Tempers Flare at Council Workshop

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    Monday afternoon’s Town Council workshop got quite heated after Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki took Councilwoman Tracey Gore to task for the ‘tone of voice’ she used when addressing Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane – who appeared at the meeting as an invited speaker on water quality, accompanied by Sawicki and City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans to speak about water quality. More controversy erupted later in the meeting when a disagreement between Vice-Mayor Summer Stockton and Council member Rexann Hosafros elicited a comment of ‘One at a time here, girls’ from Mayor Dennis Boback, prompting Councilwoman Anita Cereceda to abruptly leave the dais and not return for the 10 minutes remaining in the workshop.

    At the beginning of the workshop, George Repetti of Island’s End Condominiums thanked Cereceda for intervening on his behalf in getting an appeal filed for his association’s stormwater assessment fee, and a hearing scheduled for June 6th.
    Evans, began his and Mayor Ruane’s presentation by explaining how the Caloosahatchee River used to originate in Lake Flirt and only saw water from Lake Okeechobee when lake levels got so high they spilled into the marsh separating Lake Flirt from the big lake. The river was then dredged and straightened in the 1920’s by the Army Corps of Engineers in the interest of flood control – something that forever changed how our estuary receives fresh water and turned the river from a natural flowing waterbody to a managed canal – C-43. Evans then talked about the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – how, in our estuary, we get too much water from the lake in the wet season and too little in the dry season.

    “The “sweet spot’ is between 650-2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs),” he said. “And you have to remember that the estuary gets a lot of its freshwater from the Caloosahatchee Watershed (downriver from Franklin Locks, or S-79) – the peak flows at the end of January were 100% from the watershed, then the lake releases kicked in and added to the problem.”

    Evans said that the unusual wintertime rains were caused by ‘El Nino’, a weather pattern characterized by warmer, drier conditions in the northwest; and wetter, colder conditions in the southeast.

    “The Corps predicted the El Nino, but they hedged their bets on the water supply – they could have made smaller releases sooner and reduced the damage caused by massive releases all at once,” Evans said. “But the ultimate solution is to store and treat water before sending it south and down the rivers when it is needed.”

    James said that scientists have determined that a million acre-feet of storage is needed south of the lake, 400,000 to the west, 200,000 to the east and another million to the north.”

    “The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan or CERP, involves many projects that are funded half by the state and half by the federal government,” he said. “These projects are moving very slowly, and the eastern part of the state is seeing more projects than the west coast because they came to the table first. We think that one of the reasons for that is that the South Florida Water Management District and the Corps have their main offices on the east coast – so people there are more aware of what’s going on and have easier access to those agencies. In 2010 it was estimated that it will take more than 30 years to complete all the projects in CERP.”

    Vice-Mayor Summer Stockton asked if the two reservoirs on the rivers – C-44, which is being constructed on the St. Lucie and C-43 on the Caloosahatchee which is just beginning construction, have water treatment components.

    “The St. Lucie estuary doesn’t need freshwater during the dry season because they are much closer to Lake Okeechobee, though the C-44 Reservoir does have a water treatment component to treat water from the surrounding farmland,” Evans replied. “We also need this component, but to kill the C-43 Reservoir project even though it has yet to have (water treatment) would be short-sighted. We all need to be advocating for a water treatment component and push lawmakers to support it because that water needs to be treated. Even with BOMA (a property upriver from the C-43 Reservoir being constructed as a water treatment/testing site), it will still take a long time before the river clean enough to not cause algae blooms.”

    Councilwoman Tracey Gore asked Evans if he works for the ‘mayors’ alliance’, and Evans replied no, that he works for the City of Sanibel.

    “In 2013, our Council decided to allocate 100% of James’ time to water quality,” said Mayor Ruane. “In 2013, when the group of mayors began meeting we advocated for a water treatment component for C-43 and we still do. We also support buying land to send the water south.”

    Gore then interrupted Ruane to ask when a treatment facility would be included with the C-43 Reservoir, and Ruane urged her to ‘get behind that now’ as the reservoir will take 6-10 years to get built.

    Vice Mayor Stockton asked ‘does it really matter when politicians take money from big sugar’, and Ruane replied that he ‘doesn’t believe that everyone is on the take’ – especially at the local levels – as so much time is required for very little pay.

    “It’s really hard for someone to attack your integrity when you make $30,000,” he said.

    Cereceda said that – thanks to the efforts of everyone from the ‘protesters on the bridge’ to the mayor of Clewiston, work on local water issues has gone “further in the last six months than the last 20 years”.

    “First we need to pass another WRDA bill – meaning we’ll have two in three years,” Ruane said. “I believe the reason it took longer for the west coast than the east to get it together is because they only have one issue – high flows. Here, we have two – high and low. That’s why we think that by having all these mayors bond together we can ask for ‘more presents under the Christmas tree’.

    It was then that Sawicki spoke; first to clarify that there is no mayors “alliance,” as its being referred to. “No one signed any alliance. It’s just six mayors doing the best that we can to bring all the groups together to move this forward.” She then added that she didn’t appreciate the tone Gore used addressing Ruane, at first mistakenly referring to her as the Vice Mayor.

    “Your response and how you respond to people will get you very far in this future with how we get things done and you can either be an advocate and work with us and let us know where things aren’t working or come up with your own solution and do your own thing,” she said. “But I personally, speaking for myself, do not appreciate the tone that you use – it does nothing to grow or bring us together.”

    A visibly-shocked Gore replied, “Are you trying to be adversarial?” and Sawicki answered, ‘yes, like you’, after which Sawicki, Evans and Ruane departed Town Hall, as Stockton commented, “I’m not going to tolerate that”. Cereceda then called for a break and Mayor Dennis Boback thanked Ruane for his presentation.

    Coconut Dock

    Following the break, Coconut Drive resident Morey Nakaya joined other residents of his street to ask Council to replace the fishing dock that used to exist at the end of their street in the Town’s Right of Way (ROW).

    “We want the Town to know we don’t come in an adversarial mood, but rather to find a way to work with you to resolve this situation,” Nakaya quipped. “Our dock was destroyed in October of 2015 following an anonymous complaint. We can find no record of the Town Attorney being notified, nor can we find any repairs made to the dock since incorporation. The residents have been doing this over the years and we feel the town has vacated their easement for this area.”

    Nakaya made it clear that Coconut residents are not interesting in TDC funding for the dock, as they’d like to keep it within the community only.

    “We’d like to see construction begin no later than September 1,” he said. Another resident, Scott Hall, offered Council a simple design – completed by a licensed contractor – for an ADA compliant ‘low level’ fishing pier and dock, for a total of $21,000 including labor.

    “I ask that you look at this and consider it as we are all residents of Fort Myers Beach, and if there was a complaint there should have been a record of it and the residents notified so we could repair it,” he said.

    Cereceda asked the Town Attorney to look at the possibility of creating some kind of agreement with a particular street for a desired improvement, such as a dock.

    Mound House

    Museum Director Alison Giesen then gave a presentation on the special programs being offered at the Mound House, saying that the facility has exceeded revenue projections for the year and met all the goals outlined in the business plan. She concluded by reading comments made by visitors in regards to the experience they’d had on TripAdvisor.

    Last on the workshop agenda was discussion on what Council would like staff to do with two properties it owns that are being used by other entities – 2,620 square feet on Third Street and 4,913 square feet at the end of Virginia Avenue.

    “At the Third Street location, there is a building there belonging to the Lighthouse Resort, which they have asked to purchase,” Public Works Director Scott Baker said, and Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert said that the Lighthouse has a lease on the lot until 2026.

    Gore said that – should the Lighthouse want to purchase the land – they would then have to redo their Master Concept Plan as that piece was originally designated as parking.

    “The Lighthouse is planning on coming to talk to us about a Master Concept Plan amendment that involves this piece of property,” Lehnert said.

    “Do any either of these properties serve the public good – is there public parking or water access on any of them?” Cereceda asked. “Since the answer is yes, I think we need to hear from the public. If the public can use them, we should keep them, if not – put them back on the tax roll.”

    Hosafros suggested that – for the Virginia Street access – create a kayak launch with the Town possibly earning income from the installation of a couple of parking meters there.

    Stockton said she is adamantly opposed to parking on the narrow street, but liked the kayak idea.

    Gore said she doesn’t want to sell any land used by the public, but also was opposed to parking.

    Mayor Dennis Boback said he’d like to sell the land and use the money to buy another piece of land that the Town could improve for public access.

    Hosafros and Stockton then got into a rather heated discussion for several minutes as to whether the Town should ask staff to look into selling the Third Street property to the Lighthouse, prompting Boback to say, ‘One at a time, here, girls’. Cereceda then left the meeting and did not return.

    Council reached consensus that Anchor Inn – currently using the Virginia Avenue property as a storage area – be asked to remove their items from it. As far as the Third Street property, Council decided to wait until the Lighthouse comes forward with their MCP amendment request. Discussion was tabled for another property on Amberjack Drive until staff can determine whether it’s owned by the town or the county.

    After the workshop ended, Cereceda told us that she left Council chambers because she felt that Boback’s comment was way out of line.

    “The Council is supposed to operate in a collegial, respectful manner,” she said. “We are supposed to abide by the same code of civility we expect from others who come to our meetings, speak and make public comment. When Mayor Boback, sitting with four women, referred to us as ‘girls’, it was patronizing, disrespectful and ultimately incredibly sexist. I wasn’t going to tolerate it, and neither should anyone else.”
    Keri Hendry Weeg