BROOKSVILLE — Continuing concerns by City Council members, the public and the family of the last leaseholder have prompted the writing of a more carefully worded letter of support for Brooksville's plan to grant a long-term lease of the former Quarry Golf Course to the Florida Blueberry Festival.
Questions raised about the lease proposal by City Council member Betty Erhard prompted sharp criticism from festival president Michael Heard.
Festival organizers wanted a letter supporting the lease in order to show Brooksville's commitment to the idea of having the festival operate the former golf course property for 40 or more years, even as other communities jockey for a chance to snag the popular event from Brooksville.
But last week, the City Council softened the language of the letter, which would have stated that the council would offer its "pledge and commitment to finalize the lease agreement,'' even though there are still questions about the details of the lease. Instead, the letter was changed to say that the council would "work diligently and in good faith'' to finalize the lease.
Erhard pushed for a change because she said the original wording appeared to be legally committing the city to approve the lease, despite the fact that many questions remain. She questioned why the council immediately moved forward with crafting the lease wording, even after a public hearing several weeks ago in which residents raised issues about the details.
Erhard repeated her belief that there needs to be more transparency and accountability from the festival about its financial situation, a question echoed later during the meeting by council member-elect Joe Bernardini, who will be sworn in next week.
Bernardini said that during his campaign he heard from city residents who wanted to know why they had to pay to get into the festival and pay to park when city money helps finance the event.
Erhard also noted that the council needed to be mindful that there is still ongoing litigation with Bob Carson's business, known as Just So You Know, which had a lease on the golf course. Earlier this month, Carson's son, Teke, wrote a lengthy email to city officials and the council. He blasted the city's handling of his father's lease and questioned why the council would act on the Blueberry Festival lease before settling the disputed legal issues.
"We will fight tooth and nail to prevent any further progress of the Blueberry Festival lease coming to fruition until our voice is heard and a resolution is realized,'' Teke Carson wrote.
He stated that he believes the city has "colluded to make the Blueberry lease happen by evicting us before our lease expiration."
In the email, he said his family's lease on the property paid more than the Blueberry lease, they never missed a payment and the golf course was a much bigger benefit to the community. He stated that he believes someone at the city is getting a "kickback for making this happen.''
Cliff Taylor, assistant city attorney, declined to comment on Teke Carson's email, but told the Times that the lawsuit remains active. The court docket indicates that the city last week filed a motion seeking a summary judgment to end the litigation, but there has been no ruling yet on that issue.
Council member Bill Kemerer said he didn't see public opposition to the Blueberry Festival lease but rather questions about the details.
"You run the risk of losing the Blueberry Festival for the city'' he said, expressing what a large loss that would be for Brooksville.
Erhard noted that Heard and festival organizers need the city as much as the city needs them, given the thousands of dollars the city provides in tax dollars to sponsor the event each year.
Brooksville Mayor Natalie Kahler said the negotiations on the festival lease had been ongoing for months, and she didn't understand the strong opposition now.
"I just feel like we're rushing into it,'' Erhard replied. When the vote on sending the letter came, even with the softer language of support, she did not vote for it.
After the vote, Heard spoke directly to Erhard, telling her that not all of the backing for the festival comes from the city or the county. She noted that while she had a financial report about the festival from a certified public accountant, she doubted that Erhard could read it. The event, Heard said, was not for the Blueberry Festival itself, but for the city and county, and the tax money was used to market the event.
She also noted that several organizations, including the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis and 4-H Club, got money from the festival.
"Whatever your problems are, keep them and let them eat you up,'' Heard said to Erhard, saying it was just about to eat her up.
"I'm almost burned out on this,'' she said.
Bernardini took Heard to task for telling the council that she and the festival had done more for the town than anyone else.
"I take offense at that,'' he said, noting that he thought the late Margaret Ghiotto, of the Christmas House fame, had done much more for Brooksville.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.