Marco Island City Council candidates talk rentals, water quality, police ahead of election
Marco Island residents will vote Nov. 3 to fill four City Council seats. A candidate for a fifth seat is running unopposed and will be automatically elected.
The election could mean that at least three, possibly four, newcomers become part of the seven-member council. Councilors Charlette Roman and Howard Reed decided not to seek re-election and Councilor Larry Honig can't run again due to term limits.
The candidates running to fill the four four-year term seats are beautification committee member Becky Irwin, planning board member Joseph Rola, former waterways committee member Phares Heindl, Richard Blonna and City Council Vice Chair Jared Grifoni. Blonna attends and participates constantly in Council meetings and workshops. The top four vote-getters win.
City Councilor Greg Folley is the only candidate to qualify for the fifth spot, a two-year term. He was appointed by the council in June to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Sam Young.
"Candidates who are unopposed at the close of the qualifying period in Florida are automatically elected and their names do not appear on the ballot," said Dave Carpenter, qualifying officer with Collier County Supervisor of Elections.
Council members are paid $6,000 per year, while the chairman gets $9,000.
Marco Eagle asked each candidate via email and phone calls about their ideas and proposals regarding short-term rentals, water quality, safety and police accountability and sidewalks. Here are their responses.
Short-term rentals have become a hot-button issue in recent months after scores of residents complained in and out of City Council meetings about renters disturbing the peace with loud music, trash and illegal parking.
Earlier this month, the city formed a task force made up of government officials to "address issues related to noise, parking, communication with property owners and overall compliance with local codes."
On Sept. 21, City Council approved an amendment to the city's noise ordinance after making several changes to the staff's proposal. The revised ordinance, which still needs final approval, would bring back decibel and time limits in an attempt to reduce noise complaints.
In case you missed it:Marco Island residents complain about loud renters: 'We can't take it anymore'
So far this year, the city has received 227 more noise calls and complaints than it did all of last year.
Through September, there were 604 noise calls or complaints, and 192 of them were confirmed, according to a presentation provided by the police department.
That’s compared to last year, when the city received 377 calls and confirmed 281 and in 2018 when it received 370 calls and confirmed 107.
Confirmed cases could result in a notice of violation against the property owner and a citation against the person making the noise, which both could result in fines and fees.
If the owner of the property is not the person making the noise that person can also receive a citation, said Capt. Dave Baer of the Marco Island Police Department.
"The owner of the property is generally provided one warning," he said. "After that warning they are taken before the magistrate through a notice of violation where they face fines."
The candidates said they want to improve the quality of life of residents but proposed different ways to accomplish it.
Heindl said short-term rental properties should be required to register with the city. He also said any new noise ordinance must include "clear and effective enforcement guidelines," among other suggestions.
Old zoning laws list several allowed uses in residential single-family districts and short-term rentals is not one of them so it is de facto prohibited, Rola said.
"Rentals in residential districts are not specifically addressed in our ordinances," he said. "Any topic left moot is assumed to be prohibited."
Grifoni disagreed and said Rola's proposal is a "hollow campaign promise that can never be fulfilled" because there is no code prohibiting short-term rentals on the island.
In most cases, property owners or their authorized representatives must register with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, according to state law. Local governments can't prohibit vacation rentals or regulate the duration or frequency unless a local ordinance or law was passed on or before June 1, 2011.
City Attorney Alan Gabriel wrote in a report Sept. 16 the city does not have an ordinance matching that description so the city "cannot adopt any vacation rental regulations that either prohibit vacation rentals or regulate the duration or frequency of vacation rentals."
The city can register vacation rentals, issue certificates of compliance, regulate parking and traffic and enforce city ordinances, he wrote.
Grifoni, who voted to approve changes to the noise ordinance, said the most effective way to handle this issue is to address noise violations, excessive occupancy and parking and then provide "consistent, uniform and strict enforcement with emphasis on repeat offending properties."
"Both property owners and renters should be held equally accountable for any problems," he said.
Irwin said noise ordinances "need to be fairly enforced across the board and that "offenders should be quickly quieted and fined if necessary."
"By state law, we can’t adjust the length of time that an owner can rent, so I would focus on factors we can control such as noise and trash," she said.
Blonna said he doesn't favor making broad changes to the city's ordinances until it shows it can enforce the existing ones.
"This means swift, consistent and round-the-clock enforcement of existing ordinances involving noise, parking and trash," he said.
Folley said he hopes the "enactment of a more objective standard for noise enforcement will alleviate many of the concerns residents have expressed."
Water quality is an issue that sparked debate among the candidates. The city has spent thousands of dollars in recent years to research and improve water quality on the island's canals but the results have been questionable.
The city was put on notice by state Department of Environmental Protection that its waterways are impaired and in need of a corrective plan after Young asked the agency to officially acknowledge its water quality issues, the Naples Daily News reported in August of last year.
City Manager Mike McNees said last month the city will not make significant changes to its strategy to improve water quality until it receives the results of a study of the source of nutrients affecting local waterways, expected next year.
"Before they ramp up further spending on water quality, (city councilors) want to make sure they are spending the money where it is going to do the most good," he said on Sept. 4.
While some candidates said the city should wait until the study is completed, others said they want action right away.
"While we wait for (the) report in order have real direction, I would like to see adequate resources committed to evaluate the potential for our swale retention and a methodical plan to restore and maintain our swale retention system," Heindl said.
Similarly, Rola said the city should restore the swales to improve storm water retention and the filtration of nutrients in storm water before it gets into the canal waterways.
Grifoni said he wants the city to continue to pursue state funding for the San Marco Road tide leveling/flushing improvements after a bill that would guarantee $750,000 in state funds died in a House committee during this past legislative session. The appropriation would help improve the tidal flushing underneath San Marco Road, he said.
Grifoni also said he wants the city to start an “adopt-a-canal” program similar to the volunteer-based adopt-a-highway programs that would keep the canals clean.
Folley said any action taken to improve water quality must be based on the results of the study commissioned by City Council and "not just action for the sake of taking action."
"Specific policies can then be enacted based on data which can produce real improvement in our water quality," he said.
Blonna said that in the meantime the city needs to "rigorously enforce its existing stormwater and fertilizer ordinances.
Irwin said the city, government agencies and residents should work together "to ensure that locally we are not contributing to the pollution with excess nutrients and waste."
One thing all the candidates agree on is the repairs of city-owned sidewalks on the island should fall to the city.
On Marco Island, most homeowners are responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalk in front of their property, according to the city's code of ordinances. The proposal would transfer this responsibility to the city.
McNees said last month the proposal will likely have to wait because the city expects lower sales tax revenues due to COVID-19. City Council approved a budget last month for fiscal year 2021 without including funds for the project but it may be allocated later if money becomes available.
Police and safety
On police, Blonna, Irwin, Grifoni and Folley said they support efforts to hold officers accountable while all showed a clear support for Chief Tracy L. Frazzano, who recently completed her first year on the job.
"I think it is critical for elected officials to address the misconduct of the few bad actors while supporting the vast majority of police officers who bravely protect our communities," Folley said.
Irwin and Blonna lauded Frazzano's efforts to have the police department accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation.
"I see this as a positive step in community policing and accountability," Irwin said.
"As an accredited police department, Marco Island will set high standards for the recruitment, hiring, training and retention of all officers," Blonna said. "This will prepare the department for future policing challenges while minimizing some of the personnel problems associated with our past."
The city budget includes the acquisition of license plate readers at a cost of almost $60,000 to "enhance community safety by capturing the image of the license plate of a passing vehicle and compare the plate number against official 'hotlists' such as warrants, parents, individuals driving under suspension, persons being sought by authorities as a suspect, missing adults or children, and those on state or national watch lists."
This system would be mounted on posts, covering all lanes of the bridges entering or leaving the island.
The city already has one license plate reader attached to a police vehicle, Frazzano said in a City Council budget workshop in June, logging more than 10,000 hits since 2015 and she said that most were due to license or registration problems.
Grifoni has said Marco Island is one of the safest cities in Florida but he also cautioned the system could potentially "be abused" by police as the data it collects, regardless if it involves a criminal activity or not, could be accessed by dozens of law and order agencies and open the city up for lawsuits.
Frazzano said at the meeting it was "disheartening" to hear what Grifoni said and said the system will be "monitored."
"We are a pretty strong police department here with high values, ethics," she said during the meeting.
New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonprofit civil rights group, is suing the City of Coral Gables as well as the Department of State and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on behalf of resident Raul Mas Canosa, its website states. Mas Canosa says "the city’s use of automatic license plate readers is a violation of Florida law and Floridians’ Fourth Amendment rights to privacy," according to the organization.
The organization wrote a letter in June to Frazzano and other city officials urging them to "reconsider putting in license plate readers and stated a lawsuit could be forthcoming if its position didn’t change," the Naples Daily News reported.
Not all candidates are convinced the license plate readers are a potential threat to privacy.
"Knowledge is power and considering our island demographics, it can only protect and improve transparency, our sense of protection and police efficiency," Rola said. "More information is good."