Can Council Govern Better Than a 5th Grader?


    Tough Act to Follow

    The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council faced a daunting challenge on Monday evening, January 23, conducting their regular meeting following a brief Student Council session expertly run by Fort Myers Beach Elementary School 5th graders. While the real Council broke their streak of 4-hour-plus meetings with seconds to spare, that may have been related to the absence of one council member and the removal of a stormwater agenda item. Perhaps taking their cue from the students, Council was mostly polite and civil.

    Mayor Dennis Boback called the meeting to order at 6:30 p.m., with council member Anita Cereceda on an excused absence. Interim Town Manager James Steele requested the removal of the stormwater agenda item for the first four Segment 2 outfalls, to review streets and cost along with alternative funding to avoid fee increases.

    Several residents during Public Comment asked Council to undertake and post water quality test results for Fort Myers Beach, causing Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros to say, “This is not an easy answer. Town Environmental & Stormwater Technician Rae Blake says there is a lot of testing already, with so many agencies doing so that when she attempted to show us the results on our large viewing screens, you could not read the print, it was so small (in order) to include all the readings. The Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF) cannot even make a recommendation and continued it to acquire more information. This is complicated and we have limited resources, so to just do something quick to look like we took action is not right.” Council member Joanne Shamp called the Vice Mayor’s synopsis “excellent, and I look forward to hearing from MRTF as well.”

    Council unanimously passed the Consent Agenda, approving the request to the West Coast Inland Navigational District for recreational and law enforcement grants.

    Council next considered the request from the Friends of the Matanzas Pass Preserve to waive the Newton Cottage rental fee for the Florida Master Naturalist Class, with the Interim Town Manager recommending a 50% fee reduction, to $12.50-per-hour, while providing free parking. Shamp said, “I feel like Scrooge because I love this program, but half the students do not live on the island and there is a $245 class fee, including $30.88 for facility usage. At some point you need to be fiscally responsible, but I agree to the free parking; if you rent the cottage you should not pay to park there.”

    Hosafros made a motion to grant the Florida Master Gardener Class free Newton Cottage parking that unanimously Passed 4 to 0; a second motion by Shamp to retain the $25-per-hour rental fee for the group Passed 3 to 1, with Hosafros Against.

    Legal Eagles

    Maureen Rischitelli, Director of Administrative Services, informed Council the Town had received just one bid from the Peterson Law Firm to fill the role of Town Attorney, adding, “You can accept it or readvertise.” Council member Tracey Gore said “I hoped for more than one applicant.” Shamp did as well “but I researched the group; they are familiar with our geographic area and seem quite capable of providing the services we require. Their experience is with things I see coming forward on our docket, whether we like that or not. If we readvertise, I am not sure we can expect a different outcome, so I am ready to move forward with negotiations with this firm.”

    Hosafros said, “I am happy we have a firm that specializes in government law.” Gore said she would prefer more than one proposal, because “we can still choose them later, but I want to see different firms and attorneys.” Mayor Boback said, “I am like Joanne – I read their proposal and background and history and experience and it all looks like what we are looking for – I do not want to wait until April to decide this.”

    On The Spot

    Mayor Boback asked the Dawn Lehnert if it were appropriate to question the lawyers now, as 2 of the 3 principles were in attendance. She replied it is, but it might be unfair to them as they had no opportunity to prepare. The Vice Mayor, herself an attorney, countered, “I like questions in the open forum. As for putting them on the spot – boy – they better be able to handle being put on the spot! I don’t think readvertising will yield any additional firms, as attorneys talk to each other and everyone knows the openings.”

    Jack Peterson and John Turner took to the podium, with Jack stating “our third member is my brother, David, who works out of Miami Lakes on the east coast. If needed, however, he will be here – you will have at least two of us available at all times.” The Mayor asked how often they would physically be at Town Hall, with Jack saying “we will keep office hours every workday from 9:30 a.m. to mid-afternoon, or as long as staff has the need. Of course, with today’s technology, we are basically available 24/7.”

    Shamp said a line from their proposal caught her attention: “When pressure to develop clashes with maintaining quality of life we can provide that firepower,” and asked for clarification. John replied that “we fight for our clients to best protect their interests with sound legal advice. We can see problems coming and make you aware of these issues, with a great deal of experience in trying and winning cases with juries rather than settling. We have the necessary background with land use and zoning – all issues you face and need advice about daily. We have the firepower to be your attorney.”

    Hosafros followed up by saying: “I have a strange question for you! Council has actually been on good behavior so far tonight – have you ever previously watched us in action?” drawing hearty laughter from the approximately 75 in attendance. Jack said, “Have any of you been arrested at Council by a Federal Marshal, as I saw that,” with Hosafros responding: “Give us time!” Jack summarized that “John and I are not kids anymore; we know people have strong personalities but we understand small town government.”

    Hosafros made a motion to authorize the Interim Town Manager to negotiate a contract with the Peterson Law Firm that Passed 3 to 1, with Gore Against.

    The $25,000 Question

    Under 1st Public Hearing of the Town Purchasing Policy Ordinance, Council discussed numerous corrections, revisions and typographical errors that they want in place by the 2nd hearing. Primary concerns are the $25,000 threshold for Council funding approval, as well as presenting projects in fiscal totality rather than piecemeal so Council knows the entire amount. The Vice Mayor made a motion that was approved unanimously to move the amended Ordinance to a second hearing at the February 6 Council meeting.

    Council will hold a special Workshop on stormwater only on Friday, February 17, in Council chambers at 9 a.m. When Hosafros reminded Gore that she is a character in the theatrical play, “If These Walls Could Talk” for the Mound House on that date, she replied “I will be here in bloomers!”

    Jim Steele reported the Town to date has 12 Town Manager applicants, with the deadline on February 14; and the Town’s updated website will go live on February 1.

    Lehnert stated that Joe Orlandini, the developer of the contested structures under construction near Junkanoo On The Beach, filed a lawsuit against the Town over its coastal construction control line.

    As for the Department of Environmental Protection petition against the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area boardwalk, the Interim Town Attorney recommends the Town merge with the Audubon Society legal team: “They are in tune with our goals, don’t want boardwalk either, and this will save money.” Gore asked about the Town’s potential new firm, with the Interim Attorney replying, “you put them immediately behind the eight-ball in trial mode, as this will go to court in June; there is no way to settle this without giving the boardwalk people what they want.”

    With no further business, Council adorned at 10:29 p.m. – one minute short of 4 hours.


    Gary Mooney