On Wednesday evening, Doris Grant, Judy Haataja, Deborah Groll, Becca and Morey Nakaya and Karen Swanbeck held a candidate forum at Chapel By the Sea where the seven candidates vying for two seats on Town Council answered questions from about two-dozen residents.
The candidates first introduced themselves before taking questions.
Ber Stevenson said he lives by the sea and that he’s been an island resident for 15 years and a Florida resident since 1964.
Suzanne Katt said she bought her home on Madison Court in 2011 and that she’s a retired lawyer. “I practiced law in Indianapolis for 30 years, and I believe I have a skill set that will help our island get through the next 3 years,” she said.
Jack Green said he’s a retired Coast Guard commander who worked for the town from 2005-2010 – where he became very familiar with our codes. “I also spent some time as Town Manager,” he said. “I honestly think I have the experience that would be beneficial to our town, as well as leadership qualities. I’m going to be concerned about the residents of this island – how to make our life better.”
Tracey Gore said she grew up on the island and that she and her husband own a shrimping business. “I’ve been following Fort Myers Beach issues all my life,” she said. “I was here before incorporation and after. I have historical knowledge of the island, and my intent is to follow the Comprehensive Plan and town codes – if we do that, we can accomplish what we want.”
Bruce Butcher said he bought his house in Laguna Shores in 2004 and that he has 40 years of experience in finance. “I have a lot of experience in finance and leadership, and getting things done,” he said. “I’ve been involved with many activities in the town and the county as a result of the traffic. My work on the Public Safety Committee led to me serving on the steering committee for BikeWalkLee, the Local Planning Agency and the (Downtown) ad hoc committee.”
Dennis Boback said he and his wife have lived on the island for 20 years. “I’m running because I think this is the 2nd most important election in the history of this town,” he said. “We have a lot of things coming down the pike and I was on council where I’ve been down the road with developers. I want to help guide us into the future.”
Dan Andre said he’s currently on Council and experienced with the issues facing the town. “When I moved here 9 years ago, I got involved with the Marine Resources Task Force where I helped to get mandatory recycling passed – this has reduced solid waste by 40%. I’m also working with Senator Benacquisto to get a 1% sales tax to pay for storm water,” he said. “I’m a voice of reason – I think about the problems, I look at all sides, then I make a reasonable decision.”
Following introductions, a resident asked for candidates’ opinions on the proposed downtown redevelopment project and what they would do if the voters disagreed with their opinion.
Andre said that the biggest part Grand Resorts’ proposal is the Coastal Protection System. “If that system can be proven to take us from a V zone to an A zone, that’s where the conversation begins with me,” he said. “I’ve worked with FEMA for 2 years on how to keep Time Square at grade level and on the flood insurance increases. If this works think it will be good for residents and business owners.”
Boback said some development is needed so long as it adheres to the Town’s code. “It’s the voters who elect us, we need to listen to all their concerns and be open-minded,” he said. “We need some development but need to adhere to the code. Until it’s actually before us, however, it’s only a vision.”
Butcher agreed with Andre on the seawall and pointed out that (Grand Resorts developer) Tom Torgerson said if the majority of residents were against Grand Resorts, he wouldn’t build it. “No one is smarter than everyone in the room – you need to learn to listen to everyone,” he said. “However, some may have an opinion about something and not be totally informed, so you have to educate those people.”
Gore commented that the Town needs to follow the Comp Plan. “If a majority of islanders want to change all that and be a cheap Miami, we need to have a referendum and change it,” she said. “As far as the seawall, changing to an A zone only helps retail.”
Green said there’s a process that needs to be followed. “Everyone should be heard and we should all listen to understand,” he said. “I will listen to both sides of an argument and render a decision based on the needs of everyone.”
Katt said she has no strong feelings on Grand Resorts, but believes the opinions of the neighbors who will be most affected are the most important. “I understand that people can come in and ask for variances, but the affected neighbors are the most important people to consult,” she said.
Stevenson said that seawalls are death to the beach. “I believe that the majority should rule, and politicians should do what they say,” she said. “They are not good for turtles. Add beach renourishment to that and it will take years – if ever – for the turtles to get reoriented. And parking should be off-island, not on island.”
Another resident asked what the candidates would do to get the Town its fair share from the county.
Butcher said that, while he’s happy Estero Boulevard is getting fixed, that’s something that needed to be fixed 30 years ago. “But they haven’t put anything forward for street
lighting and landscaping,” he said. “We need to look off island to see what other communities are doing, and be persistent. We were promised a big share of the Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds but that was given to the baseball teams.”
Gore pointed out that the reason the Town incorporated was to ‘stop being a cash cow for the county’. “We still are,” she said. “I don’t know how to get them to give us money. We are a small minority of voters – I think we need to get together with other municipalities to get some of our taxes back. There are some smart people in this town who know how to do that – I think we should form some committees to figure out how.”
Green said that while he agrees the Town used to get treated like the ‘red-headed stepchild’ of the county, this is something that is beginning to change. “We have garnered more TDC funds, he said. “ What does the county own? The road. Right now, they’re spending money to fix it. What else do we want? We need to all agree on something and show up in force like San Carlos Island did with the old Compass Rose property.”
Katt asked if there is some way the Town could create it’s own bed tax. “I’ve thought about this, and maybe Dan is already doing it, but is there is a possibility we can get our own bed tax?” she said. “If it is, I’m a lawyer and I’m damn good at getting money! Let’s find our own little pot for our own improvements.”
Stevenson asked how much money the Town contributes to TDC funds. “Maybe we have to make more noise?” he suggested. “Money should be the factor – we just have to get together and ask for the money back. Let’s get our money from Lee County for storm water and everything else.”
Andre said he doesn’t think the county has any money to give us. “We’re not asking for enough from the TDC but that won’t solve it by itself,” he said. “We need to get the state legislature to approve us setting our own 1% sales tax – that would allow tourism to pay for infrastructure like storm water.”
Boback said he researched the sales tax issue when he was mayor but got nowhere. “We’re the #1 donor to TDC funds, we need to get aggressive and tell the county we want our share,” he said. “And the county should be paying for the sheriff’s officers to be on the road it owns, not us.”
Keri Hendry Weeg