Curse that Sunshine!

90

The Island Sand Paper attends just about every Town Council, Fire Board, Local Planning Agency and Library Board meeting. It’s usually not very exciting stuff and often, other than council meetings, we are the only members of the public present.

That makes our job more important than ever. That job is to relate to our readers what their elected and appointed officials are doing – how they are conducting the public’s business. While minutes are taken, they are often a bare bones outline of the meeting. If you want to really know what happens at these meetings, you need to be there. And so we are.

We attend these meetings though our presence is not universally welcomed. For instance at this month’s Fire Board meetings…

On October 3rd, the Fire Board held a meeting and we published an account of what was discussed and decided at that meeting. Among other things, they set their 2018 meeting dates, decided to purchase two exhaust systems and concluded that they didn’t want the Citizen Emergency Response Team to be under the FMB Fire umbrella any longer. The consensus was that the FMB CERT members should be transitioned to the County CERT group.

We published the story online the next day and in that Friday’s Sand Paper. CERT members, on reading it, were upset to learn that they were being put out to pasture without notice. They also contested some of the statements made at the Oct. 3rd meeting about their readiness and availability during and after Hurricane Irma.

FMB CERT was formed after Hurricane Charley. For 12 years they have worked to be ready to provide assistance during and after a hurricane. Just last year FMB CERT sent teams to other communities to assist after Hurricane Hermine and Hurricane Matthew. When Hurricane Irma approached us, it appears that no effort was made to involve CERT in preparation, shelter management or post-hurricane assessment, all things they have been trained in. Then at the October 3rd meeting, the board was told that CERT members did not help with hurricane response. There’s a disconnect here that is grossly unfair to the volunteers of CERT.

Not only was the CERT leader not contacted pre-Irma, it seems no one bothered to have any preliminary discussion with him prior to the October 3rd meeting. He might have given CERT members a heads up that the topic would be discussed. It wasn’t on the agenda.

When CERT members spoke to the board at their October 20th meeting, some members of the board placed the blame for their poor treatment of CERT on us, the newspaper who carried the story. It was our fault that CERT members were blindsided. How dare we share that public information before they could get their act together and write a letter to the volunteers?

If we were to hazard a guess, district staff may have grown weary of trying to figure out how to utilize CERT in the district. They didn’t fit neatly into any clear role. It looks like someone wanted CERT gone. A call to the district’s discount attorney, for all of 2 years now, and they had their excuse: CERT members would have to be covered for workmen’s comp and liability insurance.

There seems to have been zero effort made to research how to keep CERT. Other Lee County fire districts have CERT teams. Did anyone call them to ask CERT insurance questions? Did anyone speak to other fire districts’ attorneys? Why was this decision not tabled until more information could be obtained and CERT members notified? Why would district staff, which brought the subject up, not have had a discussion with CERT prior to the meeting where CERT was canned?

Our district can’t seem to buy a paperclip without our Fire Board chair asking how other districts buy supplies, yet when it came to CERT, checking with other districts was no longer a priority. The board’s attorney, located north of Tampa without significant contacts with other local fire districts, pronounced the death sentence for FMB CERT.

This is a total cluster that has alienated some of the most devoted volunteers on this Island. On the other hand, it was a very effective way to get rid of those pesky CERT volunteers. We doubt any of them want anything to do with the FMB fire district at this point. So, congratulations, they’re gone.

We agree with the board that it would have been so much easier for board members if they could have disbanded CERT at a meeting attended by no members of the public and then quietly told them it was a done deal in a polite letter. But that darn newspaper!

Curse that Sunshine Law!

Yes, Fire Commissioners, Town Council members and Library Board members… every discussion you have regarding district taxpayer money and the business of the public is PUBLIC, meaning not just the newspaper, but anyone could be in that room. When a newspaper reporter is in that room, we are there representing the public and doing our job, which is reporting your actions to them. We aren’t there to make you look good.

If you have a problem with that or the Florida Sunshine Law (PUBLIC bodies must do the PUBLIC’S business in PUBLIC) it’s time you stepped down from your position because you have forgotten what your job is about — representing the public.

 

Missy Layfield