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Skip Foster, former Tallahassee Democrat publisher worked to Shut Down Tallahassee’s only Homeless Shelter during COVID

Public records show that the Chamber's public relations consultant, Hammerhead's Skip Foster, worked behind the scenes to shut down City Walk-Urban Ministry.
Skip Foster, CEO of Hammerhead Communications, who was paid to shut down a homeless shelter during COVID by an unknown client.| Hammerhead.agency website

As Tallahassee grappled with a “crisis” of homelessness exacerbated by the global COVID pandemic, which shut down the Kearney Center, the city government, led by Mayor John Dailey, quickly began efforts to shut down City Walk-Urban Mission, then the city’s only homeless shelter. A year and a half later, the legal battle continues.

The legal proceedings, which are still under appeal, to attempt to shut down City Walk’s homeless shelter included testimony written by a public relations consultant employed by the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce(the Chamber).

Skip Foster, CEO of Hammerhead Communications, a Tallahassee-based crisis, branding, and communications firm representing the Chamber and Prime Meridian Bank, had a mystery client interested in shutting down City Walk. Public records show that Foster worked behind the scenes to astroturf members of the public to speak against City Walk.

Astroturfing is the deceptive practice of presenting a public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public.

Foster, the former publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat, in public records obtained by Our Tallahassee, emailed talking points that would later end up in word-for-word rendition by at least three people in legal testimony given as part of an August 2021 Department of Administrative hearing(DOAH)

Metadata inside the word documents shows a user with Foster’s name authored the word documents in early August.

One of the scripts Foster authored starts off without attribution or detail about who he intended to ultimately have read the script:

“My name is XXXXX and I live on XXXXXX. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for XX years,” the script reads.

It goes on to invoke a deceased houseless person for his client:

“I want to talk to you about Christopher Halligan. I didn’t know Mr. Halligan, but I mourn his death. He was found dead at City Walk, less than two months ago. He had been dead for days. Police aren’t sure for exactly how long, but his body had begun to decompose, and a foul odor emanated from his room. His room also smelled because of the multiple Tupperware containers filled with his urine. Pictures of the room, taken by law enforcement, reveal he was living in what can only be described as squalor. He had an alcohol addiction, but police found numerous empty liquor bottles.”

Invoking the name of a deceased resident of City Walk, Our Tallahassee discovered Foster’s scripts in public records requests of his communication with the City of Tallahassee.

Foster sent a series of emails to a city lawyer working on the city’s legal case against City Walk, attaching the draft scripts in the days leading up to the August 2021 DOAH hearing. Foster would send a follow-up email again to City legal, after not receiving a response after a day, stating “FYI — clients love statements,” apparently referring to the reception his writing had gotten. It’s not clear what “clients” Foster was referencing. 

On August 2-3rd, Foster emailed his scripts to the City of Tallahassee, apparently looking for some affirmative response from the city. Foster wrote the scripts for people to read at the August 9th DOAH hearing. 

At the August 9-10th DOAH hearing, the first in a lengthy and expensive legal battle between the homeless shelter and the City, a review of legal transcripts shows that Owen Chin, Judy Chin, and Ginger Proctor would ultimately read Foster’s scripts.

Before the meeting began, the Administrative Law Judge Garnett Wayne Chisenhall stated: 

“Well, if there is nothing else, I think we could move to the public comment. And I understand there’s a group associated with a Ginger Proctor, and thank you. I guess Ms. Proctor’s been — has organized witnesses in a certain order, and I don’t see a problem with just going down the order that she proposed.”

It is not clear who Foster’s client was at the time, but the timeline charts closely with Foster’s activities on behalf of the Chamber, a revelation recently made as part of the expanding story of the 4TLH.org, the Chamber, Mayor John Dailey, and David Bellamy-linked media outlet.

One of two prompts that Foster made for court testimony.| August 2021, Our Tallahassee
One of two prompts that Foster made for court testimony.| August 2021, Our Tallahassee

Chamber of Commerce’s Members Position towards Tallahassee Homeless Population

The debate over City Walk was intense; public opinion in a variety of forms largely favored the shelter. However, of three op-eds submitted to Tallahassee.com two of the authors have direct links to the Chamber.

In late February, Barney Bishop, who serves on the Chamber’s Business Advocacy Committeehad this published. Bishop lives three miles from the shelter on Thomasville Road. Later that year around the time of the DOAH meeting in August, Michelle Eubanks ran this op-ed. Eubanks is a long-time loan officer with Capital City Bank Group, a top Chamber member, and was dating a member of the Business Advocacy Committee at the time. Eubanks lives 1.5 miles north of City Walk.

The city’s Development Review Committee had voted in March 2021 not to allow city walk to continue operations. City planning executives claimed that the facility would cause a public nuisance and had failed to implement adequate security following an alleged increase in crime, trespassing, and the number of suspicious person calls in the area.

However, Judge G. W. Chisenhall recommended the City of Tallahassee grant City Walk a permit to operate as a transitional residential facility, disagreeing with the city, writing that “conditions in the area surrounding the Mahan Facility have substantially returned to normal following the transition…” [From a temporary facility].

In disagreeing with the city, Chisenhall wrote that “conditions in the area surrounding the Mahan Facility have substantially returned to normal following the transition…”[From the temporary facility].

A pro-city walk yard sign in Tallahassee's Brandt Hills.| August 2021, Our Tallahassee

In Brandt Hills, and the neighborhoods surrounding City Walk, dozens of houses put up yard signs supporting the shelter, and homelessness was an issue they believed needed to be addressed.

 

The Brandt Hills Neighborhood Association President, Kelli Jones, spoke at the hearing and said that the board has not and will not take a stance on City Walk. She was concerned about some people saying that the neighborhood association had opposed City Walk.

“We’ve seen a lot of misinformation coming from random neighbors that say they’re speaking for us, but they are not. And it really upsets me, because we have a large group of neighbors who actually do support City Walk and they feel like they’re kind of getting railroaded and, you know, thrown under the carpet, whatever you want to say, being ignored,” said Jones. “ So just as a board, we will not speak for or against City Walk.”

Our Tallahassee talked with people in neighborhoods across Mahan Drive from City Walk recently to see what they thought of the homeless shelter.

“Many people predicted gloom and doom, but the shelter is almost unnoticeable. If it wasn’t for the political infighting surrounding the shelter, we might not even know it’s there,” said Suzanne Austin Parke, a registered nurse.

“To be honest with you, I’ve never seen a homeless person in any of these neighborhoods. Maybe a few on Mahan, but they seem to be keeping to themselves waiting for the bus,”  said Lori Kohl Womack, who works as a jewelry sales representative.

On April 15th, 2021, Foster would moderate the annual WFSU townhall with Village Square. Foster didn’t disclose any conflicts before moderating, despite representing the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce at the time. 

At that 2021 WFSU townhall, Foster said:

“You hear people say that the unspoken conundrum of local government homeless policy is that the better you get at taking care of homeless people, the more of them you end up needing to take care of,” before asking his question. Foster compared the potential risk of caring for Tallahassee’s houseless population to Austin’s “tent city.”

“So, is there a point of diminishing returns? I mean, if we became a haven for homeless people, is that OK with you? Is that a desirable result?” Foster said to Jack Porter, City Seat 1, who was noticeably taken aback by the question. 

“I mean, it’s not a trick question,” Foster interjected.

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2 Responses

  1. Any decent human being who has any humanity and integrity would remove themselves from the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. It is a front for a PR ruse for elected officials who have years of incumbency and corruption. The elected officials misuse taxpayer dollars to misuse this PR vehicle which is supposed to be a vehicle for businesses.

    I don’t know how it is been able to operate under this guise for so many years, but our two major hospitals, banking institutions, our elected officials, etc should pull their memberships from this (dis)organization immediately. It drags Tallahassee down and people who otherwise would do the Humane thing put Humanity aside for the political and monetary gain to prop up the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, which in turn the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce returns the favor to the elected officials. Meanwhile our businesses suffer…

    Only two elected officials in Tallahassee have denounced this practice and should be applauded and re- elected for speaking out against the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce; City Commissioners Jack Porter and Jeremy Matlow!

    Even our State Attorney, Jack Campbell, recently made a fool of himself at the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Amelia Island junket to the extent of his own political party voting to censure his behavior. I am surprised that there has not been a complaint made to the Florida Bar against Jack Campbell regarding this incident. There should be…

  2. Thank you for your research. I volunteer at City Walk and I see and feel the good the mission does for the homeless. Speak to the clients and you will hear stories of love. Speak to Hospice, TPD and the Sheriffs dept. Talk to the workers at the Kearney center who tell people to get on the bus and ask to taken to City Walk. The City is trying to destroy us financially. Lawyers are not cheap. If that happens many people will be back on the streets. Please continue to help us in this fight. We need a miracle. A miracle of people behind us, speaking out loudly. We need additional funds to survive this devastating blow to the mission. This city needs ten more shelters just like City Walk.

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