Year in review, part 1: 2019 brings changes to Marco's leadership, landscape
[Editor's note: This is the first of two parts, reviewing Marco Island's biggest headlines of 2019. Look for part two next Friday.]
The first half of 2019 brought many changes to Marco Island, especially in leadership.
The Marco Island Police Department was rocked by one headline after another, resulting in the resignation of one chief, and the historic appointment of another.
This was the year Marco Island would also appoint a new city manager; and say goodbye to an interim one who helped reshape the city in his short time here.
The year started on a sad note. Herb Savage, longtime island architect and a man who personified modern Marco Island, died on Jan. 1, five days short of his 100th birthday,
Marco Island City Council selected and approved a contract for David Harden to serve as its city manager in an interim capacity until the city could hire a permanent replacement.
Harden replaced acting City Manager Guillermo Polanco, who was asked to serve in that capacity after the City Council fired Lee Niblock in March 2018.
City Council increased fines to protect endangered species like burrowing owls and gopher tortoises.
Under the new ordinance, an offender can expect up to $2,000 in fines. Last updated in 2013, the ordinance previously allowed fines up to $500 but offenders were often being given $1 penalties by the magistrate.
City Council also rejected the rezoning of nearly 12-acres from commercial to a planned unit development by a 6-1 vote. An approval would have facilitated the construction of a three-story, 143 unit assisted living facility.
In February, the Florida Bar dismissed complaints filed against City Councilor Jared Grifoni and City Attorney Alan Gabriel over their conduct in the handling of battery allegations against former City Manager Lee Niblock.
In unrelated news, the State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute multiple recent criminal cases on Marco Island, including an assault case that prompted SWAT to respond, citing insufficient evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
The underlying reason for its decisions, however, wasn’t necessarily the evidence itself but rather the officer involved in every one of the arrests.
Tige Thompson, a Marco police officer who is on the State Attorney's Office do-not-subpoena list, was taken off patrol and placed on administrative leave as the city reviewed his employment status.
The list includes law enforcement personnel who are also known as “Brady cops,” or officers who have a history of being dishonest when acting in an official capacity.
Days later, Schettino informed city officials of his plans to retire on June 15. Along with the "Brady cop" issue, the police department was embroiled in a sex on duty scandal resulting in two police officers resigning, one being terminated and another being reprimanded for knowing but not reporting the actions.
Following the conclusion of criminal proceedings and an internal affairs investigation, the city fired firefighter Nicholas Macciarolo, effective on March 7.
Macchiarolo was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to undergo a psychosexual evaluation as part of a no contest plea stemming from allegations that he sent lewd photographs to a 16-year-old girl.
Former City Manager Lee Niblock would be subject only to financial penalties as part of a plea deal entered in his battery case.
Niblock had turned himself in to authorities on April 26, 2018, after a warrant was issued for his arrest stemming from a complaint Melissa Scott, principal of the Marco Island Academy, lodged in which she stated that he had made several unwanted and inappropriate verbal and physical overtures toward her, including forcible hugging and kissing.
After the culmination of 50-plus public meetings and input from hundreds of speakers, City Council approved a new master plan for Veterans’ Community Park on March 18.
At the end of the month, more events continued to tarnish the reputation of the Marco Island Police Department. Dashcam footage and audio from multiple traffic stops shows Marco police officers have looked the other way, including at the instruction of the police chief, on potential offenses committed by the woman at the heart of the department’s sex on duty scandal.
More events involving Marco's police and fire departments marked the month of April.
Now former police records clerk Heather Comparini filed a complaint with the EEOC-Miami District Office which outlines a history of discriminatory action taken against her by Schettino and the city’s failures to properly investigate her claims.
Comparini initiated the complaint against the department after Schettino accused her last year of leaking information about the investigation into Niblock and directed the city’s legal firm to draw up termination papers.
As the city started looking for a new police chief, a disabled veteran medically retired from the U.S. Air Force was the lone resident to speak out during a City Council meeting in April against MIPD and in support of Harden’s decision to seek new leadership at the helm.
Booed, hissed at, insulted and harassed, Alex Popoff owed not to give up the liberties he fought for during his time in the military.
Alex Popoff is booed and shouted over at times as he speaks out against Police Chief Al Schettino Marco Eagle
A Marco Island police officer under suspicion of sexting would receive a written reprimand after an investigation could not prove or disprove whether the act occurred on duty.
The department opened an internal affairs investigation into Sgt. Mark Haueter on Oct. 30 after the Marco Eagle forwarded allegations and instant messages sent in 2015 seemingly between Haueter and a woman who made claims he was sexting.
The family of a teenage girl who was sent lewd photos by former Marco firefighter Nicholas Macchiarolo filed a notice of claim against the city and its fire department.
A letter from the Law Office of Roca & Linares announced the intent to pursue a claim for injuries and damages resulting from negligence and the actions of Macchiarolo, who pleaded no contest nearly two months before to a third-degree felony charge of unlawfully using a two-way communication device to facilitate or commission a felony.
During a special meeting, City Council unanimously approved entering into contract negotiations with Mike McNees for the city manager position.
Police officer Tige Thompson, who the State Attorney's Office refuses to call as a witness in criminal trials due to concerns about his credibility, was removed as member of the Marco police force due to his inability to perform the duties of the job.
Harden selected Capt. Dave Baer to lead MIPD in an interim capacity as the city continued its hiring process for a new police chief.
This month also brought good news for a local school. Supporters and benefactors joined the students and faculty for the official groundbreaking ceremony for what will become Marco Island Academy's permanent facilities, allowing them to leave behind the pre-fabricated modular structures that currently make up the MIA campus.
June was marked with passionate debates over having medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits.
City Council voted on June 17 in favor of a resolution that provides regulations for medical marijuana dispensing facilities on the island. The resolution passed 5-2, despite the nay votes of Chairperson Erik Brechnitz and councilor Howard Reed.
Michelle Sullivan, a Marco Island resident, said from her wheelchair that medical marijuana dispensaries close to home is a critical need for people like her. She suffers from multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and Crohn's disease, among other painful illnesses.
"I think [...] people don't understand [...] this is to make people like me not to be in so much pain," Sullivan said. Sullivan, at times, had to momentarily stop talking because of her physical pain.
During the same week, Harden announced the selection of Tracy L. Frazzano as the first woman to lead MIPD.
“I’m going to go in there and build on our strengths,” Frazzano said. “I will also look at where we can do better because I want us to excel.”
The first half of the year, however, ended with a eye-opening statement from Macchiarolo, the former Marco firefighter. After being caught lying to Collier County Sheriff’s Office detectives during a sex crimes investigation, Macchiarolo told investigators his semen may be in a city gym because it was “where everyone comes to hook up."
“I mean yeah I’ve, I’ve had sex with other girls besides my wife in there,” Macchiarolo said according to a transcript from a May 4, 2018, sworn interview. “Um, it’s kind of (the) place to, excuse me, um, to go, I guess. That’s the typical place in this department.”