Calling a study that promises tens of thousands of jobs a “black box,” an environmental law firm filed suit against the Port of Jacksonville and its consultant for not disclosing how deepening the shipping channel to 47 feet would create promised economic benefits.
The Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Circuit Court against JaxPort and its consultant, John Martin & Associates, saying they violated Florida’s Sunshine Law by withholding the data and methodology used in an April 2013 study that predicted port deepening would create 25,500 jobs by 2035.
“We want to make sure the Martin report is reliable,” said Public Trust president Warren Anderson.
JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said the port has turned over all documents in its possession related to the Public Trust requests.
Martin & Associates principal John Martin was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
The promise of jobs has been JaxPort’s justification for channel deepening, estimated to cost $684 million, with the state and city picking up close to half that amount.
Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown in March formed a task force to study how the city might help finance the project.
But before all that happens, Public Trust wants to peer-review the Martin study.
“In science, what you do is you try to reproduce results,” Anderson said. “We’ve got this study and we’ve talked to a number of economists and they said this is like a black box. This formula, this input data — you’d have to understand what was happening to come up with these conclusions.”
In March and April, the Public Trust asked JaxPort and Martin & Associates for the economic model the consultant used to produce the deepening study and for the “inputs” that were given to the company to run that model.
JaxPort responded by saying it was not in possession of those items, although it did turn over other information that had been requested.
Martin & Associates did not respond to the requests, according to the Public Trust complaint.
Rubin said Martin’s economic model belongs to Martin & Associates and the port has never been in possession of it.
As to the “inputs” Martin used to run the model, Rubin said Martin collected some information directly from port tenants, which are private businesses.
The port never saw any of that, she said.
Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said even though JaxPort tenants are private and so is Martin & Associates, data collected to perform a study for the port — a public entity — would be subject to public records law.
“Case law says any person ‘acting on behalf of a government agency’ is subject to the requirements of public records law,” she wrote in an email.
“So, I believe the inputs provided to Martin by the JaxPort private tenants in connection with the model prepared by Martin on behalf of JaxPort are subject to disclosure, absent a specific statutory exemption,” she
But Jacksonville General Counsel Cindy Laquidara disagreed. She said the public is entitled to the product Martin provided, but not the means by which he provided it, including any information he may have collected.
“We don’t know the information he actually got,” she said. “That’s part of his proprietary process. We paid him to use his expertise to figure out what he needs.”