Prebble Ramswell: "I think it's despicable. I think it's shameful, and I think it's a continuation of the bullying that I have received ever since I took office ..."
DESTIN — Attorney Dana Matthews says the Destin Conservatives political action committee is not endorsing candidates by name in the March 13 city election.
"We are not telling you to vote a certain way," said Matthews, whose most well-known client might be Peter Bos, the chairman of Legendary LLC, which developed the Emerald Grande.
But the PAC knows who it doesn't want to win.
"Anyone but the incumbents," Matthews told the Daily News recently.
Matthews' remarks were made shortly before the PAC unveiled its destinliberals.com website, which attacks Destin Mayor Scott Fischer and City Council members Rodney Braden and Prebble Ramswell.
The at-large city election, in which voters will choose a mayor and three council members, is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and personal campaigns in years.
It includes allegations of big business giving big money to pro-development candidates out to ruin Destin, and claims that the incumbents are anti-growth liberals who misuse taxpayers' money.
Ramswell on Thursday said the PAC is "despicable" and is setting a tone that is the complete opposite of the respectful City Council race she was part of in 2014.
The war of words between the PAC and the incumbents is being played out in campaign ads and on websites and social media, and even at a recent council meeting.
Fischer faces Destin Charter Boat Association President Gary Jarvis in the race for mayor. Joining Braden and Ramswell in the contest to fill the council seats are Teresa Hebert, Skip Overdier and Mark Robertson.
Councilman Jim Foreman cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
The council consists of seven at-large councilors and a mayor, who each serve a four-year, unpaid term.
Legendary President/COO Pete Knowles is the chairman and registered agent of the Destin Conservatives. He recently told the Daily News that the group does not, as some claim, "want to redevelop Destin into a bunch of high-rises," but aims to "keep businesses in business."
Knowles said the Emerald Grande gets unfairly blamed for causing much of Destin's traffic gridlock. And he and Matthews expressed frustration that the council in the past year or so has approved numerous regulations — such as an ordinance regulating livery vessels — that are unfriendly to businesses.
"Folks are already saying (the PAC) is big money" trying to influence the election, Knowles said. "We're raising money and trying to deliver a message. We just think the city is over-reaching. The mayor has said out loud that (city officials) want to make this a retirement community. But that horse left the barn awhile ago."
Matthews said the PAC opposes the attempt by most current council members to look into possibly having another company replace Gulf Power as the city's electric utility company. The Destin Conservatives also believe that many city leaders purposely drag their feet when it comes to reviewing some proposed developments, he said.
"It's almost like the current council wants to turn Destin into a big homeowners' association," said Matthews, who represents a developer from Georgia who has proposed building a 13-story, mixed-use development across U.S. Highway 98 from the Emerald Grande.
Matthews said the PAC consists of many local business owners and operators, including about 12 who are helping to fund its campaign.
Jarvis by far leads all Destin candidates with more than $30,000 in campaign contributions. Fischer has raised the second-highest total, with $10,550.
Jarvis also ranks first among all non-incumbent candidates with the most contributions — a total of at least $6,000 — from Bos and his business associates, according to campaign finance reports.
The Destin Conservatives' mailing address in Venice, south of Sarasota, is the address for the accounting firm of the PAC's treasurer, Eric Robinson.
In an August 2016 story in the Daily News' sister publication, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Robinson was described as having "gained the reputation as one of the most connected campaign money men in the state, helping bring bare-knuckle campaign tactics long common at the federal level to local races.
"Robinson, sometimes reveling in the job and typically profiting mightily along the way, has helped pro-development interests gain or maintain influence, determine who sits in the Florida Legislature and on school, city and county boards and boost or kill local referendum proposals — all while concealing the source of many donations."
Such "bare-knuckle campaign tactics" are on display at destinliberals.com, on which the Destin Conservatives PAC attacks the three incumbents in Destin.
Robinson was brief with his remarks to the Daily News during a phone call on Thursday.
When told the call was in reference to the Destin Conservatives, Robinson first said he didn't know anything about the organization.
After it was mentioned that he is the group's treasurer, he said, "I'm the treasurer of a lot of organizations. I would have to look it up. I'm busy with taxes right now. Bye."
Robinson hung up.
The destinliberals.com website shows images of Fischer, Ramswell and Braden smiling next to one another. The site accuses the incumbents of increasing city taxes and spending and pursuing a takeover of Gulf Power while ignoring the city's traffic problems.
The site also accuses Ramswell of "reckless behavior," including being charged long ago in Texas for driving while intoxicated and being in possession of a controlled substance, and, as a Destin City Council member, for being "investigated for using taxpayer dollars on herself."
Ramswell responded to some of the attacks with comments that appeared last Sunday on the Destin Clothesline 2.0 Facebook page. She wrote that the DWI occurred in 1989 — "30 years ago when I was a 17-year-old junior in high school."
Ramswell also said "the false drug allegation comes from the fact that I had picked up my mother's prescription at the pharmacy after school and had it in the car that day. That's why it was dismissed.
"As for tax stealing — that is also completely false. The former city manager filed charges as part of an effort to get me out of office. The state attorney's office questioned the rationale and completely cleared me of all charges."
Ramswell also said that she was granted a "Top Secret clearance in 2003 by the federal government. They NEVER would have granted such clearance if I was the criminal this PAC wants you to believe."
On Thursday, Ramswell said she is not part of the Destin Clothesline and that it must have come across comments she made on her own Facebook page.
She also shared more of her thoughts about the Destin Conservatives PAC.
"I think it's despicable. I think it's shameful, and I think it's a continuation of the bullying that I have received ever since I took office, which started with the cease and desist from the attorney (Matthews) of one of the people (Bos) behind the Destin Conservatives," she said.
Matthews in late 2014 had issued a cease and desist letter to Ramswell for statements she had made about Bos and some of his business practices.
The letter "was followed up with a death threat on my child, and we still don't know who that came from," Ramswell said. "But I have continually faced bullying specifically from this group of people, and this is just the icing on the cake. They want people in office that do as they want, and not what the community wants, and that's why they want us out and are stooping to such levels."
Near the end of last Tuesday's council meeting, Braden responded to some of the claims made on the destinliberals website, which states "he has been attached to a foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy multiple times."
"I'd just like to say that it's pretty impressive that Peter Bos and McGuire's was willing to fund nearly $40,000 to fund a smear campaign to put out a bunch of lies and stuff about myself," Braden said. "Apparently, they want to build, I don't know, two or three more Emerald Grandes and I'm sitting here in their way."
The Destin Conservatives has received a total of $32,500 from four entities, according to records from the Florida Department of State Division of Elections.
The PAC has received $10,000 apiece from Coastal Holdings LLC of Destin, McGuire's Irish Pub of Destin and Shirah Central Partners LLC of Miramar Beach, and $2,500 from Roe Entertainment Inc. of Destin.
Bos is listed in records as the manager of Coastal Holdings.
"I just thought it was pretty impressive that I made FOX News," Braden continued at the council meeting. "That's pretty good. You'd think I'm making a quarter of a million dollars sitting in this seat. This seat don't pay a dime. And (PAC members) are willing to pay that kind of money to get me out of here? They've got an agenda."
When it was Ramswell's turn to speak, she said, "Obviously, I second what Mr. Braden said."
Fischer said while he doesn't know about other council members, "I always thought I was conservative."
"Rodney, have you ever considered yourself a liberal? Just curious," Councilman Chatham Morgan asked.
"Absolutely not," Braden said, laughing.
In response to the Destin Conservatives' remark that the city boosted capital project spending by 280 percent, Fischer said the increase came from a $3.5 million federal grant that largely was used to pay for five stormwater projects that were completed in the past 1 1/2 years.
Looking toward Braden and Ramswell, Fischer said, "I'm assuming what your opponents want is no more federal money in the city, or you're a liberal."
The mayor also said he learned that 60 percent of the state's revenue comes from the federal government, and that in some years, more than half of the city's revenue originates from the feds.
In 2016, the council approved increasing the city's millage rate from 1.5 to 1.615 mills. (One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value). The increased funding was for stormwater and sidewalk repairs, a marine unit with a personal watercraft staffed by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and more law enforcement services for spring break.
Fischer is seeking his first four-year mayoral term. He is serving the remaining two years of the term of former mayor and current state Rep. Mel Ponder, who left office when he decided to run for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 2016.
In addition to serving as mayor, Ponder served as a councilman in Destin from 2002-05. He finished his council term at about the time that construction was beginning on the Emerald Grande.
Ponder on Thursday said he has been busy focusing on his job in Tallahassee and has not heard much about the Destin Conservatives or the Destin election.
"I personally don't do negative campaigning," he said.
Ponder said Robinson served as his treasurer for his initial run for the House seat and is serving in the same capacity in his current re-election bid.
"I think he has about 40-50 people he handles (campaigns for) throughout the state," Ponder said. "Apparently, he does local politics, too."
He said he doubts Robinson is involved in the destinliberals.com website.
"He did nothing with marketing for me," Ponder said. "He's a CPA by trade. From my perspective, he knows the laws of Florida extremely well."
Ramswell said the city election four years ago, when she won her first term on the council, "was a very honorable, professional election" that included candidates picking up each others' fallen-down campaign signs.
But now, the Destin Conservatives have been showing "the absolute bottom of the barrel of humanity," she said.