Divided Council Approves New Year’s Eve Fireworks

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    Split Decisions & Knockouts

    The rock band Genesis released its seminal album, “And Then There Were Three,” to recognize that its former 5-person group only had three remaining members. Fort Myers Beach Town Council underwent a similar experience during its November 21 evening session, with only three members left in attendance by the end of its contentious meeting marked by a series of split votes.

    The final agenda item was whether the Town would provide funds for security, staff, and fire services for the New Year’s Eve and 4th of July festivities including fireworks paid for with private money. Just prior to this, Vice Mayor Summer Stockton, in her last meeting before her previously-announced November 30 resignation for personal reasons, cut her career short by abruptly exiting. As several Council members expressed that she should come back to see them, Stockton commented that “I think it will be a while!”

    A short time later, after Council agreed to security and staffing funds for the New Year’s Eve event by a 3 to 1 vote, with council member Tracey Gore against, a frustrated council member Anita Cereceda announced to Mayor Dennis Boback she was exiting the session, mumbling under her breath as she walked out, leaving Boback, Gore, and council member Rexann Hosafros to complete the agenda.

    While fireworks over fireworks was near the session’s end, disagreements occurred early and often. It began when Gore pulled three items from the Consent Agenda.

    The first was to approve the Selection Advisory Committee (SAC) recommendation in response to a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for ongoing professional services for environmental assessments and marine engineering. The Town received ten bids and SAC recommended to have all ten firms available if needed to the Town.

    Gore cannot support this as the Town did not accurately follow its process, saying that “we are less than a 7-mile island; we do not need ten engineers.” Town counsel Dawn Lehnert stated that it followed the Florida statute, and that it is fine to have ten firms on standby as each has a slightly different expertise. Gore, upset by Lehnert’s body language, chastised her by saying that “you don’t have to shake your head when I talk.” Lehnert apologized, saying she was listening to the council member.

    Gore reiterated that the Town has a policy for these companies to be on its vender list. Lehnert said it is outdated, leading Gore to question if staff changed Town policy without Council authorization: “We need to do the best we can for the Town, and this is not the best.” Gore asked Interim Town Manager James Steele his feelings and recommendation; he replied he trusts the opinions of staff and the Town counsel. The motion failed by a 3 to 2 vote, with Boback, Gore, and Stockton against.

    The next item was to approve the SAC recommendation for geographical information system consulting & support services with GeoBits International. Gore has the same issues with this as she did the previous matter, leading Council to vote it down 3 to 2, with Boback, Gore, and Stockton against.

    A third SAC recommendation followed, to have the Town Manager request from the only two bidders their best and final offer, and negotiate a contract. In doing this, the Interim Town Manager selected Matanzas Harbor Mooring Field. Gore argued this is the same failed process. Steele said he conducted this fairly based on his Town Council instructions, and Town counsel agreed. The motion passed 4 to 1, with Gore against.

    Following a brief break, Council heard the third reading of the Parking Compliance Ordinance and subscription parking. The Town counsel stated there was substantial conversation at the last Council workshop to clean up the ordinance. Gore replied that she still has significant issues with it, noting she brought forward at the last work session 14 items of which Council agreed with three. Town Council adopted the Parking Compliance Ordinance by a 3 to 2 vote, with Gore and Stockton against.

    Under the Administrative Agenda, Council found rare unanimous agreement in the Special Events Permit for the First Baptist Church reoccurring Farmer’s Market.

    The next item was the Transportation of Right of Way Amendment to license parking spaces for less than 12 months. Gore cannot support it. The Mayor asked its purpose and Lehnert said to clarify the Administrative Code to allow agreements for less than 12 months. Gore asked if that meant the Red Coconut RV Park needed to come before Council again for its recent parking spots and Lehnert said they will to obtain a new agreement. Council passed the Transportation of Right of Way Amendment by a 3 to 2 vote, with Gore and Stockton against.

    Under the Fee Schedule Amendment accompanying the previous issue, the Interim Town Manager stated that a revised fee schedule came into effect on October 1, with Cereceda feeling the newer rates remain fair. Council passed the Fee Schedule Amendment by a 4 to 1 vote, with Gore against.

    At this point, Stockton left the meeting and Council began the fireworks discussion.

    Cereceda provided a detailed financial breakdown and felt the Town could provide public safety, fire, and Lee County Sheriff’s Office protection for under $20,000 per night. The volunteers raised in excess of $32,000 to pay for the fireworks themselves, and a woman recently made an anonymous $5,000 donation to help fund the event.

    She believes the Town has the money, as it has $46,000 in Special Events, $25,000 for Police & Fire, and $20,000 in Town Council discretionary spending. Cereceda made the point that Council pledged to the volunteer group that if it raised $20,000 or more, Council would match $20,000 for security funding. Gore said that promise was for The 4th of July 2016 but not New Year’s Eve. Cereceda said it is time to remove the uncertainties of these events every year by making them a permanent budget item.

    Hosafros reminded Council that it made significant progress on this issue during the last several years as it has a strong funding partner. Now the Town should do what government does – security and safety – saying “we gave our word,” to which Gore responded that “I didn’t” and the Mayor offering that he “doesn’t know if we gave our word or not.”

    Cereceda said residents and tourists contributed to the $32,000, and not just businesses, showing widespread support. The Mayor asked the Interim Town Manager why there was $25,000 in the Police and Fire budget, and Steele responded it was for these evenings. The Mayor stated the $20,000 in Council discretionary funds is for the Town Manager search.

    Mayor Boback is comfortable funding the $20,000 for New Year’s Eve 2016, saying that “I don’t want to throw a wrench into this New Year’s Eve and have nothing against what the citizens put on out on the beach – believe me,” but the Town and volunteers need to examine sponsorships for future programs.

    Town Council passed the motion to allocate no more than $20,000 for police, fire, and related services for New Year’s Eve 2016 by a 3 to 1 vote, with Gore against. Soon thereafter, Cereceda exited the meeting.

    Town Council meets again on Monday, December 5, with a workshop at 10 a.m. and its regular session at 2 p.m. Council expects to name its new member to replace Vice Mayor Stockton at that time, with the Town accepting applications though Monday, November 28, at Noon.

     
    Gary Mooney