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Washington County Commissioners reportedly not being informed of a delay in FEMA reimbursements before authorizing a $6 million line of credit was brought to the forefront by resident Benita Crittendon on April 18.

Crittendon asked about the perceived lack of transparency on the part of County Administrator Jeff Massey and previous Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) Chairman Tray Hawkins during a BOCC meeting.

She went over the timeline of FEMA reimbursement delays and the BOCC’s vote authorizing the line of credit. Crittendon said Massey reportedly revealed the County was notified on September 29, 2023, that FEMA reimbursements had stopped during a discussion with her, Commissioner David Corbin, and Massey. The additional line of credit was suggested in October and approved in November. 

Crittendon is listed as running against Corbin in this year’s election for the District 5 BOCC seat. 

“At the March 14 Board meeting, during the discussion among the Board on FEMA issues, Mr. Hawkins referred the County was informed in late September that FEMA reimbursements had stopped,” Crittendon said. “I follow the meetings closely. I review meeting minutes. I review the videotapes. In hindsight, the three meetings that followed in October, it is evident that Mr. Massey as county administrator and then-Chairman Mr. Hawkins did not disseminate to at least three commissioners that FEMA reimbursements had stopped for several weeks afterwards.”

The three commissioners referenced are Corbin, current Chairman David Pettis, and Wesley Griffin.

“Those commissioners didn’t find out from direct communication from Mr. Massey or in a public meeting from Mr. Hawkins,” Crittendon said. “They found out through [the Florida Division of Emergency Management] after I urged you guys to call DEM.”

Crittendon said she wasn’t mad at Corbin, Pettis, and Griffin.

“I’m mad for you guys because I feel like there was a failure, whether it was intentional or failure in duty, to properly inform you of significant issues with the County,” she said. “I would think that when DEM or FEMA reaches out to you–and I believe it was DEM first–and said we’re stopping reimbursements, that either requires the county administrator to immediately pick up the phone and talk to each commissioner individually to relay that. That’s big. Obviously, seven months later, we know that’s big after we’ve taken out a large line of credit.”

Alternatively, it is also the chairman’s responsibility to address the matter in a public meeting, Crittendon said.

“There were three public meetings following that,” she said. “When you go back and watch the videos and read the minutes, there was never one mention that FEMA reimbursements had stopped.”

Massey was not at the April 18 meeting.

“I came to the podium and asked is there anything going on that has happened in Washington County that has caused this work extension not to be approved?” Crittendon said. “I even asked is there any type of investigation going on that would cause these work extensions not to be approved or for reimbursements to be stopped? The answer was a lot of shrugged shoulders between Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Massey and, ‘Not to my knowledge.’”

Crittendon said Griffin also said no because “in true honesty, at that time, he did not have that knowledge.”

“Mr. Corbin didn’t have that knowledge,” Crittendon said. “Mr. Pettis didn’t have that knowledge.”

The three commissioners were “intentionally misled,” she said. Crittendon said she has sat in the meeting audience for a long time and “witnessed what I’ve described as a pattern of behavior of selective dissemination of information.”

“I feel like it is past time to hold people accountable for that,” she said. “I feel like there have been some failures.”

Less than a month after Massey’s contract was reapproved by the BOCC in September 2023 for a two-year term, “these dominoes begin to fall,” Crittendon said.

“A county administrator’s job is to be the liaison because of the Sunshine Law. The commissioners can’t talk between each other,” she said. “It’s his job to keep all five of you guys informed equally of the going-ons of the County.”

The lack of performance could be cause for termination, Crittendon said.

“At the very least, it should be an open discussion with the commissioners to note that in Jeff Massey’s file in case there is a future need for that,” she said.

Whether the lack of communication was intentional or not, it is an “egregious failure,” Crittendon said.

Crittendon also said there should be a formal censure of Hawkins.

Following Crittendon’s remarks, Griffin spoke.

“My question is, Tray, why weren’t we informed in a Board meeting if y’all knew Sept. 29?” Griffin said. 

Hawkins said his last statement during any meeting he has with an organization or anybody directly related to work going on in Washington is asking Massey to inform the rest of the BOCC.

“So it’s Jeff Massey’s fault?” Griffin responded.

“I’m not saying whose fault it is,” Hawkins said. “What I’m telling you is with the Sunshine Law, and I’m glad Ms. Benita brought it up, I cannot reach out to you directly.”

“But in a meeting though,” Griffin responded.

Hawkins said work had initially stopped and he assumed everyone knew the reason why.

“During the time, the question from DEM–FEMA never spoke to us during that time period–it was a RFI. Request for information,” Hawkins said. “They asked for additional information. We provided information. … We had no clue it was going to take FEMA this amount of time.”

The RFIs were based on asphalt placement and a question about ditches being created.

“The purpose of the line of credit, the misleading of the line of credit, was to get the line of credit to keep things rolling and keep it under wraps and if the FEMA reimbursements come through and it’s paid off, nobody knows the difference,” Crittendon said.

“You’re putting words in my mouth,” Hawkins said. “I’ve explained the situation and I’m done explaining the situation.”

Pettis said there is no update from FEMA, based on a weekly phone call held days before the April 18 meeting.

Commissioner Alan T. Bush said he has heard it both ways, that either FEMA or DEM is holding the money. Bush asked Pettis which it is.

“That is unclear to me as well,” Pettis said. “I’ve heard it both ways as well. I don’t know the actual answer to that question.”

If it’s DEM, then it’s an issue with the governor, Bush said.  

“It’s his state agency. I think the governor would really be concerned if he knew a state agency was causing a county all these issues without significant cause,” Bush said. “Let us know what it is to where we can move forward with it and correct it and we can get back on track. … It’s just not very clear as far as what we can do to fix this problem.”

Pettis said he understood a letter was written to the governor about the issue but got no response. The BOCC can reach out and follow up again to get clarification, Pettis said.

Bush said the BOCC could have a meeting with the governor’s office.

“We’ve done this before over other issues where we needed the governor to step in and help us,” Bush said.

Corbin said he has reached out to the offices of Congressman Neal Dunn, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, and State Sen. Jay Trumbull, as well as State Rep. Shane Abbott personally.

“None of those people can give us that answer either,” Corbin said. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to fix the problem, if it’s us. Nobody can seem to get those answers.”

Corbin also said he found out about the reimbursement delay from Massey after a meeting and about the payments being shut down from a DEM representative.

“The way I found out was a little odd,” Corbin said. “I was like why are we looking for this money and he told me then.”

Motions made by Griffin to place a reprimand in Massey’s work file and censure Hawkins did not get a second from the rest of the BOCC.