City attorney says city has ‘no legal obligation’ to convey former Police Department property to county

Robert Fournier provides current city commissioners a copy of a 2015 memorandum he wrote on the issue and exhibits to back up his assertions

The site of the former Sarasota Police Department has stood vacant on Ringling Boulevard since 2012. File photo

Following a Sarasota County Commission discussion of the issue in mid-February, Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier has reported to City Manager Tom Barwin that he believes the city “has no legal obligation to convey the former police station site to Sarasota County.”

In a March 2 email, Fournier sent copies of materials to Barwin to back up his assertion, responding to a request Barwin had conveyed from Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. Among the documents was the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and county regarding the Ringling Boulevard site where the Sarasota Police Department headquarters once stood. Fournier also was attaching a copy of his March 2015 “extensive memo on the subject as well as all of the exhibits,” he noted.

Summing up the documents in the email, Fournier added, “The [City] Commission has the legal authority to enter into an agreement with the County providing for the conveyance of the former police station site to the County on whatever terms might be agreed upon by the County and the City. The City Commission also has the legal authority to donate the property to the County.”

However, his opinion about the right of the city to keep the property had not changed since he wrote the 2015 memo, he pointed out.

Earlier on March 2, Barwin wrote in his email request to Fournier, “I’m sure [the city commissioners] would appreciate having [the 2003 MOU] in their files as the subject seems to continue to be brought up from time to time.”

On Feb. 17, during a budget workshop, County Commissioner Charles Hines raised the issue of the MOU and the fact that county staff for a number of years has proposed using the former Sarasota Police Department site as the location of a parking garage, to alleviate difficulties for jurors, customers of downtown Sarasota government offices and others in finding spaces.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

County Administrator Tom Harmer told the county commissioners later on Feb. 17 that staff would talk with representatives of the City of Sarasota about the parking issues. In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader this week, county spokesman Drew Winchester said that conversations about the MOU have been taking place at the staff level. Additionally, he continued, a parking demand analysis of the Ringling Boulevard/U.S. 301 area in downtown Sarasota will be undertaken, but he so far had received no details about the timing of that.

Other potential use of the site

In early 2014, then-County Commissioner Christine Robinson suggested the possibility of using the former Police Department property to expand the Silvertooth Judicial Center, which stands just west of the site on Ringling Boulevard.

In his March 2015 memo, Fournier wrote, “The City has always taken the position that the use of the property must be restricted to the expansion of the County’s adjacent judicial center. However, the County believes that the City must recognize ‘the dynamic nature of the County’s wide range of obligations and needs’ to give the County more flexibility regarding the future use of this site.”

He provided a copy of the interlocal agreement city and county leaders signed in conjunction with the MOU and referenced Section 8(d). That says, “At present, the COUNTY plans to utilize the property for the construction of a Judicial Tower along with office space for court related functions including, but not necessarily limited to, the Clerk of Court and Court Administration. However, the CITY and COUNTY recognize the dynamic nature of COUNTY’s wide range of obligations and needs.”

Further Fournier thoughts on the MOU

This is the first page of the 2003 MOU. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The 2003 MOU — the genesis of which has been credited to former County Administrator Jim Ley — was crafted in response to county discussions about moving county administrative offices and the courts outside the city limits.

The MOU, dated July 15, 2003, said, “County agrees to satisfy its facilities master plan for Court and Administration needs within the downtown judicial complex area and City agrees to provide the County with the police facility site ready to build.”

Further, it called for the county and city “to explore other options to maximize the use of City and County public lands for redevelopment and parking purposes so as to avoid removing additional private property from the tax base,” and it provided for the city to contribute $4 million to create up to 300 additional parking spaces for expanded court facilities, Payne Park and the vicinity of those downtown places.

Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier. News Leader photo

Additionally, the MOU said the county agreed to assign to the city the air rights to three surface lots it owned: on Morrill Street, at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 301, and at the intersection of Adams Lane and U.S. 301, “for the purpose of building public parking facilities and providing an option for commercial tenancy provided that such uses replace current County parking on site …” That part of the agreement was to be valid until 2018.

Morrill Street intersects with U.S. 301 just a few blocks south of Ringling Boulevard.

Then-Mayor Lou Ann Palmer signed the MOU for the city, and then-County Commission Chair Shannon Staub signed it for her board.

Hines pointed out during the Feb. 17 budget workshop that now-retired Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent had criticized him in a public meeting for the difficulties people had finding parking spaces near the Terrace Building when early voting was taking place for the November 2016 Presidential Election. The Supervisor of Elections and Tax Collector’s offices both are located in the Terrace Building, which stands at the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and U.S. 301.

In his March 2015 memo about the agreement, Fournier wrote, “When the County signed the 2003 MOU, it accepted an affirmative obligation to ‘take all legal means to codify the intent to remain in the downtown for the future.’ Whatever that is supposed to mean,” he continued, “it means some affirmative action. It means more than merely refraining from purchasing the old Arthur Anderson property [off Fruitville Road].”

(Arthur Anderson once employed about 1,000 people in Sarasota in a complex on what was then called Arthur Anderson Parkway. After the demise of the national accounting firm in the wake of the Enron scandal, the County Commission renamed the road Paramount Drive.)

Fournier added, “As a practical matter, since 2003, the County has acted as though it had no duty under the MOU to take any affirmative action to assume any enforceable obligation whatsoever. Sure, the Board of County Commissioners has continued to hold some of its meetings in downtown Sarasota (which probably would have happened anyway even in the absence of the MOU). But the County’s ‘promise’ to remain downtown means nothing unless it can be objectively quantified so as to make it enforceable.”

The Silvertooth Judicial Center is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. File photo

Regarding the air rights issue, Fournier wrote in his March 2015 memo that in 2009, “the County expressed a desire to ‘assign’ the air rights over only two of those lots,” excluding the one on Morrill Street.

As for the $4 million payment the MOU specified for the city, he noted that in 2007, when city staff was planning the new Police Department headquarters on Adams Lane, “the City’s expectation was that the County would be adding at least two levels to its parking garage located across East Avenue from the new police station.” However, county staff later advised city staff that it was not going to expand the garage at that time.

Therefore, Fournier continued, the city had to amend its contract for the design of the new Police Department headquarters to include parking adjacent to and under the main structure. The city had to absorb the extra expense of that, he pointed out, “utilizing funds that had been set aside to contribute to the expansion of the County parking garage.”

He mentioned that, he added, because, given the dispute over the conveyance of the former Police Department site, “I anticipate that the day will come when the County will demand immediate payment of [$4 million] to help finance the expansion of the County’s ‘shared’ parking facilities.”

“The argument that the County has held up its end of the bargain simply because the Board of Commissioners continues to hold some of its meetings downtown is disingenuous,” Fournier added.

“In my opinion,” he concluded, “the City has received nothing in exchange for its ‘agreement to agree’ to the litany of City obligations in the MOU. There is and has been a total lack of consideration coming to the City. Time has proven the MOU to be a sham.”