By Mike Lednovich
A Florida Commission on Ethics Advocate ruled that because Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor David Sturges and his business partner Todd Ericksen had no ongoing business ventures there was “no probable cause” for the commission to find Sturges had violated state ethics statutes.
But Ericksen’s Amelia Sunrise Realty Facebook page shows at least two business transactions for property purchases involving the two.
According to the Facebook posts, Sturges purchased two properties with Ericksen’s Amelia Sunrise Realty company handling the transactions.
According to documents obtained by The Observer, the ethics complaint filed last March by Faith Ross, wife of City Commissioner Chip Ross, said Sturges violated the state ethics code on two accounts. Faith Ross is also a sitting member on the city’s Board of Adjustment.
However, Ethics Commission Advocate Melody Hadley on Oct. 23, 2023 submitted an “Advocate’s Recommendation” to the state ethics commission stating Sturges’ votes on Brett’s Waterway Cafe did not meet the criteria for a violation.
“The evidence reflects that Respondent (Sturges) and Erickson are only co-owners of property and have not engaged in any business enterprise. Thus, they are not business associates, as interpreted by the (Ethics) Commission, which is a requirement for a violation of the relevant subsection,” Hadley wrote in the recommendation. “Therefore, based on the evidence before the Commission, I recommend that the Commission find probable no cause to believe that Respondent (Sturges) violated Florida Statutes.”
But Facebook posts by Ericksen’s company Amelia Sunrise Realty tell a different story.
On Sept. 21 on the Amelia Sunrise Realty page they posted: “Representing Fernandina Beach city commissioner David Sturges on his second purchase this month using Sunrise Realty. David, we appreciate all the hard work and determination you bring into keeping this city at its peak.”
On Aug. 16 Amelia Sunrise Realty said about Sturges: “Representing our buyer, lifelong friend, and our city commissioner David Sturges. David, Thank you for putting your trust into Sunrise Realty and thank you for all that you do for our city!”
Based on Hadley’s advocate recommendation Sturges was cleared by the commission last week of the first of two complaints submitted to the commission. The second one is still under investigation.
Hadley cited a comission finding that “the intent of the “business associate” definition is to bring the voting conflicts law to bear on business endeavors, regardless of the form of business organizations they take, rather than to bring under the law those relationships under which one merely holds a technical label or status (e.g., co-owner of property, shareholder in close corporation) in relation to others, but absent engagement in or carrying on of a common commercial/profit-making pursuit (“business enterprise”).”
There was no mention of the real estate transactions involving Sturges as the buyer and Ericksen acting as his agent in the Ethics Commission’s investigative document.
Sturges is a local contractor and co-owns an office building on Beech Street with Ericksen. The pair also are listed as partners in a real estate holding company called Pirates Booty. Ericksen also works as a bartender at Brett’s Waterway Cafe. Sturges runs his business from one half of the Beech Street building and Ericken’s real estate business occupies the other half.
The complaint charged that Sturges violated state ethics statutes by voting on matters regarding Brett’s Waterway Cafe, which is leased from the city, where Ericksen is employed.
Faith Ross said of the Ethics Commission’s findings, “Though the Ethics Commission determined that the complaint was legally sufficient and ordered a preliminary investigation, it determined that it would not pursue it further. In a previously adjudicated ethics case, a Commissioner owning a houseboat with an acquaintance was found to not be a business associate. Therefore, the Commission chose to believe that a property owned by Mr. Erickson and Commissioner Sturges, which also housed their offices, did not constitute a business association. A clear business association needed to be demonstrated to carry the complaint further.”
Ross’ complaint also said Sturges used his office to benefit himself and/or another regarding the termination of City Manager Dale Martin last March.
That matter involved Commissioner Ross raising the issue of the insurance policy on Brett’s Waterway Cafe and Martin’s involvement in the situation. In February, Sturges cited Martin’s actions on Brett’s as one of the reasons that the city manager should be terminated. Sturges said Martin ignored advice from Mayor Bradley Bean not to take any action on the Brett’s insurance situation until City Attorney Tammi Bach returned from vacation.
“There is insufficient evidence to reflect that Respondent (Sturges) acted in a manner inconsistent with the proper performance of his office when be brought forth the motion to terminate Martin which three other Commissioners supported,” Hadley stated in the recommendation document.
A second ethics complaint was filed against Sturges last fall and the Florida Commission on Ethics has not issued a determination on that complaint. The complaint itself, and all ethics commission proceedings and records relating to the complaint, are confidential until there is a ruling unless Sturges wishes to disclose them.
Last July, Sturges who was advised to recuse himself from any votes regarding Brett’s, said an inspection report of the supporting substructure of Brett’s Waterway Cafe recommending that the restaurant and its adjoining deck be closed to the public until repairs can be made to make it safe was a “witch hunt.”
City Attorney Tammi Bach said she would still advise Sturges to recuse himself from matters regarding Brett’s going forward.
“Although I have not read the ethics commission decision, I will urge the vice mayor to abstain from voting on Brett’s because of his ongoing business relationship with Todd Ericksen,” she said.
On Oct. 11, 2023 Ethics Investigator Charles Shotwell forwarded his “report of investigation” to the Ethics Advocates outlining his findings that included interviews with Sturges and Ericksen.
According to Shotwell’s report, “He (Sturges) denied voting on any matter in effort to keep Brett’s Waterway Cafe open to allow Mr. Erickson to retain his part-time employment there as a bartender.”
Shotwell was not available for comment. Ethics investigators are prohibited from speaking with media according to Lynn Blais, public information officer for the ethics commission.
“There is no written press policy. Our Executive Director, Kerrie Stillman, authorizes who is approved to speak to the press,” Blais said in an email.
The Ethics Commission documents are available to download below: