MARCO ISLAND — Since being elected to office almost four years ago I have learned a lot including restraint, humility and the power of misinformation in the hands of the discontent. Approximately three years ago, in the heat of the STRP debate, I had the opportunity to meet with Governor Charlie Crist who informed me that local politics are considered the most difficult, literally being the “front line” of political life. He encouraged me to pay attention to the issues at hand, to ignore the negative and to highlight the positive. With everything that was going on in Marco politics at the time, he predicted my skin would get thicker and my hair would be as gray as his before my term was up! My hair is certainly lighter in spots while my skin went from the thickness of cellophane to rhinoceros hide.
Local politics is very interesting on Marco Island where we have a true silent majority. The silent majority are the people we see out and about; they give us a pat on the back and often say things like, “I don’t know how you do it but thank you for your service and keep up the good work.” This is what keeps us going; knowing that there are people on this Island who trust us and appreciate the sacrifices made to serve our community. A recent example of this was at the September 8, 2009 council meeting, where there were approximately 100 citizens to support continued entertainment at the Esplanade. Immediately after the discussion and subsequent vote on the issue they got up and left. The irony in this is that the next item on the agenda was setting the millage rate for 2010. I was amazed that almost all left the council chambers before the bigger agenda item was discussed. I expressed my feelings with a colleague on break and the answer was simple, “Rob, they trust the decision that council will make.” That spoke volumes! There are those in the community that question and challenge every decision council makes but our service as councilors is appreciated by the silent majority…they trust us.
Unfounded rumors run rampant about councilor’s personal life. The vile and absurd accusations from a few have made this job “interesting” to say the least. I guess that is the goal of some to spread misinformation and lies to discredit those they disagree with or dislike. One such individual, who has since left Marco Island for good, told me this was being done in a calculated effort (or more correctly a threat) to control my votes, saying, “Remember Popoff, if we tell a lie enough times pretty soon people start to believe it to be the truth.” One close friend recommended I not write a guest commentary suggesting that I will just being adding, “More cannon fodder for my critics.” This is the mentality and ugly side of Marco Island politics for a very a few. It was, and is, a war to some and their battleground is the willing press, the blogs, the rumor mill and the council chambers. But where does it end? I suspect that my fellow councilors would all say their votes are based on what they feel is best for Marco. One thing is for sure, staff and council are always targets and in the line of fire. One issue can make you popular and the next can make you a victim of a volley of inappropriate and erroneous emails and blogs (like the ones you will likely read online in response to this commentary). It seems like accepted political discussion these days is rooted in ranting, wild accusations, snide comments and unsubstantiated positions. I wonder what it would take to shift the discussion to principles of civil discourse and logic-mediated debate.
Being elected and serving as a Marco Island City Councilor is truly an honor, but let’s put it all into perspective. Councilor’s families are subjected to a barrage of questions, insinuations and sometimes even insults. In reality, there is a far greater cost associated with being a councilor; it has cost current and prior councilors business, friends and even health. It takes a tremendous amount of time to study each issue, research and get the facts. Just reading something on a yellow sheet or in the newspaper doesn’t make one an expert. Decisions need to be made based on all of the facts, not just some of the facts and not just emotion. Making casual sport out of attacking council members seems acceptable in some circles; my question is “why do those that complain the most do the least?” All that being said, even in this island’s darkest hour this has been a rewarding and educational experience.
These are very difficult economic times and many people nationwide are struggling financially. In these complex times, our council has to balance trying to keep the millage rate as low as possible, keeping expenditures at an all-time low, while trying to maintain a level of city services our residents need and expect. This is a difficult balancing act which tries to take into consideration all of the various community interests including lowering the millage rate and its long term effects on creating a revenue gap with respect to the cap. While the council essentially disagreed on the millage rate it was determined, like most things, by compromise. The voting for the millage is set up so that a super majority vote means that five of the seven must agree or the motion fails. I don’t think anyone is happy about the recent millage rate of 1.65; some wanted it lower and some wanted it higher, but we did get to a final decision. I trust that citizens understand that Marco Island is still less expensive compared to other municipalities. In addition, the Marco Island tax bill is only 12% of the total tax bill as the remaining 88% are county taxes.
Over the last year I feel that the council meetings have become a friendlier place. There seems to me to be a new appreciation for honor, dignity, respect and decorum and I am very appreciative of this positive change. We are all weathering this financial storm and can accomplish great things when we work cooperatively. I like to keep in mind that while the future is uncertain, we will all survive; there hasn’t been a drought that didn't end, a storm that didn't clear, lightning that didn't retreat, an earthquake that didn't still and a flood that didn't recede nor has there ever been a plague that didn’t end with the strong and the healthy prevailing. We will persevere. I wish our current council, those seeking re-election and those running for office all the best. I respect them for their strength, courage and dedication to make such a commitment. At this time, I will not be seeking re-election to the Marco Island City Council. I want to thank those Islanders who understand, have offered dialog, support, differing views and productive input to our community. After almost four years on council and a sometimes agonizing learning curve, I can tell you hindsight is 20/20…if I only knew then what I know now.