Palm Beach County lobbying trip takes aim at Tallahassee

PoliticsLocal GovernmentRick ScottPam BondiRiviera Beach

Nearly 100 Palm Beach County movers-and-shakers are expected to travel to Tallahassee this week for a lobbying blitz timed with the start of the state legislative session.

Pushing for expanded local gambling, getting help for struggling Glades communities and finding more state funding to boost eroded beaches are among the items on the to-do list for Wednesday’s “Palm Beach County Day” – the county’s annual sales pitch for local needs.

Five of the seven county commissioners along city representatives, business leaders, lobbyists and civic groups are among those signed up for the Palm Beach County contingent that began arriving in Tallahassee on Monday.

Meetings are scheduled Wednesday with Gov. Rick Scott, state Senate President Don Gaetz, Attorney General Pam Bondi and a host of state lawmakers.

The county will also have a convention-style booth in the Capitol courtyard.

“The face-to-face meetings are very valuable,” said Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams, who heads the County Commission. Traveling to Tallahassee helps build “rapport” with state leaders, according to Abrams.

But a roomful of people getting 20 minutes or so with the governor and other brief meetings with top leaders isn’t worth the trek to Tallahassee, according to County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, who is staying home.

After years of skepticism about the effectiveness of Palm Beach County Day, Santamaria made his first trip to the lobbying event last year.

Santamaria said he learned he could be a more effective advocate for Palm Beach County through one-on-one local meetings with state leaders throughout the year and by staying in touch with follow-up letters and calls.

“As a general rule, it was not very productive,” Santamaria said about Palm Beach County Day. “Nothing much is accomplished.”

Participants pay $100 each to sign up in addition to the $169 per night hotel cost, according to the county.

Taxpayers are picking up the expenses for local government officials making the trip, which includes about 59 of those signed up for Palm Beach County Day.

Being part of the Palm Beach County Day group can include access to the county-arranged meetings with state leaders as well as breakfast, a box lunch and visits to the county’s hospitality suite Tuesday and Wednesday night.

The event is a far cry from the wining-and-dining Palm Beach County Days of old. It was once a three-day affair featuring ice sculptures, vodka slides and a $200,000 budget.

The economic downturn as well as criticism of the perception of influence peddling at past Palm Beach County Days has led to the toned-down approach.

Santamaria said the county needs to find a way to make Palm Beach County Day more productive. He said last year he spent a day traveling to Tallahassee and a day traveling back, with only about six hours of the day in between divvied up between revolving-door meetings with state officials that resulted in “diluted communication.”

The County Commission already spends about $195,000 of taxpayer money a year on hiring six lobbying firms to target state government in Tallahassee. The county spends about $90,000 a year on professional lobbyists who target Congress.

Even with professional lobbyists on the county payroll, it helps local efforts when Palm Beach County officials make the trip to Tallahassee, said Todd Bonlarron, county legislative affairs director.

“You can have all the lobbyists in the world, but a lot of time they want to see the local faces,” Bonlarron said. “That resonates.”

In addition to county government officials, local governments signed up for the trip include Wellington, Riviera Beach and Belle Glade.

The School District is represented, as well as Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College.

Business leaders include the Economic Council, sugar giant Florida Crystals and Nat Roberts of Callery-Judge Grove.

Former county commissioner-turned-consultant Burt Aaronson is signed on to attend.

“It is not just about the public officials. It’s for all interested people in the county,” Abrams said. “It really is a very large cross section.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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