County votes to support food drive on 3-2 vote


Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission decided to co-sponsor November's Strike Out Hunger Food Drive as planned after a heated discussion Tuesday regarding former County Commissioner Rodney Long's involvement in the event through the Long Foundation.

The county didn't sponsor the annual food drive in 2012 because of economic concerns, although it had sponsored it since 2008. Last year, in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Susan Baird and Mike Byerly in dissent, the commission waived a fairgrounds usage fee of about $5,000 for the Long Foundation, which stepped in to manage the event.

Earlier this year, former Community Support Services Director Elmira Warren asked former acting County Manager Richard Drummond to allow the county to once again sponsor the food drive. Drummond approved her request.

The Long Foundation did not apply to the Community Agency Partnership Program as a couple commissioners had suggested the prior year. Long told the commission Tuesday that the organization is in the process of getting its 501(c)3 designation, which is one of CAPP's eligibility requirements.

During the meeting, the board debated whether to allow the county to sponsor the food drive as planned this year. It also discussed the possibility of setting up a policy regarding nonprofits' use of county facilities to guide the government in future situations.

In the past three to five years, there have been about a dozen instances in which fairgrounds fees were either reduced or waived for outside organizations, including nonprofits, Acting Chief of Staff Sean McLendon said.

Long's history as a commissioner raised concerns both this and last year regarding possible preferential treatment where the $5,000 fairgrounds fee is concerned.

Assistant County Manager Richard Hedrick said this situation has been particularly challenging for staff. If a former commissioner asks for something, it is hard to say no, he told the commission.

However, he said County Manager Betty Baker, who was absent from the meeting, felt it was too late to rescind the county's sponsorship for this year.

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV supported continuing the county's sponsorship of the event since it seems to serve a public purpose by helping feed needy families and replenishing local food pantries around the holidays.

"I don't want to bring politics into this. I don't want to bring preferential treatment into this," Chestnut said. "My major goal is feeding people who are hungry."

The commission voted 3-2, with Baird and Byerly in dissent — mirroring the previous year's vote regarding the food drive — to sponsor the event this year, which means the $5,000 fairgrounds fee doesn't apply since it's a county event. The board also directed staff to develop a policy by January that better defines how nongovernmental agencies can use county facilities for fundraising or charity-related purposes.

Additionally, it decided to ask the Long Foundation to present an annual report on the final outcome of the food drive to the commission.

Baird, who made a substitute motion to suspend staff participation in this year's food drive that died for lack of a second, said the commission waived the fairgrounds fee a year ago with the expectation that the Long Foundation would go through a certain process the next time. But that didn't happen.

"We had this discussion last year. It was the exact same discussion. We went over and over all of these issues, word-by-word, I feel like," she said.

Long told the commission he had no intention of circumventing the process. That's why he started meeting with county staff in February.

Byerly said the county had once again put itself in an it's-too-late position, as it had the year before regarding the food drive.

He emphasized the importance of good government and said it is important to assure the public that everyone competes on a level playing field for public resources. If an organization wants to do a specific event, it should get in line with everyone else.

"There is nothing personal in this," he said. "I very much support the work that is being done. It matters how the good work is done."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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