Elections, she thought, followed the rule she’d known all her life: Her vote counted as much as anyone’s. Delaney could only assume the government of her new town operated the same.
namesake Barron Collier Cos., wrote and lobbied for a state law that established Ave Maria’s government. In June 2004, it became law over Ave Maria, the 11,000 acres of former farm fields that center on a university in the Catholic tradition.
But Monaghan’s team and Barron Collier Cos. crafted the law’s language to give them a substantial benefit.
What resulted was a government unlike any democracy residents such as Delaney had ever experienced.
The law gives Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos. more power than any Florida developer in at least 24 years, power perhaps not seen since the days of the early 20th century land boom. The law makes landowners, not registered voters, the ultimate authority in Ave Maria. The law ensures Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., as the largest landowners, can control Ave Maria’s government forever.
“I thought at some point we would be able to have a say in how the town ran,” Delaney said when approached by the Daily News and shown the government’s structure.
No one has tested this new form of government despite its substantial impact on the town’s residents and on large-scale development statewide. Ave Maria’s government, the focus of this series, has spawned six similar governments across the state. Their combined area is more than 100,000 acres, larger than the city of Philadelphia. These governments might not protect the public’s constitutional right to choose its leaders and determine how its money is spent.
“It’s control and money,” said Jim Nicholas, a University of Florida law professor emeritus and expert in governments like Ave Maria’s. “Who has the control, controls the money. And we’re talking about staggering amounts here.”
Control over Ave Maria’s government provides scores of benefits to those in charge. The government, known as a special district, determines the annual tax bills of residents and the developer. It buys land and builds schools, parks, fire stations and hospitals. It condemns private property inside its boundaries and, with approval from Collier County commissioners, outside as well.
Like cities and counties, Ave Maria’s government pays for its projects with tax-free municipal bonds, which are reserved for projects in the public interest. This financing saves the developer millions in borrowing costs through lower interest rates.
Ave Maria’s governing board, now selected entirely by Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., already has authorized the sale of $820 million in municipal bonds to pay for construction of roads and services.
Since its first meeting four years ago, the government has acted as the developer’s rubber stamp. The five-member board has approved 49 resolutions at the developer’s behest, such as issuing bonds and purchasing land, without a single “no” vote.
On the board are three current or former Monaghan or Barron Collier Cos. employees, a retired partner from the engineering firm that designed Ave Maria and another large landowner in eastern Collier County.
Before establishing the government, Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos. formed a 50-50 private partnership called Ave Maria Development to own and develop Ave Maria’s land. An executive committee with representatives from both sides runs the partnership. Authority over all matters, including the selection of government board members, rests with that committee.
The law allows the executive committee, controlling the votes of the largest landowner, to choose at least three out of the five seats on the board forever.
Based on the progress of development, the other two seats will transition from control by landowners to control by the town’s registered voters through elections. That means residents could always lose to Ave Maria Development’s three-member majority on the board.
Despite this arrangement, both partners in Ave Maria Development deny they will always control the town’s government.
“I can assure you that at no single point has a discussion among the executive committee or myself revolved around controlling this district in perpetuity,” said Blake Gable, a Barron Collier Cos. vice president and the company’s point man in Ave Maria.
Monaghan, through a spokesman and in person, declined multiple interview requests. But Paul Roney, the chief financial officer of Ave Maria University, a government board member and generally considered Monaghan’s No. 2 in money matters, agreed with Gable.
Once the partnership finishes developing the town, Roney said, Ave Maria Development would cede government control to residents voluntarily.
“Our mindset is, I think, the mindset of any developer,” Roney said. “It’s to get things built as quickly as possible and turn it over as quickly as possible.”
But Ave Maria’s government differs from those created for just “any developer.”
Florida law forced developers in the 24 years before Ave Maria to relinquish control over similar governments after a maximum of 10 years. Unlike those other developers, Ave Maria Development officials acknowledge, when they give up control over the town’s government is in their hands alone.
Ave Maria Development officials talked about this power before it became law.
Internal company memos from September 2003, obtained by the Daily News, show a discussion about how long Ave Maria Development should control the government. One memo called control “the major decision factor” in determining an aspect of the government’s structure.
“ ... we could control it in perpetuity,” wrote Tom Sansbury, a Barron Collier Cos. vice president, in the memo.
The public, Ave Maria residents and otherwise, is unaware of this arrangement. When they bought their homes, Ave Maria residents received written notice of the government’s existence and its ability to tax them. But the developer didn’t disclose how, when or if townspeople would make the government’s decisions.
When they moved from Massachusetts to Ave Maria, David Shnaider and his wife, Patricia Sette, understood that Ave Maria Development would control the town’s government for a time. Like Delaney, they didn’t think the partnership’s control could last forever.
“I would have the expectation that it’s going to be like every other town in America,” Sette said.
Shnaider and Sette, contributors to the Daily News, co-founded a community news Web site, AveHerald.Com. Shnaider said the extent of Ave Maria Development’s power will come as a surprise to residents, as he believes townspeople have a “general expectation” that eventually they could control the government.
Jim Coletta, the county commissioner who represents Ave Maria, said no one told him how much power the law gave the town’s developer before he voted six years ago. That should have been made clear, he said. Coletta added he would reach out to Ave Maria residents.“If there’s something that’s grievously wrong, we’ll make sure it gets made right at the state and local level,” Coletta said.
Former state Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, said county and state legislative staff reviewed and approved Ave Maria’s voter turnover procedure. He added that after five years he had “no recollection of whether this was ever an issue.”
Some in the development community have raised substantial concerns about Ave Maria’s government. A year after Ave Maria’s law passed, a prominent Florida law firm rejected Ave Maria’s plan for its own developer clients because the firm feared it would lead to lawsuits.
Nicholas, the University of Florida law professor, went further.
He said Ave Maria’s government could violate both state and federal constitutions that guarantee people will be governed by the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote.
“Clearly, it will be litigated,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. The first time you have a group of homeowners out there that are unhappy with them, they’ll take up a fund, probably find somebody who will do it pro bono or whatever and let it rip and we’ll find out.”
The outcome of a constitutional challenge of Ave Maria’s government could have serious consequences:
■ Residents and potential residents would succeed or fail to gain decisive influence over how their government spends their money.
■ Ave Maria’s developer could lose its current means of financing the town, municipal bonds. If the government is invalidated, then the developer would have to find another means of financing.
■ Investors, including up to 10,500 people who have already purchased Ave Maria’s bonds, would be closely eyeing the outcome to determine the level of risk associated with the project and the project’s funding.
Nicholas put what’s at stake in a constitutional challenge succinctly.
“Somebody stands to lose a lot of money,” he said.