MARCO ISLAND — In a lengthy session, the City Council approved a budget and millage rate for the city, and after a spirited debate, opted to stay the course with the executive search firm in the quest for a new city manager.
At 9:30, Vice Chairman Ken Honecker, running the meeting in the absence of Chairman Joe Batte, had to put to a vote extending the meeting beyond four hours. For all the talk, including community members who used the public comments section to weigh in on issue after issue, the outcomes of the questions raised were simple and perhaps foreordained, amounting to endorsing budget numbers already arrived at, and moving forward with the hiring of a new manager.
The first order of business was swearing in new City Councilor Bob Brown, chosen by council members to fill the seat left empty by the surprise resignation of Larry Magel, who is moving off the island to the Orlando area. Jay Santiago rose to suggest naming a city park after recently deceased war hero Bedford Biles, and resident Karina Paape took the podium to allege “police brutality” in the course of a phone conversation with an officer, and then huddled in the lobby with Police Chief Don Hunter and Assistant Chief Dave Baer.
Councilors voted to pass the budget previously worked out for the coming fiscal year, and levy a millage rate of 1.96 mills for city operations, and an additional 0.1163 for debt service, after a debate revolving around fire department personnel and equipment. The millage vote was unanimous, but the budget vote passed by 5-1, with Councilor Amadeo Petricca, who had been a member of the council’s budget sub-committee that dug through the numbers, dissenting to protest inclusion of funds for operation of a “quick response vehicle” and three firefighter/EMTs to staff it. Including this, said Petricca, will hamstring the city in approaching the county to request additional ambulance coverage for Marco.
Councilor Larry Honig used one of his trademark charts to show that Marco Island is underserved in numbers of residents per ambulance, compared to other Florida cities and especially Naples. Petricca agreed, saying Naples, basically the same size, has three ambulances stationed in its city limits, while “we’re suffering with one.
“With us being a remote area of Collier County, we should have more vehicles available. We need it desperately.”
Fire-Rescue Chief, pointedly not given the chance to make a sales pitch by Councilor Larry Sacher, did note that the quick response vehicle, for which a purchase order already has been cut, will not transport patients, but is intended to free up the department’s other equipment. The additional budget and millage rate for Hideaway Beach Special Taxing District, set at 2.6 mills, passed with little discussion and no dissenting votes.
Public Works Director Tim Pinter, who has drawn the ire of councilors during recent meetings concerning the Smokehouse Bay Bridge project, was grilled about funds in the budget for street resurfacing, which he said has been put off too long, with virtually no work other than in conjunction with the STRP sewer lines for the last five years. He was asked to come back with a specific list of streets, costs and timeframes for the proposed work.
After a break, the council reviewed progress or lack of in the search for a new city manager, to replace the retiring Jim Riviere. Not really getting into the question of any particular candidates, discussion focused on councilors’ unhappiness with the work of the search firm, Colin Baenziger Associates (CBA). With the firm’s principal participating via a phone link, councilors expressed disapproval, led by Honig, who said at various times, “I don’t have confidence,” “I’m disappointed,” “it’s appalling,” and “Colin Baenziger is phoning it in. Marco Island deserves better.” He argued for choosing a new search firm.
“The process seems out of order. But if we change course now, it might damage us with candidates” for the city manager job, said Honecker. In all 132 resumes were received, and 21 had been identified by CBA for closer review. Several of those had issues, including arrests, bid rigging charges, and one who tendered his resignation due to corruption charges, said the councilors.
“I didn’t see anyone acceptable on this list. I have no problem ending our contract with Mr. Baenziger,” said Councilor Chuck Kiester. He mentioned another possible candidate whose information he had acquired.
With a commitment from CBA that more vetting would be done and a refined list of possible managers presented, Brown spoke for continuing the process with the already in-place consultant.
“Let’s take a look at what’s presented Friday,” before deciding to switch horses, he counseled.
After some discussion on the difference between a formal motion and a straw vote, councilors voted 4-2 to continue with CBA, with Honig and Kiester opposed.
Kiester, who is finding his niche as “Dr. No,” frequently dissenting from otherwise unanimous or lopsided votes, also voted against continuing the council meeting beyond 9:30.
The budget and millage rates must be voted on again for a second reading, at which time the millage could be adjusted down but not up. The City Council meets again on Sept. 16.