ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — After recusing himself from every single Matthew Banks and Jesse LaCoste contractor cases, the Escambia County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to remove Larry Downs Jr., from its Contractor Competency Board.
Downs said during the public forum and before the board voted that he was not going to resign, and the board would have to fire him. He went on to say that he works for the citizens, not the government.
Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said he has nothing against Downs personally, but he disagreed with Downs recusing himself from all of the cases.
“I had some significant disagreements with the reasons why you recused,” said Bergosh. “In 15 years, I have recused maybe six times total. It’s because there are limited circumstances when its appropriate to do so. Just because you did work for someone five years ago, or because you know someone, you don’t get away with that. When you serve on a board of the county, you’re subject to the same rules. It’s just not something that should happen. When you volunteer on the board, you have to make tough votes. When you make tough votes, you have to make tough decisions against people that you know. I think it was an easy way to get out of a tough vote, and that’s my opinion.”
Commissioner Robert Bender said it is difficult in this situation because the Banks and LaCoste cases are the ones that are going to be coming to the board for some time.
Commissioner Doug Underhill said he does not have a problem with how Downs recused himself from the cases.
“We all know that Larry is certainly libertarian bordering on anarchist in his politics,” said Underhill. “He is not shy in sharing that. The idea that we would remove somebody from representing on a board because of statements they have made in keeping with their political feelings strikes me as a completely inappropriate action. There are people on those boards that are certainly far more left leaning than I am, and I would never think of removing them because of their left leaning tendencies. Where you fall on the spectrum, from communist to libertarian, if you are an Escambia County citizen capable of following the law, the rules and the purposes of those boards then you should be considered for service on those. My vote won’t have anything to do with political posturing, those are constitutionally protected rights. I have seen Larry recuse himself from things based on the appearance of impropriety and that is always an excuse and always a valid purpose for the recusal process. The appearance of impropriety erodes the foundations of trust that make our government work.”
Underhill said the overall problem is how the commission has set up the board.
“I disagree with what Larry said publicly that we don’t need to change anything, we need to change something,” said Underhill. “What we need to change is the direction from this board for what right looks like in Escambia County. We need a much more aggressive attitude towards nefarious behavior. We could follow Santa Rosa’s board, which works a little better, in my opinion, and move towards resolution. It’s on us to drive the staff’s direction, it is not on the volunteers who sit on that board, nearly than it is on us to give good command guidance, that this is what the board expects, that if you’re a bad actor developer in Escambia County, we will find a way to quickly show you the door. If we can give that guidance from this board, then the board that Larry sits on would be empowered to prevent things that we are seeing now.”
Downs recused himself from the Banks, LaCoste cases because he was friends with Banks, and LaCoste is Banks’ brother-in-law. Bergosh said to this day, he will never understand why he didn’t vote in those cases.
“We deal with issues, a hundred every week, and there are a lot of people that I know that I make votes on,” Bergosh said. “When we voted on his [Underhill’s] legal bill, it was with a lawyer that I play tennis with every week. You have to make tough votes up here and on this board.”
Bergosh asked Downs once again, if Banks’ case came up, would he vote or recuse himself. Downs said he had no choice but to recuse.
“I cannot change direction,” said Downs. “You can’t switch, and I’m not going to switch because you’re telling me to. I have to vote on what I believe. I believe that him doing cabinet work for me, him doing sheet rock for me, me doing plumbing work for him in 2015, 2016 and 2017, me supporting some children’s sports thing that he had something to do with, I think all of those things, these citizens would ask why I voted. The only time that I would do something like this is if I feel like there could be a perception of impropriety. I never ate dinner or lunch with this guy, but I don’t want there to be impropriety.”
For Underhill, Downs recusing himself is a clear-cut example of when to recuse yourself.
“It is interesting to me that we are focused on the one guy who recused himself of the vote and not on the other eight guys that voted and did not hold Banks accountable at the time that they had an opportunity to,” said Underhill. “I’d like to make it very clear that when we recuse ourselves, it actually does not matter which way you would have voted.”
Commissioner Lumon May said it is not a failure of the board, because the board can only act on what they are aware of.
“When the situation was brought to my attention, personally, we got very aggressive in trying to bring resolution,” said May. “It is a failure of a system when people who put their lifesavings just to get hoodwinked and taken advantage of. It’s sickening to me.”
Commissioner Steven Barry made the motion to remove Downs from the board, but he said the motion and vote had nothing to do with his comments at the board meeting.
“Everybody voted for him to be on the board, and it has nothing to do with anything that he says here,” said Barry. “If I didn’t take action and vote on items before me with people that I’ve known for 30 and 40 years, I wouldn’t be effective at all. If you want to be in leadership, you have to recognize that people you are sometimes friends with may have done something they shouldn’t have done. If you can’t be objective and do that, then you don’t serve the purpose you’re intended to serve. It has nothing to do with his political stance, or his comments at our meetings or in public forums or his videoing our meetings. He was voted on the board unanimously after that behavior had been here for a number of years. That is irrelevant and to paint it any other way is deflecting the issue and the issuer is the law disagrees with Mr. Underhill’s assessment of the reasonings you can abstain for.”
There are currently seven applications for the one lay person opening on the CCB.
Banks was ordered on Tuesday to pay $500,000 in restitutions, and was arrested in August for fraud. His brother-in-law, LaCoste, has yet to be arrested in connection with fraud allegations.