Five For Fighting
The Town Council for Fort Myers Beach began its February 6 Meeting with a Kumbaya Moment for its Outstanding Citizen Award winner, then disintegrated over the next five hours into fiery infighting, as the five fatigued members set a new record meeting time of 4 hours and 58 minutes.
Under Public Comment, Beverly Milligan of the Estero Island Taxpayers Association set the stage for the later conflicts by criticizing Town Council member representative Tracey Gore’s participation at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to shelve the long-planned Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Fort Myers Beach traffic study prior to public comment, saying to Council that “none of you voted to halt the million-dollar study; so we wasted $1 million in tax money and the public never got our say. Where is the democratic process?”
From this point, the MPO topic simmered until Council Member Items near the end of the marathon session. Council member Anita Cereceda vented over the MPO decision, saying “I was shocked our District Commissioner and Fort Myers Beach representative derailed this,” referring to District 3 Commissioner Larry Kiker and Gore respectively.
Gore reacted quick and with anger, but Cereceda countering with: “Excuse me but this is my time. We had an FDOT presentation with the next phase to be public input and at this point that will not happen. I would never dream to represent an opinion of this board unless I knew that opinion. Did I like everything in the plan? No, but parts of it were ways to reduce traffic and create safety elements that deserve the light of day. Let’s readdress this at next MPO meeting because this is critical.”
Gore said, “This was the consensus from the entire MPO Board. This is not stopping the project – we will have additional public input before we spend more taxpayer dollars in the wrong direction. The study will still happen but the MPO postponed it so Fort Myers Beach and San Carlos Island can get-together to best determine what is right for them.” Cereceda said that “I appreciate your concern for San Carlos Island but your job is to represent Fort Myers Beach.”
Group Out There ‘Hates Me’
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros added, “at a bare minimum Tracey needs to go back to the MPO and say that her opinion is not the opinion of this Council – I don’t understand why you voted for that when we did not!” Cereceda agreed, saying “you are not there as Tracey Gore but in our stead.” Gore defended herself, replying that “I spend a lot of time on the MPO and work really hard on it. We had a good discussion and no one is stopping the study – there is a group out there that just hates me, and what you are saying is not accurate. People call me and say thank you and stop wasting taxpayer dollars until we know where we are going. When something comes up in a meeting, I cannot say, ‘Wait a minute so I can consult the Council to get its opinion.’”
At this point, the frustrations got to Mayor Dennis Boback, who shouted, “Enough is enough! If this continues, I will adjourn this meeting and call it a day,” restoring order for the next few moments.
Council member Joanne Shamp inquired about having a traffic officer at Old San Carlos Boulevard to ensure safe pedestrian crossings while not delaying traffic up the Matanzas Pass Bridge, with Cereceda saying, “This would have been another element to FDOT plan,” and Gore screaming in frustration, “Which is still being looked at!” The Mayor said that “I understand both sides: it is exceptionally hard for you to represent things we did not vote on before the MPO meeting.”
Gore added that “I walked out of that meeting and thought it was really productive and the MPO Board rocks! I talk to the public and did not have any negative comments until today. I take the MPO job very seriously as I represent not only Fort Myers Beach but all of Lee County – there is a lot more involved that just Fort Myers Beach, so my charge is to make votes for the entire county. Nothing I do is malicious and everything I do is for the best of this community. I am shocked!”
Cereceda reiterated, “We do not serve on these boards to express our own personal opinion but that of the Town,” with the Mayor trying to cut this off with “Let’s not beat a dead horse!” Gore, however, interjected that “I am tired of these constraints – I look forward to the next election and that is all I have to say!”
“I Am So Blessed”
Hours earlier, a rested and fresh Council came together as one to honor Gretchen Johnson with the Town of Fort Myers Beach Outstanding Citizen Award. “Thank you all so much,” said the 90-year-old and still-spunky Gretchen. “I am so blessed to have a family who appreciates me, as well as all my friends, and the Fort Myers Beach Art Association. I so appreciate this and thank you all!”
Council unanimously approved a 2-year agreement with The Peterson Law Group to become the new Town Attorneys as of February 21, 2017, when they will transition from Interim Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert. The Peterson Law Group will receive an annual fee of $88,800 or $7,300 per month, plus an additional $150-per-hour for any litigation cases, with its initial review after 90 days.
After determining its fiscal year policy, clarifying construction bond fees, providing bid points to assist beach vendors to obtain Town contracts, setting a 30-day timeframe to submit bids, and correcting typographical errors, Council unanimously approved the 2nd reading of the Town Purchasing Policy.
Council’s next decision was baffling, and perhaps their first sign of fatigue. Rebecca Duffey requested Council grant her a variance to allow a cantilevered second floor balcony that she already constructed during Summer 2016. It seemed as if the Mayor strongly indicated he could not make his decision until he received corresponding documentation from Ms. Duffey’s Condominium Association, saying “this to me sounds like you are asking for forgiveness rather than permission, and this goes on around this town all the time – please bless us and forgive us – so I will have a hard time going along with this.”
Cereceda made a motion to continue the matter to the February 21 Council meeting, though the Vice Mayor was against this, asking “if this is worth our time to continue it. They do not have the appropriate documents and I do not see any special circumstances, so let’s vote on this now and vote it down.” Cereceda, Gore and Shamp voted for the continuance, with Hosafros and stunningly Mayor Boback voting against what seemed his very request not to immediately act, eliciting puzzling looks from his Council colleagues, who initially seemed ready to act, with waves of audience laughter.
Confusion continued during the 1st public reading for the rezoning request for Mom’s Restaurant at 2450 Estero Boulevard, with three of the four people speaking in support admitting up-front they had no idea what they were testifying about except that Mom’s serves up some tasty cinnamon buns! Council unanimously forwarded this to a second public reading on February 21.
Under the agenda item, Candidate Qualification Discussion, Lorrie Wolf did not qualify for the March 7, 2017 Town Council Election due to an unsigned oath form; Mayor Boback stressed while Council will hear her, it has no power to correct the oversight. Wolf said “I made a mistake, my notary made a mistake, and the Town Clerk made a mistake, but I am the only one who suffers and this does not seem fair and just on a small island where we all know and care about each other and this seems harsh. I completed my paperwork deliberately two days prior to the deadline for the review, in case I did make a mistake, and now I have no recourse and I sadly accept that. I ask that you make the qualifying process more linear and simpler so this does not happen again.”
Under Agenda Management, Gore reported she has an MPO meeting on Friday morning, February 17, at the same time as the special Council Stormwater Workshop, and asked to reschedule it for that afternoon. The Stormwater Workshop will now be Friday, February 17, in Council chambers at 1 p.m.
Interim Town Manager Jim Steele stated the Town has 33 applicants for the Fulltime Town Manager position, with 9 candidates from Florida, and the rest from roughly 20 other states, “so people from all other the country want to come here.” The Town will accept applications through Tuesday, February 14.
Council finally adjourned at 6:58 p.m., shattering its previous record for meeting length by a staggering 41 minutes, concluding angry and frustrated, after four hours and 58 minutes.