JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A lawsuit was filed Monday against the city of Jacksonville regarding a popular amendment. The Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida is suing the city, alleging that the city has misused $6 million in tree protection funds.
Since the 1980s, Jacksonville has had a tree protection ordinance, but it contained an exemption. After growing concern that the ordinance itself wasn't enough to enforce the protection of trees, a charter amendment was passed in 2000, with 75 percent of voters in favor of it.
The attorney with the Public Trust said that the lawsuit involves a charter amendment, which means if the court finds negligent spending, there will be no criminal penalties as no laws were broken. But the Public Trust members said they just want to know where that money is going.
"I think there's a long history of lack of attention to this that we basically just got to the point that enough is enough," Public Trust member Tom Larson said.
Members said red flags popped up after the Public Trust dug into the spending of the tree charter and tree protection trust accounts. E-mails from the Public Trust -- the first dating back to December 2014 when city auditor Kyle Billy responded to an inquiry about the tree mitigation accounts -- stating there was $2 million in the tree charter account and $6 million in the tree protection account. Just four months later in April, another e-mail was sent from Tom Goldsbury, the chief building inspector for the city, stating there was only $2 million total for both tree protection accounts.
That's about $6 million spent in just a few months.
"This whole case started because we were trying to find answers to many questions, and weren't getting those answers," said Andy Miller, executive director legal counsel for Public Trust.
In another e-mail in April, Goldsbury wrote: "The money must be appropriated through City Council. I don't see that any was done in the past 12 months."
The Public Trust later learned that despite Goldsbury's claim, there were two requests that used money from the tree funds in October 2014 that totaled about $34,000.
In the lawsuit, the Public Trust alleges the city is using the funds for things like grant-writing fees, landscaping medians, installation of irrigation systems and even a television series.
According to the charter amendment, the Tree Protection and Related Expenses Trust Fund "shall be used exclusively for the planting or replanting of mitigation trees, and for maintenance."
"Since 2000, there have been numerous projects that have spent money inappropriately," Miller said. "We haven't found any that have been spent since 2014, but we haven't found any projects that would account for the money either."
The lawsuit also blames the city for ongoing loss of tree canopy, though specifics are lacking. The last tree canopy survey was done in 2005.
"We've actually been witnessing the loss of tree canopies, whether it's because of road widening or expanded development and the developers not properly mitigating their impacts on the community's environment," Larson said.
So with this lawsuit, the group hopes to get a record of all the money that was put into the accounts, what the funds were used for and a declaration from the court saying the city has violated the charter amendment.
"One thing we hope comes out of this is some improvement in how the ordinance is enforced and better monitoring," Public Trust member Lee Hunter said.
The city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.
"The city has not, to our knowledge, been served in this matter yet," mayor's office spokesman Bill Spann said. "Once that occurs, we will review the matter, assess our next steps, and our response will be forthcoming. As a matter of policy, we do not generally comment on pending litigation. We can say that the (Lenny) Curry administration fully intends to abide by the spirit and the letter of all state, federal and local laws."
News4Jax has contacted several city council members, city building inspectors and the city auditor for a response to the lawsuit, but we have not yet heard back.