Facing criticism from government watchdogs, Collier County has opened to the public a series of meetings being held to develop a plan aimed at reducing driving times and keeping cars off the road.
The decision reverses a requirement, upheld as recently as Friday, that the public get permission from participants before the public can observe group interviews with stakeholders. The public also will be allowed to attend meetings between the county and its consultants for the plan.
“I’m pleased that everyone at the county came to their senses and realized you can’t go wrong with too much public participation,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
The meetings are part of the preparation of a so-called Master Mobility Plan that is taking into account land use changes, new road networks, wildlife crossings and the preservation of natural lands and agriculture in eastern Collier County.
The reversal was announced late Monday night in an email from Nick Casalanguida, the county’s deputy growth management administrator, on the eve of Tuesday’s meeting of Collier County commissioners.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Golden Gate Estates Civic Association had said last week that they would take their concerns to commissioners Tuesday.
As recently as Friday afternoon, County Manager Leo Ochs had told the groups that the county process was transparent and that he would not change the meeting policies.
The county had agreed to audiotape the meetings between county staff and consultants, post online the recording and documents reviewed in the meetings and brief the public about the closed-door meetings afterward.
In his email Monday night, Casalanguida cited a phone call Monday from a man who supported the planning process but was worried about the plan losing public support after reading about the groups’ concerns in the Naples Daily News.
Casalanguida wrote that it was important to eliminate “any additional mistrust.”
“We are striving to make this project one that people can be proud of and one that has the support of the entire community,” he wrote. “To that end, I believe we are jeopardizing that goal unless we take the next steps and open the interviews and working group meetings to the public.”
If the county had not reversed its policy, the Golden Gate Estates Civic Association planned to report the lack of openness to the federal Department of Energy, which gave the county a $473,000 grant for the mobility plan, civic association President Peter Gaddy said.
Gaddy said the civic association wants access to the meetings out of concern that the mobility plan will turn the Estates into a transportation corridor for eastern Collier County.
“We can keep an eye on behavior that’s inappropriate,” Gaddy said.
He said the civic association remains concerned that WilsonMiller Stantec, one of the consultants for the mobility plan, also works for large landowners in eastern Collier County.
“That sends a bad message to us when they hire somebody who is working for the enemy,” Gaddy said.
__ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats