Bryan Milk had at least three chances to tell city leaders of his business ties to the owners of a Marco Island storage facility.
He could have done it at an April planning board meeting. Or another planning board hearing the next month. Or in a city opinion he signed off on in September.
Yet Milk, the city’s community affairs director, never disclosed his business relationship with Lisa and Mark Kelly until late December, according to city documents and interviews with city leaders. All the while, he advocated for a city zoning change that would benefit the Kellys. And for that, Milk is out of a job.
There’s little doubt Milk left city leaders in the dark that he once owned a stake in a business and now holds a promissory note from the Kellys. It’s the rest of the story that has Marco Island in a tizzy, with allegations of improper influencing by elected councilmen and division over an independent investigation still lingering.
To most city councilmen, the circumstances are clear: While Milk hasn’t been accused of intentionally scheming to benefit former business partners, he at the very least failed to disclose his ties as required by law. The company, BML Inc., operated under the name Xpress Mart, located at the site of the Kellys’ Progressive Auto Storage. Milk’s lawyer said his client had a one-third stake in the company before receiving a $250,000 promissory note for selling his stake.
“Certainly on the surface, it appears there was a pretty clear conflict,” Marco Island City Councilman Larry Sacher said.
But for Councilman Larry Honig and others, too many loose ends remain. Honig called for an independent investigation during a City Council meeting Jan. 6, but his motion was voted down, 5-2. Councilmen Joe Batte, Bob Brown, Ken Honecker, Amadeo Petricca and Sacher opposed the investigation, while Honig and Chuck Kiester voted in favor.
“I’m disturbed by the City Council’s unwillingness to take clear and decisive action to determine what happened, to protect the city of Marco Island, to protect ourselves, and to protect due process to Bryan Milk,” Honig said.
Then there’s Milk, a 19-year veteran of the city’s government. Milk has admitted to a one-time business partnership with the Kellys, and his lawyer, Douglas Spiegel, said Milk “probably should have disclosed it a little more specifically.” But Spiegel alleged interim city manager Guillermo Polanco neither fully investigated the matter nor gave Milk the chance to resign — as Polanco has said he did. Spiegel also alleged Polanco had improper conversations with city councilmen about the termination; Polanco hasn’t responded to requests for comment on allegations that have been raised.
“I’m not saying (Milk) is right and there’s a witch hunt and he didn’t do anything wrong,” Spiegel said. “But what took place afterward is beyond me.”
The code commotion
In April 2013, the Kellys went before Marco Island’s planning board, requesting a change to allow self-storage on properties zoned “C-4.” The Kellys partially own Progressive Auto Storage, zoned “C-4.”
Island zoning codes range from “C-1” to “C-5,” with only the lightest storage allowed on “C-1” and the heaviest on “C-5.” Self-storage facilities are only allowed in “C-5” zones on the island.
City staff, led by Milk, recommended approving the change. The advisory planning board denied the request, 7-0, then again in May 2013. Board members said the change wasn’t compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan, and it would adversely affect owners of “C-5” properties.
In September 2013, Milk issued an opinion allowing for storage at “C-4” facilities, prompting appeals from two storage facility owners with buildings in “C-5” zones.
Throughout the process, Milk never disclosed he once had a business investment with the Kellys, Polanco wrote in Milk’s termination letter. State records list Milk as a managing member of BML Inc., signifying he owns a stake of the business, The Kellys are also listed as managers of the company.
Milk admitted Dec. 30 to the Marco Eagle that he had a member interest in Xpress Mart until May 2013. Polanco, however, wrote that Milk holds a promissory note from the Kellys for the purchase of that member interest.
“That is the type of relationship that should have been fully disclosed, resulting in you recusing yourself from any involvement on any matters concerning those with whom you have a business relationship,” Polanco wrote Jan. 2.
Milk’s successor, Joe Irvin, said he authored 80 percent of the favorable opinion, then unexpectedly said Monday he thought the opinion was wrong after further research last week. Irvin said the opinion had a missing date that affected his interpretation of the city’s comprehensive plan.
A deeper look?
Five of seven city councilors opposed further investigation, noting Polanco has authority to hire and fire.
“When it was, in my opinion, as blatant as it was, (Polanco) made the right decision,” Petricca, a councilman, said.
Honig, the city councilman favoring an investigation, said Milk should have recused himself from Kelly-related matters. He added he has no evidence of any other conflicts involving Milk, but that “I believe we owe it to the citizens of Marco Island” to find out. He’s backed by planning board member Jack Patterson.
“Hopefully nothing will come of it, and hopefully that will clear the air,” Patterson said. “But who knows?”
Spiegel, Milk’s lawyer, said Sacher, a city councilman, pulled strings with Polanco to get Milk fired. Spiegel said he based the claim off Sacher telling citizens that he discussed the matter with Polanco before the firing.
“Clearly he’s having conversations with Mr. Polanco that aren’t permitted,” Spiegel said.
The councilmen said they spoke to Polanco prior to the firing, though the content of those discussions couldn’t be independently verified.
Mike Kelly declined to comment on the matter. Polanco didn’t respond to multiple calls for comment.
Sacher concedes he has butted heads with Milk on at least two city issues — plans for the Mackle Park Community Center and a disagreement over a seawall contractor — and calls himself “probably the most vocal” supporter of Polanco on the council. But Sacher said he thought he had “a good relationship” with Milk.
“My bottom line is I don’t know how or why Bryan’s attorney came up with my name as the alleged ringleader,” Sacher said.