MARCO ISLAND — Marco Island saw a prime example of democracy in action on Tuesday. In a hastily convened meeting to provide a public forum, City Manager Jim Riviere heard from a packed house in the City Council chambers, as a standing room only crowd vented their displeasure over the idea of moving building inspection services to the county.
The meeting opened with a brief opening statement by Riviere, in which he assured the audience that the discussion was only preliminary, and there would be no immediate shift of Marco Island's building inspectors to the Collier County staff.
"I'm giving serious reconsideration to my decision," said Riviere. "To those who were offended, I apologize, and to those who don't understand what I did, I'm trying to explain." He guesstimated that keeping inspectors on the city payroll could cost an additional 35 percent or more. "One of the things we might be doing right away is holding hearings on raising fees," said Riviere.
With that, the floor was turned over to the public for comment, moderated by City Attorney Burt Saunders with the assistance of City Councilor Wayne Waldack. Speaker after speaker rose to laud the city staff, and paint dire pictures of what would happen if the change were made.
The meeting presented the spectacle of Islanders actually singing the praises of their bureaucrats, and cheering the many citizens who rose to speak in favor of paying higher government fees, if that's what it would take to keep inspections being handled locally.
With a recovery underway after several terrible years for the building industry, losing local inspections would be the quickest way to put a damper on the return to prosperity, attendees agreed. First to speak was longtime Marco architect Herb Savage.
"If we have to raise fees, that's what we have to do," he said, his booming affirmation garnering general applause. Contractor Ed Ehlen noted the change was announced after the end of season, with many winter residents away.
"You guys did perfect timing. No one's here," he said.
Longtime island builder John Slocum spoke of his experience over the years with trying to get inspections in a timely manner from the county building department.
"When you call for an inspection from Naples, you're the bastard child," he said. "That's just the way it is. The county comes out when they feel like it. They say, 'we never found you,' or 'there's nobody on the site.' " The Marco Island department, by contrast, is "a first class operation," he said.
Mechanical contractor Don Condee, on the island since 1969, took issue with the characterization of the relationship between craftsmen and inspectors as "buddy-buddy."
"We cooperate with each other. That's the way is should be," he said. Brian McMahon spoke of how the city inspectors helped him through the morass of regulations and permitting, to accomplish $387,000 worth of repairs after Hurricane Wilma.
Todd Schneider of APM Homes called the city inspectors "tough, but fair."
Marco Island Marriott general manager Rick Medwedeff said his company was undertaking $15 million of projects this year, "and Mac Chaudry (of the Hilton) will be doing a lot as well." He worried about the impact of having to go to Collier County for permitting and inspections for all that work. The county had held up one job for six months – "and that was for a bathroom. We take our rooms out of inventory for renovations. It's very time sensitive," he said.
Ray Seward said a lot more contractors and businesspeople would have attended, except for the meeting being called on such short notice.
Bill Lewis, an island architect since 1984, said, "I've never had one person say I wish we were back with the county."
Riviere promised that no action would be taken on the proposal without a vote by the City Council, and said he never intended to make the change within a week, as had been reported.
"I don't know where that June 2 date came from," he said. After the meeting, he said he felt he had no choice but to announce and hold the public forum so quickly.
"It was a firestorm. I wanted to get everybody back to work," he said. "I didn't announce the meeting until 9:30, and we had people here by 3:30," said Riviere. "That's pretty damn good."