POP debate: It’s all about the sewers

First debate stays civil, but audience opinion hinged on that single issue

Marco City Council candidates at Thursday night’s debate had plenty of topics to juggle, but time and time again it came back to one issue.

Here’s a hint: it rhymes with skewer.

Political action committee Preserve Our Paradise polled the audience to determine the winners of Thursday’s debate, and the results reflected a clear favoritism toward those candidates who oppose the island’s sewering project.

Many observers interviewed after the debate said they had made up their minds before the debate began, and it all revolved around that ever-present issue of sewer versus septic.

Some members of the audience could even be seen filling in their ballots, choosing their favorite four candidates, long before the debate was over. In an election where four seats are up for grabs and the field of eight is split evenly between pro- and anti-sewer candidates, the stakes are clear.

Rather than a moderator choosing topics of discussion, Thursday’s debate allowed candidates to pose questions of one another. Candidates often used this opportunity to clarify their own platform statements during the rebuttal.

Candidate Wayne Waldack posed a question to Butch Neylon at one point about his support of a petition to place a referendum on the ballot evaluating the city manager’s performance. In effect, the referendum would have made the city manager vulnerable to voter approval. That effort was actually spearheaded by Preserve Our Paradise, the political action committee sponsoring Thursday’s debate. POP Chair Russ Colombo moderated the debate.

Neylon said he supported the referendum when he signed the petition, and he supports the spirit of it still. He called the city attorney’s denial of the petition — on grounds of legally insufficient language — “dead wrong.”

Waldack came back with his own proposal to create a citizens’ advisory board to analyze the city manager’s performance. However, he said, “I do not think the city manager should be subject to a vote because it’s an administrative position.”

That elicited a wave of grumbles throughout much of the 250-person audience.

No other city government in Florida consists of an elected council and an elected city manager. Colombo has argued in the past that precedent is irrelevant, and Marco Island warrants a unique form of government.

Waldack was also criticized by his opponents, who questioned his ability to act with integrity. They brought up his use of the acronym CAVE — citizens against virtually everything. Waldack has used that term in occasional letters to the editor, in which he makes reference to efforts by some residents to bring suit against the city or oppose council actions on the sewer program.

Roger Hall called upon Waldack to answer to his “negative comments” and his rejection of the POP petition when it came before City Council. In a move that would be routine throughout the night, Hall ran over his allotted time to ask his question, instead going on a diatribe against Waldack’s own comments.

He called Waldack’s actions “a failure to recognize our rights for representative government.”

Waldack was one of the less polished of the candidates, and his responses were often not as graceful as those of his opponents.

Votes at the end of the night reflected a disfavor with Waldack, who came in seventh in the straw poll, which asked audience members to vote for four winners. The only candidate behind him was Bill Trotter, the incumbent candidate who was not present at Thursday’s debate, citing a prior commitment.

The night’s straw poll revealed that the make-up of the audience was heavily in favor of Neylon and his fellow anti-sewer candidates, Hall, Joe Batte and Andrew Guidry.

The four managed to grab at least 70 percent of the audience’s favor, with a full 83 percent marking Batte as their favorite.

Batte has the most unassuming polish of those four candidates. He was straightforward and to the point with most of his questions, and often delivered crowd-pleasing responses. However, on his opponents’ specific questions regarding millage rates or electric surcharges, Batte often stepped around the actual question, appearing to answer his own question instead.

Frank Recker asked Batte to comment on the purpose of a surcharge added to electric rates for island residents in 2005. Batte instead said he opposed surcharges of any kind, and criticized actions that are pricing fixed income residents off the island. That franchise fee was added to electric bills to pay for the burial of overhead electric lines, though Recker alleged those funds have been mismanaged.

When candidate Jerry Gibson asked Batte about the council’s responsibility or irresponsibility in setting property taxes over the last 10 years, Batte chose instead to answer to the council’s responsibility in crafting a budget.

“I think this council has been totally irresponsible in regards to the budget they have put up,” he said. “Reserves are at a critical place. They’ve drained our city’s budget on an unnecessary utility program that nobody wanted, nobody needed and it is bad science. I’m more concerned about finding out where all of our money’s gone.”

It was another example of how the debate was constantly mired in the Septic Tank Replacement Program. Gibson rebutted that the millage rate has nothing to do with the STRP, but the audience clearly did not take to his argument that the reduction in property taxes is something to be proud of.

Gibson’s question was a clear example of the debate’s advantage (or flaw, depending on the observer). Because candidates controlled the questions, they also had power over the ability to trap one another, to give like-minded candidates an easy serve or to set up a rebuttal that allowed the type of response they wanted to give all along.

Frank Recker, easily the most polished of all of the candidates, did just that on more than one occasion. The dentist-turned-lawyer used it as an opportunity to ask Guidry the exact dollar amount subject to the spending cap in the city’s 2008 budget, and what he would trim from the budget if need be.

Guidry, the anti-sewer candidate to enter the race most recently, said if he wanted to get the number, he could pull out the copy of the budget he brought with him. Instead, he chose to speak to the needless spending on the city’s sewer program, which is not funded through the regular city budget, but through special assessments.

Recker was sharp in his rebuttal, saying that anyone elected to the council “should have some of idea of what’s in the current budget.”

Butch Neylon later turned the tables on Recker, asking him about numbers in the much contested issue of “stranded” costs related to canceling the sewer program.

“The number of people committed (to sewers) is a rough number, still in the 80 percent range,” Neylon said. “Keep in mind that 70 percent of people were connected at the outset.”

Neylon said the seemingly small scale of the project was a charade, and that residents are suffering now for the miscommunication.

His response gathered thunderous applause, but the volley points to an issue that has been a fixture of the campaign so far, and will likely not go away. The candidates were stratified on the costs of canceling the island-wide sewer project, which has a total tab of more than $100 million. With all of the back and forth on that point Thursday night, it is a surprise no one threw out the phrase “fuzzy math,” harkening back to George W. Bush’s responses to Al Gore when, during the 2000 election, Gore charged that Bush’s tax cuts would favor the wealthiest one percent of the population.

Candidates who favor finishing the sewer project quoted numbers from a city-generated fact sheet that charges that the sewer project would leave $35 million “stranded” if cancelled now. That means specific homeowners would no longer be committed to those costs, and the remainder would have to be distributed among the whole utility rate base.

As the pro-sewer candidates would put it, that would equal a 24 percent increase in utility costs across the island.

“Pure spin,” Neylon called those numbers.

He said that many of the items making up that $35 million bottom line are either already paid for or have not even been installed yet, allowing the city to recoup many of the costs it alleges will be stranded. He did not say just how much balance would be left to pay on the program if the project is cancelled, but he also did not say that number would be zero.

This is an area where Neylon clearly feels most at home. He has long been vocal in his dissent for city arguments surrounding the sewer project, and in November he hosted a lecture titled “Marco Island’s Dirty Little Secret,” an information session meant to provide residents with background on the island’s utilities — all information he alleged the city was not sharing with its residents.

On a whole though, the pot shots were relatively few. Recker questioned Neylon and Hall on how recently they registered as voters on Marco (2006 and 2005, respectively) and Batte made a digging comment about how many (read: how few) council meetings Recker had been to in recent years.

“I’ve certainly been at many,” Batte said.

Colombo said at the end of the night that he was “pleased as punch” at the turnout and the results of the debate. While he said the information gathered through the debate was invaluable, he was especially pleased with the civility of the candidates to one another.

“I’m proud of the fact that courtesy was the number one factor,” Colombo said.

But then again, Jan. 29 is still a long ways off, and there’s still plenty of time for things to get nasty.

The next debate, sponsored by Celebrate Marco, is scheduled for Nov. 11 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the community room at the Marco Island Police building. The Marco Island Taxpayers Association forum will take place Nov. 13 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mackle Park.

Straw poll results (based on ballots allowing voters to check four names):

83% Joe Batte

82% Roger Hall

80.7% Butch Neylon

70.9% Andrew Guidry

21.7% Frank Recker

18% Jerry Gibson

13.9% Wayne Waldack

13.1% Bill Trotter*

* Trotter was not present at Thursday’s debate. He declined the invitation, citing a prior commitment.

© 2007 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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