent an e-mail to Pesano to tell him he met with Greco for an hour and a half. They talked strategy, such as briefing Bronson soon so that he doesn't hear it from another source — a step Greco said had already been taken.
The prospect of a Rays stadium is broached in the Sept. 15 e-mail, after a community group studying the team's future mentioned the fairgrounds' potential as a site. MacKinnon called it a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
On Oct. 27, MacKinnon sent Greco and Mechanik an e-mail.
"Dick and David," it read. "I always enjoy being with you guys and especially all the stories and deals of yesterday and yesteryear. Great fun. Attached are the members I think we can trust to stay mum and as well help to carry a vote when it may eventually be needed. Good luck and keep me in the loop on how it goes."
He forwarded contact information for Jack Amor, executive director of the TECO Energy Foundation; Wauchula citrus farmer and rancher Doyle Carlton III; tire sales company founder Olin Mott; Bernie Gellerman of Premier Beverage Co.; Robert Thomas, president of Two Rivers Ranch in Thonotosassa; and former Tribune publisher Jack Butcher.
The following morning, he sent an e-mail to Pesano saying, "Let's talk on some actions (sic) steps by you" as it relates to that list.
Amor said he met with some developer representatives six to eight months ago, but they mainly wanted to ask about an electric transmission line that crosses the fairgrounds.
Mott said he had coffee with Greco, a longtime friend, though he couldn't recall when. He said Greco briefly described the development concept and asked his thoughts.
"I can't prevent a man from coming in and saying, 'What do you think of this or that?' " Mott said.
The other four did not return phone calls seeking comment.
MacKinnon said he was simply offering names of board members who could be used as sounding boards.
Greco did not return a call seeking comment. He has said he is serving in a consulting role to the development group.
Mechanik said he and representatives of his group have tried to talk to all board members, not just some, to share ideas and seek thoughts. He said there has been no effort to line up votes.
He said it was his clients' desire to complete the proposal before letting people critique it.
Mechanik doesn't think his group has gotten preferential treatment.
"I don't see that, because anybody who had a vision for this property could have done just like we did and come forward and make a proposal," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]