Commotion by the Ocean

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The third of five public candidate forums was hosted Tuesday night at Town Hall by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. The Commotion is a long-standing tradition dating back thirty years designed to allow voters to get to know candidates and their views.

This Commotion included all seven Town Council candidates, a panel of three local business people, Lisbeth Freeman, Bill Fagan and Tim Smith, moderator Bob Layfield and timer John Gavin.

After a brief bio, each candidate was asked a question by a panel member from a previously shared list of questions.

Bill Fagan began by asking candidate Tracey Gore what she would do to give a voice to business owners who, while heavily invested in Fort Myers Beach, do not live here and feel they don’t have much of a voice.

Gore responded that lots of business owners do live here and do have a vote. She said she felt business owners were already being heard and added that she wasn’t sure what it was that they felt they didn’t get, noting they got the noise ordinance they wanted.

Tim Smith then asked Bruce Butcher to share his vision of the future of Fort Myers Beach.

“The vision is bright,” Butcher responded. “We have a lot to offer a lot of people. I see nothing but good things, but we have to take care of some things to make that happen.” He then listed Estero Blvd, less government, resource management and fiscal responsibility as concerns. When asked to name the one project he’d like to focus on beyond those and Butcher said clean water.

Beth Freeman asked Dennis Boback how he would balance businesses and residents in decision-making were he elected to council.

Boback acknowledged that the island needs a vibrant business community and he worked with many business owners when he was involved with the 4th of July parade many years ago. A vibrant business community, he said, brings tourists here and keeps our property values up. It’s good for everybody. When Freeman asked if he would consider businesses a part of his constituency, or would residents be his constituency, Boback acknowledged that there is a large community on the island who own property and don’t vote here, but are all part of the community.

Fagan then asked Dan Andre to explain his strategy on working with Tallahassee to get the 1% local sales tax option passed to support local infrastructure needs. Andre admitted it was not an easy task and he has been working on it for 2 years. After they rejected it as being a tax increase, he said, it’s now presented as a tax decrease for local residents. Andre said he doesn’t think that 6,000 beach residents should be paying for the infrastructure to support thousands of visitors and snowbirds.

Smith asked Ber Stevenson whether the large portion of permanent residents who are here for 6 months and pay taxes here should have a say in council and how he would reach out to them. Stevenson replied that homeowners have every reason to have a vote and should be included in town hall discussions. He would open up communication so that they could participate in meetings via phone and use social media to gather input from residents.

Suzanne Katt’s first question of the evening dealt with the homeless population on the island. Katt responded by saying that the problem would probably not see any progress until mental health care was addressed. Katt would like to see the business community and charity services work together to provide services to the homeless.

Jack Green was asked his opinion on the town’s use of and spending on consultants. Green admitted that it’s difficult to determine how much is spent on consultants as those fees are often built into contracts. The Town needs to be frugal, he said. As Public Works Director, he implemented a system where a panel of engineers and different consultants were interviewed, selected and then used as needed, saving time and money. He’d like to see that return.

During subsequent rounds, candidates weighed in on a variety of subjects.

Commotion by the Ocean
Candidates listen to a panel question.

Andre said that while he is not happy with the broad stroke of the Charter Amendment removing the 3-year debt limit, it’s necessary. He would have preferred a more specific item on the ballot. He would also encourage the town to work with other groups to give them a larger voice in the discussion on the Lake Okeechobee water problem.

Boback was asked about budget priorities and explained that he would want each town department head to prepare their own budget and then explain it in detail to Town Council. He did not feel this was micromanaging Town staff, but a part of the budget process. He also addressed spring break trash issues and said businesses need to clean their own property and the Town handle town owned areas. He’d like to see the LCSO issue citations for littering.

Butcher identified the Town’s three most important issues of the next 5 years: Estero Blvd, Downtown redevelopment and Stormwater. He would work with county to improve the Estero Blvd project and improve communication. He’s disappointed that it’s been 10 years since Hurricane Charley and so little has been done downtown. The stormwater project needs to be turned around and the town should look to other government entitles and use best practices to make it work for the beach. In answer to a question about the coastal protection system, he was in favor of it to protect Time Square.

He also addressed pedestrian and bicycle safety, explaining that his work on the Public Safety Committee and BikeWalkLee focuses on that. He mentioned a $150,000 study being done to look at street lighting that will help safety. He’d like to see designated bike lanes on all of Estero Blvd, but knows that right of way limitations won’t allow that.

When asked what areas of compromise were possible on the Grand Resorts project, Tracey Gore said that everything about it doesn’t follow the comp plan or codes, nor county, state and federal rules. She wants the town to set the pace on the project. When asked if there was any area of possible compromise, Gore said that without an application on paper, she doesn’t know what to compromise on as the plans include property that is owned by the town and county. Gore also said she would like the island to go back to the law enforcement model where 3 LCSO community officers were on island at all times.

Jack Green would like to see Grand Resorts submit an application consistent with the LDC and Comp Plan, adding that he hasn’t seen ‘a single thing that’s compliant in any way shape or form.’ He is also waiting to hear what the county plans to do with their property.

Asked why she was running for office, Suzanne Katt explained that she believes that every citizen has a responsibility to serve when they have the time and ability. She doesn’t really have any specific issues but is committed to listen and represent people. Katt also spoke in favor of using tax dollars to advertise the arts on Fort Myers Beach and bring people here, adding that our Town is about fun and the arts are part of that.

Ber Stevenson said he doesn’t have any problem with the town charter as written and seemed in favor of keeping term limits in place. When asked to explain an earlier comment that it’s time to stop the madness, he responded that the town is in a perfect storm of dirty water and bad weather and now that the state is concerned about clean water, its time to keep pressure on legislators. He wants the state to condemn sugar company land south of Lake O. He is opposed to Grand Resorts in all forms, doesn’t approve of the seawall, parking and density and wants the project stopped. He also urges alternative methods including trenchless construction for the Estero Blvd project.

The March 15th election will include two seats on the Fort Myers Beach Town Council and 21 Charter Amendment questions for all Town voters, plus the Presidential Preference Primary for those who are registered Republicans or Democrats. For more information on the election visit LeeElections.com.

Missy Layfield