by Kevin Vaccianna & Molly Fashola
Cathy Oasheim, Editor
In case you missed it, the last week or so has been quite controversial for Palm Bay politics.
There has been a lot of debate and investigation into campaign contributions made to candidates for public office in the upcoming election. Donny Felix and Randy Foster, who are running for City Council Seats 2 and 3, have received scrutiny for contributions they accepted from Brian West, of Westco Contracting. Westco, along with West Pointe Babcock, LLC, are the main players spearheading the development of some land located at Babcock and Plantation Circle.
You may be wondering why anyone would care about these contributions since candidates receive money from interested parties all the time. However, this situation is a little different. Keep reading to learn about the history of the Plantation Circle development and the controversy surrounding these candidates.
History of Plantation Circle
The Plantation Circle development initially desired to divide an 8.41-acre parcel, located at the southeast corner of Babcock Street SE and Plantation Circle SE, into five (5) residential lots. Four of the lots are intended to be 1.136 acres each, while the fifth and western most lot would 3.864 acres.
These lots are currently designated to be ‘Rural-Single Family Residential.’
Their development application to Palm Bay’s Planning and Zoning board for a vote on October 2, 2019, was approved for Preliminary Subdivision construction with final approval subject to the water and sewer versus well and septic issues.
In July 2020, West Point Babcock was again before the Planning and Zoning board seeking to rezone the property at the southeast corner of Babcock Street and Plantation Circle. They estimated that rezoning the property to commercial use will increase the property’s value by approximately $1,000,000. The proposal was set to be heard on September 10; the developers requested that the vote be continued until December 10.
Palm Bay Live spoke to Judy Thornberry, resident of Plantation Circle (also known as Cheyenne Acres or Greenwood Plantation) who is one of many opposed to the rezoning. Ms. Thornberry stated, “We residents felt intimidated by West—he has been trying to rezone the entire area to commercial for at least five years. But anytime the issue comes before the Council, and West thinks he doesn’t have the votes; he requests to postpone. He has also refused to disclose details about what commercial projects he plans to place in the area.”
Others echo Ms. Thornberry’s sentiments on the matter. On September 10th, several Plantation Circle residents showed up at the council’s meetings wearing red “We Vote No!” T-shirts in protest of the rezoning.
Controversy: The Arrest of Brian West
As you can see, it appears as if the Council had all of their ducks in a row to analyze the development and the vote. So, what does this seemingly uneventful development have to do with this week’s debate?
On October 2, 2020 (coincidentally, precisely one year from the Council’s preliminary approval vote), West was arrested for multiple counts of second-degree felony bribery, third-degree conspiracy, and third-degree unlawful use of a communications device. He is alleged to have bought votes from Palm Bay City Council members to influence their vote on the upcoming Final Approval vote.
The councilmembers mentioned in the arrest affidavit include City Councilman Brian Anderson, Councilman Jeff Bailey, and Councilman Kenny Johnson. Former Councilman Tres Holton is also implicated for being hired as a consultant for West while sitting on the Council, Mayor William Capote, and political consultant Robert Burns.
No public officials are accused of illegal activity.
The details of the charges state that Mr. West worked with local hotel operator and Palm Bay Tourist Development councilmember Puneet Kapur to bribe city councilmembers to push through the rezoning of the Plantation Circle subdivision. Mr. Kapur resigned on October 7, 2020, amid the bribery controversy.
Evidence has not been presented that any council member received money for the express purpose of voting in West’s favor. Campaign finance records show that Randy Foster and Donny Felix each received a $1,000 campaign contribution from West Pointe Babcock, LLC.
West’s arrest affidavit also alleges that he attempted to schedule a meeting with Palm Bay mayoral candidate Rob Medina to provide an election contribution. Medina told other news outlets that he met briefly with West a while ago but declined any money from him, emphasizing, “This is why I am running—to end this corruption in Palm Bay. The corruption in the city must stop. Restoration is coming to Palm Bay.”
There appeared to be some type of relationship between Medina and West. At one time, a sign supporting Medina for Mayor was placed on the Plantation circle property. It has since been removed.
When asked if this contribution would influence his vote should he win the council Seat, Randy Foster stated in an interview on September 30, 2020 with Palm Bay Live, “When I make my decision, it’s going to be what’s best for Palm Bay. That is how it is going to be all the time. I want to do what’s best to protect the taxpayer’s money—that is how I will approach my decision.” He also stated, “I don’t do things because of money—I am not running this race because of money¬. I was an officer [U.S. Marshall], and if I had a criminal try to bribe me, I would still arrest them—because of justice, I do what is right. That is the difference between other politicians, and me. I have been tested many times throughout my 28-year-career. A donation to my campaign does not sway me.”
Calls for comment to Robert Medina and Donny Felix were not returned.
Interim Palm Bay City Manager, Suzanne Sherman, stated, “Based on the information received today on this matter, we will be conducting a further review to determine appropriate next steps regarding the situation.”
The Optics of Campaign Contributions.
As this story continues to flesh out, some have called for the candidates to return the money, while others see no problem as the contributions are not illegal.
And it is true, accepting campaign contributions, with no express bribery attached, is 100% legal. This situation and similar situations in Palm Bay’s history illuminate the question of what is ethical when it comes to money and politics. How should candidates navigate the line between harmless funds and bribery or “pay-to-play?”
We reached out to Mayor Capote for comment. He stated, “Anyone can make campaign contributions to the candidate they choose to support. Many people, including developers and private citizens, contribute. It is not indicative of a bribe; it is just an opportunity to support your candidate and maybe express some of your concerns or desires for the future of your city. The only difference here is Mr. West’s subsequent arrest. This could have happened to any candidate who received a contribution, but the person who gave the contribution was later arrested. Unfortunately, the negative press gets attention, and everyone connected, even if ancillary, to Mr. West gets caught in a bad light. The contributions are not illegal, and it is up to each elected official to maintain their integrity regardless of finances.”
Mayor Capote also stated, “There are people on both sides of the Plantation Circle development issue. Some are in favor, and some are not. Mayor Capote, candidate for County Commissioner, believes the Babcock area is a commercial corridor and sees the potential for commercial development.”
When asked to comment on the controversy, Councilman Bailey stated, “I would not take money with strings attached. It is a conflict of interest. My priority is to advocate for the city.” When explicitly asked about the development, he declined to comment and stated, “The issue needs to go before the council for a vote.”
Thomas Gaume, candidate for Seat 3 states, “Felix serves on the Planning and Zoning Board. Brian West has appeared before him several times. Mr. West was mentioned nearly 80 times in the original FBI/FDLE documents published February 12, 2020. That they would deny knowledge of Wests’ intent is an insult to educated voters. If Felix and Foster were truly dedicated to doing what’s right for the City of Palm Bay, they would withdraw their candidacy.”
Finally, we spoke with Kay Maragh, who ran against Rob Medina for Mayor of Palm Bay, stated, “I don’t want to make assumptions about campaign contributions. I don’t know what happens behind closed doors. A candidate should always know for what purpose they are receiving money. Developers give money all the time, it is not unusual. But it is important to know the intention. I personally cannot be bought; my vote is not for sale, and I owe no favors. I vote on what is important for the community.”
It is important to note that according to Florida state law, when an issue comes before the Council, even if a councilmember may have received a campaign contribution from an interested party, the councilmember cannot recuse themselves. They must vote on the item.
Palm Bay Live will continue to follow this story and the development of Plantation Circle as more information unfolds.