SNOW HILL– Commissioner Eric Fiori recused himself from a vote on boat ramp regulations this week following an ethics complaint.
Attorney Mark Cropper filed an ethics complaint last week regarding Fiori’s participation in discussions regarding new boat ramp regulations, as Fiori’s business uses the boat ramps. The Worcester County Ethics Board issued an opinion before Tuesday’s meeting addressing his participation in discussions regarding the regulations, officially known as Bill 23-06.
“An official should generally not participate in a matter in which the official has an interest,” the opinion reads. “To avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, we recommend that Commissioner Fiori recuse himself from participation in County Commissioner proceedings and discussions with other Commissioners regarding Bill 23-06. This Board will refrain from recommending that Commissioner Fiori must recuse himself from discussions or meetings with his constituents and will defer to his discretion in that regard.”
While county code currently prohibits commercial use at the county’s boat ramps, earlier this year the Worcester County Commissioners began exploring updated regulations that would allow commercial use of the ramps with certain stipulations. Cropper said the move toward new regulations came after several South Point residents complained about his client, Marc Spagnola, using the county ramp in that neighborhood to launch his guide service boat. Spagnola, who runs a bowfishing charter business, launches his boat at South Point because he fishes close to the Virginia line. He received a special use permit to do so in 2021 and 2022.
South Point residents, however, have objected to the commercial use of the ramp in their neighborhood for various reasons. Fiori, who represents that district, met with residents July 7 to discuss their concerns.
Cropper said he reached out to the ethics board because he didn’t feel that Fiori should participate in Tuesday’s deliberations regarding new regulations. Fiori has acknowledged in the past that boat dealerships like his own use county ramps to launch and test boats.
“I feel as though Commissioner Fiori has a conflict of interest participating in the debate about the commercial use of county owned boat ramps since his business has been and will continue to rely upon county owned boat ramps to survive,” Cropper said. “Until such time Commissioner Fiori agrees to no longer use county owned ramps for his purposes he should not be attempting to prevent others from using county owned ramps for their purposes.”
Fiori said he recused himself from Tuesday’s discussion voluntarily after the ethics board issued its opinion.
“The board has basically said this isn’t a conflict of interest directly but you want to avoid the perception,” Fiori said.
Fiori said the updated boat landing regulations were simply an effort by Worcester County to be proactive. He said in west Florida he’d seen guide service boats essentially take over county boat landings and thinks Worcester County needs to do more even than is proposed in the new regulations to ensure recreational use of boat ramps isn’t impacted in the future.
Fiori believes there is a distinction between Spagnola’s use of a county ramp and other commercial entities’ use of county ramps. While crabbers or boat dealers might use a ramp, he said that was not their central location. He said the physical use of the ramp was not the issue.
“Commercializing the boat ramps is where we’re going wrong,” he said, adding that the guide service used the boat ramp as its business location. “Our county landings are not commercial business locations.”
He said his business had a brick-and-mortar location and charter boats rented slips at places like Sunset Marina or the Ocean City Fishing Center.
“They’re renting business locations as we allow a different business to not fall under those same standards,” he said.
Cropper believes Fiori shouldn’t be addressing the issue at all—or meeting with South Point residents about it—because of his own business’s involvement.
“It is my opinion that if a sitting county commissioner has a conflict of interest preventing that commissioner from participating in discussion, debates or votes regarding a particular matter such a conflict exists when that commissioner is meeting with his or her constituents. The conflict doesn’t cease to exist when he leaves his office in Snow Hill. Either there’s a conflict of interest that prevents him participating all the time or there is no conflict of interest.”
Fiori said he was involved in a variety of businesses and there were bound to be situations where issues overlapped.
“Mr. Cropper requested that I go against my sworn duty as an elected official to represent the people and not speak to people about boat ramps at all,” he said. “This should outrage voters in any county and it should directly outrage all voters of Worcester County that that request was made.”
Cropper maintains that Fiori should not be involved in discussions regarding commercial use of county boat ramps until his business is not longer using them.
“Commissioner Fiori should not be involved in any discussions, negotiations, debates or votes in any way related to or associated with laws regarding the commercial use of county owner ramps until such time he is not longer violating the laws regarding the same,” Cropper said.
While Fiori did not participate in Tuesday’s vote on the new legislation, because the commissioners opted to deliberate further rather than decide on the proposed regulations, Spagnola is going to seek a special use permit so he can continue to use the county ramp when he takes customers out fishing.
“Until the law is revised allowing the commercial use of county owned boat ramps, violations by many businesses continue to occur,” Cropper wrote in a request for a special use permit submitted to the commissioners Wednesday. “This includes crabbers, marine contractors, fishing guide services and marine sales and service businesses such as Bayside Jet Drive owned and operated by Commissioner Eric Fiori. To my knowledge, all such commercial businesses are knowingly, intentionally and openly violating the law, but only Marc Spagnola is under threat of citation for using county owned boat ramps for his commercial purposes when others are being allowed by the county to do the same, but without such a threat.”