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Watch video from a patrol car incident on Marco Island. This video has been edited for length and contains distressing material and strong language. Watch »
MARCO ISLAND — Much of the Island’s top news items of 2008 centered around power. There were changes in manpower among city leaders, including new City Council members, a new chief of police and a new city manager as well as new ideas for providing electrical power on Marco Island.
Another top news item included a question of abuse of power by Marco Island Police Officer Stephen Mariani, 50, who was charged with misdemeanor battery for punching and pepper spraying handcuffed prisoners in his police car following a drunken brawl in February.
Mariani was involved in a fight while trying to subdue three suspects outside Capt. Brien’s Off the Hook Comedy Club and then attempted to transport them to the Naples Jail Center. Soon after the ride began, Mariani stopped the car and struck two of the handcuffed prisoners as they sat in the back seat. He then pepper sprayed all three.
The incident was captured on Mariani’s in-car video (see video in sidebar). Mariani received a suspension and was assigned to desk duty for nearly six months by City Police Chief Thom Carr.
The incident was one of the first tests for the city’s second-ever police chief. Carr made oversight and policy changes as a result of the incident while Mariani underwent six months of anger management classes.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is in charge of police certification, placed Mariani on probation, but rejected proceedings that could have taken his badge.
City Councilmen Frank Recker and Rob Popoff stood behind Mariani in news coverage of the incident and legal proceedings.
Recker was among the council candidates whose elections brought an end to the city’s long-standing debate over the expansion of its central sewer system. The debate ended with the election of Recker and three other City Council members Jan. 29.
City Council elections delivered the decisive blow in a four-year drama over whether to convert the island’s remaining septic tanks to a central sewer system. It was the Island’s highest ever voter turnout with essentially a referendum on the seven-year $100-plus million program. Four pro-sewer candidates — Jerry Gibson, Recker, Bill Trotter and Wayne Waldack — trounced their four anti-sewer opponents — Joe Batte, Andrew Guidry, Roger Hall and Butch Neylon — by a combined 20 percent.
The victorious candidates took office in March and year three of the sewer program continued unabated.
One of the new City Council’s first decisions in April was to hire former Deltona City Manager Steve Thompson as its second permanent manager since incorporation 11 years ago.
Thompson survived his first year, even though councilmembers — notably Recker — sharply criticized the new manager in the fall. Councilmembers believed Thompson should have notified them of allegations of financial impropriety outlined by Marco’s former interim manager and parks and recreation director Dana Souza.
Council has ordered a forensic audit to investigate some of Souza’s concerns.
“Obviously, the City Council election, the people have spoken, and hiring of a new city manager, who is still in the process of acclimating himself and establishing control” are the top news items according to Councilman Chuck Kiester.
Kiester said that in addition to changes in personnel and leadership, a change in how City Council conducts business was a marked new action in 2008.
Evidence of the change is in the creation of citizen committees contributing on top city issues, Kiester said.
“Drawing on the expertise of many of our residents who, through experience and education, can provide the City Council with their thoughts and recommendations is an advantage many other local governments do not have,” he said.
While Kiester and former City Councilman John Arceri may have disagreed in the past on issues such as the sewer, they seemed to have a common positive outlook of Islanders and the future due to the changes in 2008.
“Action by a knowledgeable citizenry will be a major step forward in changing the perception by many that we are a dysfunctional community to a projected image of the true Marco Island — a paradise place to live with involved, concerned, tolerant and generous people,” Arceri said.
He also pointed to the elections as the top news story of 2008 in his opinion.
It was “the speaking out of the silent majority on how they wanted the city to be run in the future. After several years of disruption, personal attacks, lawsuits and recall actions, the overwhelming majority of our community, some 61 percent, rejected these tactics and elected to put Marco’s future in the hands of people with a positive, constructive agenda,” Arceri said.
City taxes topped Chairman Bill Trotter’s view of 2008 Island news.
“The most impactful was this is the first time the city has budgeted below the spending cap. The decision impacts the next fiscal year, the next one and all subsequent years. So to me that was a historical move,” Trotter said.
While the tax rate went up this year, spending did not increase from the year before at the same 3 percent plus cost of living rate, as set by the city charter’s spending cap, that occurred in every prior year.
Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association President Fay Biles said bridge discussions, solar power plans on Tract K and a plans to takeover Lee County Electric Cooperative, the city electric provider, were also among the top 2008 news items.
“Jolley Bridge replacement became a heated issue,” Biles said in her recap of MITA’s 2008 news.
Focus Groups were formed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization with MITA members Bill Duncan and Linda McCune volunteering to lead the groups.
“Overall consensus was there is no need to replace the Jolley Bridge at this time and absolutely no tolls ever,” Biles said.
Solar power and takeover of LCEC to have a city-run electric service were also hot 2008 topics. City Council created a committee to look into the viability of taking over LCEC, while LCEC maintains they have no desire to sell.
Gary Elliott and Keith Klipstein started talking about solar energy as a viable energy source, Biles also noted as a top 2008 accomplishment.
“With Florida’s new program of offering rebates of up to $100,000 and Federal Government allowing a 30 percent investment tax credit per installation along with tax credits makes solar energy worth it,” she said.
As of November, Elliott’s company had an agreement with the Collier County School District to construct solar generation on the vacant lot known as Tract K. The City of Marco Island has not yet officially agreed upon their plans for the land.
While Tropical Storm Fay hit Collier County lightly, an unnamed summer storm put Marco Island under water and without power causing more vehicle accidents and discomfort in July than Fay caused in August.
Popoff said the economy was the big deal difference in 2008.
“It’s absolutely no secret that 2008 has left many of us wondering what has happened economically and if there really is anything to be thankful for through the end of 2008 and into 2009. In this economy, the worse since the Great Depression, many cannot afford to make ends meet; some have lost, or are losing their homes and incomes all together,” he said.
Popoff said he looks back on 2008 with gratitude and forward to 2009 with hope.
“Perhaps one of life's many problems have gotten the better of you? Don’t let it! We have so much to be thankful for. The very fact that we debate at council meetings, have financial challenges, and are concerned for the future are clear indicators that we are alive, and in my mind, that beats the alternative,” Popoff said.
Liam Dillion contributed to this report.