Candidate forum: City Council hopefuls answer questions

Lance Shearer
Correspondent

Marco Island produced a strong turnout for the faceoff of the City Council candidates. In addition to a packed chamber, an additional 40 to 50 people sat in the outer room watching the proceedings on video.

The five contestants for three seats, gathered for the forum Thursday evening and took turns answering sets of questions from moderator local attorney Bill Morris. They were seated on the dais each hopes to occupy more permanently, with their forum broadcast over radio and live-streamed on the city internet feed.

Despite the political currents that have divided the island, all the candidates remained collegial, and the evening produced few verbal fireworks. The five candidates included two incumbent councilors, chair Erik Brechnitz and councilor Greg Folley, and three challengers – Christine Dowell, Darrin Palumbo and Nanette Rivera.

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Each candidate began with a brief introductory statement, speaking in alphabetical order. Brechnitz asserted that all the candidates really love the island, otherwise why go through this grueling process. He pointed out he had been chairman for three of his four years on the council. “I want to restore respect,” he said.

Speaking next, Christine Dowell, a relative newcomer to the island, told of her 40 years’ experience as a nurse, including work on pediatric oncology cases, focusing on that rather than being president of Citizens for a Better Marco.  

Greg Folley described himself as a “Reagan conservative,” a Caterpillar executive who directed 10,000 employees and a budget of $10 billion. He is a two-year member of the Marco Island City Council, a veteran and an attorney.

Darrin Palumbo is a 25-year resident of Marco Island, a former member of the Waterways Advisory Committee, and heavily involved in high school athletic coaching. As a principal in Sweet Annie’s ice cream, he said, I get to see everyone on the island – everyone who loves ice cream.

“The biggest thing we need to work on is being civil. We can do it together, but only together,” he said.

Nanette Rivera, a veteran of the city’s Planning Board, said we need “more facts, less politics. I represent no special interests. Nor am I running as a slate.” She called for restoring the health of Marco’s waterways.

The aspiring councilors were on their best behavior, seemingly determined to “make nice” no matter what, despite the vitriolic conflicts that have arisen, particularly around the short-term rental ordinance or STR. There was a lot of splendid vagueness to candidates’ answers, a lot of “I’m going to look into that.”

The first question from Morris went to Brechnitz, on the STR, asking “what is your specific view on Marco’s future as a vacation destination,” on Marco as a pro-business location versus a retirement community. Brechnitz said he was opposed to the ordinance, finding significant flaws in it, but said the city’s charter required putting it on the ballot. Each candidate was then asked a different question, and the process was repeated until each contestant had answered the same question on each of five topics.

They were asked about the environment and what steps they would take to protect it, on the ongoing challenge of finding enough workers and where to hire them from, on teamwork and uniting the island, and “what is your position on the city’s purchase of the Old Marco Utility?”

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Palumbo said “the utility must be brought into the fold. Bite the bullet and invest in facilities.” On the same issue, Folley, who has appeared in joint ads with Brechnitz, said the city is going to get stuck with the liability “if there is a catastrophic failure,” and needs control. “I support it.”

Rivera said she did vote in favor of the STR, after being in disagreement for many years, and that the city’s citizens had “become the victim of a lack of action from the city council.”

On the question of teamwork and uniting the island, Dowell called for “more transparency in government. Town hall meetings on a regular basis is one of the best things to do,” she said. Her website boasts endorsements from two city councilors who are not on the ballot, Rich Blonna and Joe Rola. In her closing statement, she stated “sometimes we need some new blood.”

Folley said he was concerned with liability issues, and warned against Marco becoming like Illinois, “essentially an unfunded potential liability masquerading as a state.”

“I don’t know all the answers, but I do know the questions to ask to get them,” said Palumbo.

Rivera promised, “I will restore the health of our waterbody, and build the quality of life for our ‘aging in place’ seniors.” Brechnitz said the question is “who has the experience? The learning curve is steep.”

The forum had some of the quality of a “coming out party,” with many people seeing each other for the first time since Hurricane Ian struck. The strong turnout was more remarkable, as much of the island had just gotten their cable television back after the storm, and they could have watched from home. Brechnitz pointed out that his home still had not had power or internet restored.

The event was presented by the Marco Island Area Association of Realtors, the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, and MICA, the Marco Island Civic Association. The top three vote-getters among the five aspirants will take seats on City Council after the November election.