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KONK REACTOR column
[Published in the KONK Life newspaper on March 1, 2012.]
I didn’t attend the trial of Norma Jean Sawyer but I can state categorically: if she goes to jail, there is no justice in this town.
Back in the 1990s, Norma Jean Sawyer voluntarily took on a task that nobody would step up to. She put her life managing a small mortuary on hold and rededicated it to saving residences in Bahama Village for the families who had owned them for generations. For those families who were being approached by people with briefcases full of cash offering to buy them out (at bottom dollar) if they’d move away. To allow them to become cheaply-renovated gentrified residences for sale to speculators at top dollar.
Norma Jean worked with others to get the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust (BCCLT) off the ground, and fought a constant battle with the City and other agencies to keep it funded. For well over ten years Norma worked for a pittance, managing the BCCLT out of her bedroom while living in poverty. But she never wavered from her quest to keep the historic residents of the village in their homes, and to do whatever she could to aid in community revitalization.
The original mission of the BCCLT was to purchase homes from the families, keep the land (in perpetuity) and sell the houses (without the land) back to the families. The families would net some needed financial relief, and be able to stay in their home for a nominal annual land-lease. And if they found that they DID have to move later, the BCCLT would enforce the affordable housing qualification deed restriction on the prospective purchasers. This was a win-win endeavor that was later adopted by many cities in America — based on the success of the BCCLT here in Key West.
However things got complicated when the BCCLT found that most locals at income levels that qualified for purchase of the “affordable” houses still could not afford them. So the BCCLT adapted by turning many of those buildings into affordable rental housing. But city regulations kept the rents too low to fully cover required expenses. The BCCLT could not get ahead.
Despite all this, Norma Jean kept the organization afloat by constantly finding ways to cut corners or delay payments to get by until another grant or a small allocation from the City would kick in. Nobody (except an occasional troublesome renter) who saw how she lived and how she managed the dozens of affordable Bahama Village residences would EVER entertain the thought that she had a SELFISH stake in any of this. But local politicos with their own agendas, ambitious developers who didn’t appreciate the control she had been granted over a component of the Truman Waterfront, and a few disgruntled renters all took every opportunity to bad mouth her and spread malicious rumors.
Ultimately shaky bookkeeping and lax auditing by respected external accountants lead to duplicate billings that eventually were uncovered and lead to “forensic” audits. Norma Jean’s house of cards that kept the BCCLT’s mission alive for so long crumbled; and the run ended. Thankfully the City’s Housing Authority was able to take over BCCLT properties and keep the residents housed, and all of the creditors have been paid what they had coming. But the ambitious goals of the BCCLT have been silenced.
That should have been the end of it. But old grudges die hard, and the powers that be decided to turn this into a vendetta against Norma Jean. Despite being monitored and tacitly endorsed by BCCLT Boards of Directors, and despite no evidence of any actual theft (beyond a few questionable restaurant meals and a fishing daytrip) the States Attorney’s office brought her up on CRIMINAL charges for her official BCCLT duties. The biggest “crime” they could find was that a housing grant had been partially used to set up an office FOR THE BCCLT in a small piece of one of their buildings. But they ran with it.
And they found 6 local jurors willing to declare this a crime worthy of up to THIRTY YEARS in prison. Even though the actual grantors have declared that they’re fine with just converting that office into a small apartment. Have these people no shame?
Norma Jean CLEARLY had substandard representation for this CIVIL issue to have ever gone to trial in a CRIMINAL court. Or to have ever gone to trial at all, really. One hopes the judge(s) involved will recognize this and correct this travesty.
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