Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Without public notice, without competitive bidding and a full four months before a cattle-grazing lease was to expire, the South Florida Water Management District in December granted the daughter of the Okeechobee County property appraiser a 10-year extension for that lease of public land – at a reduced rate.
The lease extension for Alisa Sherman was among five the district signed that month, just 33 days after complaints about no-bid lease renewals led it to impose a moratorium on the practice.
Sherman, it turns out, is one of many tenants whose long-term leases are routinely renewed without offering other ranchers and farmers a chance to bid on the land – and possibly pay the public higher rent. Critics say that longtime policy conflicts with a state law that requires advance public notice of renewals and encourages open, competitive bidding.
“State statute is silent on whether renewal of an existing lease in good standing requires three weeks of public noticing,” district Executive Director Melissa Meeker said about the public notice requirement. “It has been the district’s practice, as well as other water management districts, to publicly notice new leases only.”
But Meeker, who joined the district last June, said she plans to push during the governing board’s meeting in March for “a revised policy that will greatly increase the amount of competitive bidding.”
An audit in 2002 harshly criticized the district for this practice but the no-bid renewals remained the norm.
Sherman’s lease came about after the district investigated a claim that her father, W.C. “Bill” Sherman, the Okeechobee County property appraiser, was grazing cattle on district land without a lease. Questions about the Shermans’ cattle surfaced in April 2010.
Joe Collins, a member of the district governing board and a vice president at citrus, forestry and cattle corporation Lykes Bros., received a call from an Okeechobee citrus grove manager. The grove manager complained that cows from former Lykes property were straying into the grove.
Collins referred the complaint to Ruth Clements, the district’s chief real estate specialist. According to a report written by Steve Coughlin, a land management supervisor at the district, Sherman had a grazing lease with Lykes Bros. Lykes sold part of its property to the district in 2006 for $35 million. As a condition of the sale, Lykes was allowed to keep its cattle on the land until the district built a fence.
Although Lykes agreed in the sale contract that there were “no other parties other than seller in occupancy or possession of any part of the premises,” Sherman’s cattle continued grazing on what was now district land. Because the district failed to build a fence as promised, the cattle occasionally wandered onto a nearby citrus grove.
The cows belonged to “Mr. Bill Sherman” – Okeechobee County’s longtime property appraiser, Coughlin wrote in his report.
Coughlin and Clements met with Sherman in Okeechobee on May 12, 2010, to sort out whether, in fact, Sherman had been grazing cattle on the public land without district permission – or a lease, for several years.
Sherman admitted he had, Coughlin wrote.
Sherman was given an opportunity to “pay back rent and a penalty for his unauthorized use of the property in addition to a possible two-year lease on the property,” Coughlin wrote. Sherman “declined due to cost,” Coughlin added.
But within a few months, his daughter, Alisa, had worked out an agreement that covered back rent and allowed her to graze cattle there.
Neither Bill Sherman, who is running for re-election after 37 years as property appraiser, nor his daughter returned several calls for comment.
In an interview with The Palm Beach Post this week, Coughlin, with Clements, disputed much of Coughlin’s report. Both vehemently denied the public official himself got a freebie on the public land use – despite what Coughlin wrote. It was Alisa’s herd all along, they said.
Clements said Alisa Sherman was allowed to graze her cattle on the former Lykes land because she had a lease with Lykes and Lykes was allowed to graze its cattle on the district’s land. Coughlin said when he wrote his report he was unaware of that agreement. He said his report was “not supposed to be a comprehensive document.”
In any event, on Dec. 3, 2010, the district entered into an agreement allowing Alisa Sherman to graze cattle on district land. The negotiated fee included use of the land for the prior year. Alisa Sherman now has two leases with the district, both for land in Highlands County.
Both land deals, totalling 488 acres, were publicly bid. But since then, one that was not scheduled to expire until April 2012 was renewed by water district staff in December – without public bid. Under the new lease, she will pay $10,400 a year for 262 acres. That’s about $3,000 less than before. Though the lease allows a renegotiation after five years, as it stands it potentially amounts to a $30,000 discount over the full 10-year term.
The new lease expires in 2022.