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Martin to negotiate new Witham hangar agreement so Bahamas relief effort can continue

STUART – The Martin County Commission voted unanimously Oct. 22 to renegotiate the 90-day lease on Hanger 3 at Witham Field so the non-profit Operation 300 staff can hand off the torch of Bahamas relief to a another 301C3.

Commissioners even made the decision without knowing exactly which new non-profit they would be dealing with at the hanger due to their faith in Operation 300 Advisory Board Member Stephen Leighton, the poster child of Martin County relief efforts in the Bahamas. Mr. Leighton appeared before the Board during the original request for the hanger last September and has since been on the ground in the Abacos and other parts of the Bahama Archipelago overseeing the aid distribution efforts of teams of local volunteers. He appeared before the Commission during the latest meeting to once again ask for its members assistance so Operation 300 staff can return to their core mission of helping the children and families of fallen military personnel.

“Operation 300 obviously has a mission, and we need to get that mission back underway,” he said. “We’ve missed a camp, and we’ve missed a couple of opportunities to raise funds to bring little boys and little girls and their mothers here who have lost a loved one to spend a weekend here in Martin County. And Nov. 16 is that camp, and so we’re refocusing on that mission.”

Mr. Leighton emphasized that Hanger 3 was currently empty as his team had just sent a barge filled with supplies to North Abaco Port where they’ll be distributed this week. Over the past two months, he’s helped bring more than 160 volunteers to spend a few days each in the effort to help the Bahamians survive and eventually rebuild their communities.

“Utilizing the hanger as an avenue for us to not only sort and pallet items and barge things to those communities that we have been serving as a point of distribution, but also as a hub for the dispatching of volunteers to go every four days,” he explained. “And so as that need is continuing and a number of other things are going on, we’re asking for the same commitment that you guys gave to myself and [Vice-President] Billy Vaughn as well as Operation 300 to extend it through so we can continue that effort on the ground as well as refill the hanger.”

In order to jump-start the relief operation without the bulk of the Operation 300 staff, Mr. Leighton has strived to enlist the aid of both the Community Foundation Martin-St. Lucie and the Treasure Cay Community Foundation of Lake Park, among other qualified non-profit groups. He insists there is still a need, and groups with donated goods are just waiting for a place to send their tractor-trailer loads for shipment to the Bahamas.

“We’ve had a number of states that are trying to send supplies, and they just don’t have that hub, so I have trailers backed up throughout the state waiting to get in so we can repackage those items, put them on a barge and relocate them,” he added. “I’ve partnered with the Community Foundation of Martin and St. Lucie County as well as Treasure Cay Community Foundation who have stepped up to the plate to fund certain items and certain things, but more importantly be a facilitator for us here in the state. We got the insurance information yesterday and so finalizing that is the last requirement that you all need to extend exactly what footprint we had as Operation 300 had going forward.”

Chairman Ed Ciampi then asked Assistant County Administrator George Stokus, who’s been working closely with the Operation 300 advisory board member, what he needed from the Board to proceed.

“I need some type of pre-approval to engage into a user agreement with the Community Foundation, Treasure Cay or whoever’s the appropriately identified 5013C,” the latter said. “That will keep us out of any issue with any federal grant or state grant assurances as it relates to economic discrimination.”

Commissioner Doug Smith then asked Mr. Leighton to confirm his commitment from a new non-profit organization.

“I’m just curious Steven… do you have an agreement with the Community Foundation?”

“We were waiting on this preliminary [approval] on your behalf,” he responded. “I have either the Community Foundation here or the Treasure Cay Community Foundation.”

Mr. Stokus admitted that he’d spoken with Community Foundation Martin-St. Lucie President Elizabeth Barbella, but she had not confirmed exactly what her role might be in the new hangar operation.

“So, I as staff have not identified which 501C3, but I think this body can preapprove and staff can go back and look at which entity does ultimately get written on the insurance certificate as the additional insured for the county,” he said. “Mr. Leighton has communicated to me that the mission he’s planning to do is going to be the exact same as Operation 300, so I have reached out to his insurance broker. It’s the same insurance requirements that we required of Operation 300, so I don’t see it being a limiting factor in this case.”

Commissioner Sarah Heard then expressed doubts about supporting the inclusion of the Treasure Cay Community Foundation since it is not a Martin County non-profit but rather one based in Palm Beach County.

“So, help me understand why taxpayers should be donating space for an organization that’s not local,” she said.

Mr. Leighton then explained that the two organizations would play complementary roles in the Bahamian relief effort, with the Community Foundation of Martin and St. Lucie County potentially funding one portion and the Treasure Cay Community Foundation hopefully funding another.

“We’re continuing the same efforts of Operation 300, so when you come in and you bring products, you bring canned goods, you bring toiletries, you bring the necessities,” he said. “It is a conduit for them to help us pay for the barges to get it over there. Raising money, as you know, is very difficult, and it’s about $50,000 to $60,000 for a barge to get there. They are willing to do that, that’s the partnership with them.”

When Commissioner Heard continued to express a preference for the local non-profit, Mr. Leighton repeated his need to have the fundraising assistance of both entities.

“Treasure Cay is the one that’s going to fund the actual costs associated with these [shipments] – it’s either flying it or barging it over,” he emphasized. “Martin County locally is going to help with the transportation of the volunteers… they’re not giving us money. I have to start this program right back over. The whole hanger’s empty, there’s no money in the account, I’m starting the account with them, so I’m going from zero on all levels again to raise everything from money to relief items.”

For his part, Chairman Ciampi said Martin County residents should be proud of both their own efforts and those made by Mr. Leighton and Operation 300 as so few organizations have made such “a herculean effort” in the Bahamas.

“You’re not the American Red Cross, you’re not the Salvation Army, you’re not the federal government, you’re a band of individuals,” he exclaimed. “Look, you put your life on hold for 52 days and so did many others. I think this is a small part for us, and I think an easy part that we would allow you to use a hanger that for all intents and purposes sits empty year after year.”

Commissioner Heard then made the motion to have staff negotiate the extension of the contract, which was seconded by Commissioner Harold Jenkins. Before the chairman could call the vote, however, Commissioner Smith posed the what-if question.

“If the Community Foundation doesn’t engage in this, what happens?” he asked.

“We’ll bring it back to the Board,” answered Senior County Attorney Sarah Woods.

“I mean it’s kind of hinging upon the Community Foundation, right?” continued the commissioner.

When Ms. Woods answered affirmatively, Mr. Leighton assured Commissioner Smith that he had other aces up his sleeve.

“I have multiple foundations I could attach it to, and I’m having to go through the hoops of what your recommendations and your legal requirements are,” he insisted. “I can assure you right now that I’ll find an organization somewhere within the State of Florida that will continue this effort.”

The motion then passed unanimously.

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