A crisis of Quorum: NHR meeting ends abruptly as member is asked to recuse herself

August 13, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 5 a webinar held by the Florida Department of State’s National Historic Review Board showed 45 people logged in, waiting to hear the board’s determination regarding the Boca Grande Residential Historic District. This was to determine whether criteria were met for eligibility; not to decide whether the District would be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, board discussion in that the meeting essentially ended before it began, as Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch asked that one of the three board members recuse herself from the vote.

As there were only three board members currently serving, that meant that a quorum could not be reached, and it was announced that the matter of the District’s eligibility would be held over until more people joined the board.

At the beginning of the meeting the board was made aware that Wesch asked for 45 minutes to speak regarding the matter. The board suggested he could have 15 minutes, then proceeded with the rest of the meeting.

When the other items on the agenda were discussed and voted upon, Dr. Clifford Smith, the senior planner of historic preservation for the register, asked fellow board members Marion Almy and Rick Gonzalez to allow Wesch to speak first.

Almy responded.

“Why are we listening to an attorney?” she asked “We are here to make a determination of a listing of eligibility. It’s not going anywhere, it’s not nominating.”

Smith said it was a courtesy being extended, but if there was no quorum to allow him to speak, the motion would die.

Survey and Registration Supervisor for the Bureau of Historic Preservation Ruben Acosta then gave his presentation on the District and outlined the nomination proposed by Sarasota historian Mikki Hartig. He also spoke of her appeal when the nomination was rejected by a majority of property owners in the District, and by the local and county historic preservation boards. It was through that appeal that the matter of the District’s eligibility came before the National Review Board, he said, and they should vote as to that fact.

Interestingly enough, Acosta continued to mention Gilchrist Avenue throughout his presentation, even though it was not listed in the nomination any longer at the request of Lee County Commissioners. In summary he said that the proposal does meet eligibility criteria in general, though there were some points of contention with the facts and language within the nomination. He also suggested that more photographs would be beneficial, particularly aerial images. After suggesting that the author of the nomination include more contributing and non-contributing property information, and to change several omissions and errors, it seemed as though he was suggesting the board not recommend the District for eligibility at that time.

Again it was brought up that Lee County Attorney Wesch be given 15 minutes to speak, and Almy said she would second the motion if the presentation were to focus on eligibility, and nothing more. It was seconded and Wesch was asked if he could acquiesce to that request. He said he could.

The three board members seemed completely taken aback when Wesch began his presentation by clarifying that the board’s motion to attempt to limit the context of his discussion in exchange for time was one that he objected to wholly, and said that a court reporter was online to make a verbatim transcription of the proceedings. Wesch emphasized that he wanted that objection noted.

He then flummoxed the board even more by asking for the recusal of Marion Almy. She was not only a past and present business associate of the applicant, Wesch said, but she had also participated in a prior draft application dealing with the same subject matter. He said he believed that constituted a conflict of interest, and that she should not be allowed to vote as it would be potentially biased.

Board members all agreed they had no former knowledge of this claim, which Wesch rebutted by stating that he had sent several letters to their attorney at the State Department, and had called him the day before the meeting in hopes they would provide counsel on the issue. Their counsel declined to speak about it, Wesch said, so the issue was laid at the board’s feet.

While Almy attempted to recuse herself with little discussion, neither Smith nor Gonzalez thought she should have to do so. Almy claimed she didn’t know if she was biased, that she had, in fact, worked with the Gilchrist Association on a project a few years ago, and that she wanted everything to be “above board.”

Wesch said on October 1, 2014 a proposal was heard by the Department of State regarding Gilchrist Avenue’s eligibility for the National Register, and it was put together by Almy. She agreed, saying that she had been advvocating for the inclusion of Gilchrist on the National Historic Register. That clarification seemed to make it clearer for Gonzalez and Smith, and they both said it would be a good idea for her to recuse herself.

Smith said if there was a quorum for the next meeting, which would be on November 4, they could hear it again.