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Watch It Wednesday: This could change a lot more than bacon Jamie Stoddard/ Staff

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Members of Estero's appointed boards that oversee design, planning and zoning in the village would have to obey stricter conflict of interest rules under a draft ordinance that the Village Council debated Wednesday.

The draft ordinance includes explicit references to state laws already in place and would ban board members from advocating for projects in public before the village. 

A Naples Daily News analysis in July, prompted in part by concerns raised by Councilor Howard Levitan, found two Design Review board members recused themselves and then lobbied before the board as private citizens for multiple development projects in Estero. 

Estero Planning and Zoning or Design Review board members with personal ties to projects before them would be required to leave their seats on the dais and would be banned from speaking on behalf of an applicant, the draft ordinance states.

The proposed ordinance also bars members with voting conflicts from speaking or nonverbally participating in any discussion on the matter.

"I think it’s really important that we not allow any appearance of impropriety at these board hearings," Levitan said. "I’ll look at it anytime you want, but when I see the chairman of the board get down and recuse himself and then stay in the back of the board and pace back and forth staring at his fellow board members while they are trying to make a rational decision, I don’t think that’s acceptable for this village."

The draft ordinance would amend the village rules that established the Estero Planning and Zoning and Design Review boards.

The ordinance could prevent a member with too many conflicts of interest from even getting on either board.

Under the proposed rules, Estero's Village Council would be required to consider the number and nature of voting conflicts of board members who might be appointed or reappointed to a position.

The amendment also changes qualifications for the Design Review Board, which have had the effect of shrinking the pool of potential applicants.

According to the draft ordinance, at least three members of the board must be either a state-registered architect, state-registered engineer or state-registered landscape architect.

According to a 2004 Florida Ethics commission opinion, state law says there is no conflict of interest when members of a board advocate for a client in front of the board they sit on if they fill a specific seat that is required by the board.

The language of the Estero ordinance no longer requires a specific seat for each of those state-registered positions, Levitan said. 

More: Estero official: Don't let Design Review Board members lobby for clients

“Taking away specific slots would not allow anybody to get paid to represent any company before this board,” Levitan said.

Council members argued Wednesday that the village must remove any potential conflicts of interest from affecting decisions by the Design Review and Planning and Zoning boards, which are tasked with reviewing the appearance and zoning plans of new developments in Estero.

“If we’re going to have people who are on our boards and jumping back and forth wearing two different hats, I don’t think that works,” Councilor Jim Wilson said. “I think it presents the completely wrong picture of what we want this village to do.”

Councilor Nick Batos said the council should correct any problems in the current system before making the changes proposed in the draft ordinance.

“I fear that the proposed changes will result in Estero losing qualified professionals who have been willing to serve our community for many years and have helped create the community we now enjoy,” Batos said.

The council’s debate Wednesday was the first public hearing on the ordinance.

The second reading and final hearing on the ordinance will be at the village council’s next meeting on Nov. 15.

At the same meeting, Estero Councilors heard the first reading of a draft ordinance that would ban the dispensing and cultivation of medical marijuana within the village boundaries.

If Estero allowed medical marijuana dispensaries in the village, the village could only permit those businesses where retail pharmacies can be located under current rules, said Village Attorney Burt Saunders.

Last month the Estero Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend the village council not adopt the ordinance and said it was too restrictive and could have a negative impact on residents in Estero who might need access to medical marijuana.

During the council discussion, Councilor Bill Ribble objected to testimony from the Estero Planning and Zoning Board meeting last month that said the closest dispensary was in Bradenton. 

Ribble said a medical marijuana dispensary was available in Fort Myers on U.S. 41.

“People do have access locally, close by, and I see no need for Estero to open up a can of worms on this,” Ribble said.

Levitan said that though a large majority of Florida residents voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana last November, the Legislature had tied the village’s hands.

“Until the Legislature acts, I think it’s appropriate for us to ban it, but I think it’s important to understand there are people who need it,” he said.

More: Estero board rejects medical marijuana dispensary ban, Village Council to decide

Last December, Estero adopted a one-year moratorium on cannabis dispensaries, which is still in effect in the village. 

At the time, Estero said the moratorium would give the village time to see how the Florida Legislature implemented Amendment 2.

The current moratorium on cannabis dispensaries in Estero expires on Dec. 7.

The village will have the second reading and make a final decision on the ordinance at the next council meeting that begins at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 15.

Village Council members also approved the continuation of stray animal control services with Lee County and held a workshop on the recreation, open space and public school facilities components of the village’s comprehensive plan.

The Village Council also was formally introduced to Florida Gulf Coast University President Michael Martin, who stopped by and made remarks.

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