MARCO ISLAND — The people of the Isles of Capri are still trying to figure out how to have some local control over the operations of their fire department.
Nearly a year after Chief Emilio Rodriguez was summarily fired by Collier County, the Isles of Capri still does not have a fire chief in place. Ochopee Fire Chief Alan McLaughlin sat in during the meeting of the Isles of Capri Fire Advisory Board on Friday, as he has since Rodriguez' departure.
The advisory board's meeting was actually two meetings in one, with the first a public workshop to hear the results of a report from the group's Budgetary & Operational Investigative Committee, and the second the regularly scheduled meeting. With two of five members away for the summer, the board barely had a quorum, and had to adjourn at one point as board member Jim Hughes was called away during a sharp downpour.
As a dependent district, personnel and operational decisions come from the county, with little autonomy. The board, at the suggestion of County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, looked into reconstituting the Capri department as a Dependent Special District, to gain more local control. They also considered other options, including merging with the Marco Island or East Naples departments, or remaining with their status unchanged. Len Golden Price, Administrator of the County's Administrative Services Division, sat in on the meetings, "to look, listen, and learn," as she said.
John Rogers of the committee presented recommended next steps to the board. He gave them a draft ordinance with which to approach the county commission and county attorney, setting up the Dependent Special District. This was government at the local end of the spectrum, with a group of neighbors sitting around a table to hash out solutions to perceived problems, and emergency calls occasionally crackling over the first responders' radios in the meeting room in the fire station on Capri Blvd.
"We want to ensure the resources provided here stay here," said board member Jim Gault, expressing a widely shared view. Joe Langkawel, board chairman, said that for the smallest fire department in the county, Isles of Capri has some of the best equipment, much of it paid for by citizen donations with no expense to county taxpayers.
"We don't want to merge with anybody," he said.
During the public comment period, Isles of Capri Fire Lt. George Lara spoke up, expressing concern from the district employees that any change would not be for the better.
"Why jeopardize the wellbeing of the guys, and lose the fire equipment we have. If we back off from the county, we're not going to survive" as a separate district, he said. "With all due respect, the guys are scared." Affairs at the department, he said, "are running like a fine-tuned machine right now."
Committee member Jeri Neuhaus took issue with that statement. She recited a list of failings in operations, including not having the department's fireboat in the water for the Labor Day weekend, the lapse of the CERT program, and others focused on lack of communication from the fire department to the community.
To increase the flow of information, Langkawel asked that one point of contact be designated from the fire department, "so we don't get 'someone at the department told me.' We want correct answers, not hearsay." Chief McLaughlin was assigned that task.
Most of the action took place in the workshop session. In the regular meeting, Langkawel reported that the department's $1,335,000 annual budget for the upcoming fiscal year had just been approved by the county commission as the main item of business. The chief reported that the new tank for the pump truck is to be delivered Monday or Tuesday, and a foam tank is being installed in the Isles of Capri fireboat to enhance the department's marine capability.