Residents hankering for closer contact with their City Council candidates got their fix Thursday night, with the annual Marco Island Taxpayers Association forum.
Candidates circulated around the Mackle Park meeting room, chatting intimately with residents in a setting that deviates from the standard debate.
Tuesday night presented residents with an opportunity to pose questions directly to candidates — questions that may not have come up for discussion yet at the first two debates of the season. Incumbent candidate Bill Trotter was the only one not present out of the eight, having cited pre-existing plans.
Each of the seven present candidates cycled among groups of about a dozen people, fielding questions on everything from the length of council terms to the city’s troubled anchoring ordinance to that most ubiquitous of topics: the Septic Tank Replacement Program.
But one of the greatest benefits of Thursday’s forum was it gave residents a chance to steer topics toward the issues that matter to them, which occasionally meant taking a break from the discussion of sewers that has dominated the first two debates.
One item that several of the candidates were queried about is the city’s waterways ordinance, a hot topic given the city’s recent appeal of a ruling that declared the ordinance unconstitutional and dismissed the case against the boater who intentionally violated it.
Roger Hall, a boater himself, said he has not seen the problems in the community to justify the ordinance.
"We don’t have to take this to the United States Supreme Court," he said. "If it fails appeal, it’ll be dead as far as I’m concerned."
Joe Batte conceded that some residents felt that without the ordinance, their quality of life was being jeopardized.
"I’m concerned about quality of life," he said. "At the same time, this is a boating community. My experience with boaters is they are really, really diligent people. What bothers me most about it is we’ve taken such a black eye all across the country."
Andrew Guidry said much of the concern around errant boaters could be resolved by enforcing the rules in place before the ordinance was passed. However, he said, if he finds that the public is overwhelmingly in support of it, he would work to uphold it.
Another favored topic among one group was the current length of council terms, and whether it should be reduced within the city charter.
"The charter is set up in such a way that they have four-year terms because it’s a reasonable time to get into office and become fluent with the workings of the city," Guidry said. "They’d probably be at a disadvantage with two years because they’d probably lose some skill level."
However, he added, it is an issue subject to city charter, and would ultimately need to go before the people.
Hall was unequivocal in the need to bring the issue before voters. He said that he, as a councilor, would create a charter review committee to review items such as term lengths. Changing terms to two years from four years would be one item up for strong consideration in that review, he said.
Quizzes on charter issues continued throughout the night, with some candidates rendering very candid responses that did not necessarily find favor with the residents who posed the questions.
When asked about the practice of basing the city’s spending cap on a previous year’s budget rather than a previous year’s expenditures, Jerry Gibson minced no words.
"The reason that was done was because we had some things that were budgeted for year ‘05 that weren’t going to be done until year ‘06," he said. "It doesn’t take away from the fact that the budget needed to be done the following year. That’s why they began that process... I happen to agree with that interpretation of the language."
Gibson was aware he had not curried favor among the whole group with his response, something he referenced later when asked how to unify a, sometimes bitterly, divided island.
"This island has always been divided," he said. "I’ve always loved that about Marco. It’s great to have diversity and arguments."
Communication, he said, would be the key to improving relations between some of the opposing groups on the island.
Fellow candidate Wayne Waldack was pressed on his own communications through letters to the editor, in which he criticized the actions of residents who he said were "anti-city," and took actions against the current council that harm the general public.
"My philosophy has always been to listen to the people," he said. "People are important to me. It doesn’t make any difference what their thoughts are."
At the end of the night, Waldack apologized before the group for his comments that may have targeted particular people. However, he added, he still holds to the heart of his message about the detrimental effects of some of the nay saying he sees on the island.
Candidate Frank Recker grabbed on to the issue of communication, capitalizing on the disconnect many residents have expressed between themselves and their city council.
"I can work with anyone," he said. "Unless it’s just someone who whines and won’t listen. The council now, you can’t have a dialogue. If you came up to talk to me, I would be picking your brain. Where else am I going to get the information?"
He added that there should be advisory boards "covering every aspect of government" and a premium placed on holding public forums.