Year In Review: Parks, politics and positions of power

2016 laid the groundwork for the stories that dominated the first half of 2017

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle
Stock photo

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series highlighting the biggest hard news stories of 2017.

Although Marco Island may have an off season with regards to its tourism, there is no such thing for the folks at city hall; they deal with a multitude of issues throughout the year, and 2017 was no different. 

Councilors nix Veterans Community Park hotel

On Aug. 3, 2016, Florida land developer Small Brothers, LLC announced its plan to build a moderately-priced,165-room hotel at 580 Elkcam Circle and 870 Park Avenue, two parcels of land adjacent to Veterans Community Park.

Small Brothers, LLC also offered to develop the park as part of the project, mostly because in order to move forward, the company had to borrow both money from the city and commercial intensity credits from the city-owned park.

More:Plans for a new hotel near Veterans Community Park

More:Residents given chance to ask questions, share concerns about hotel

For those reasons, the project quickly became controversial, with some residents arguing that the hotel would negatively affect the quality of life on the island by increasing traffic, attracting a questionable clientele and furthering the city’s already severe parking problem.

The debate surrounding the hotel carried over into the new year as the developer readjusted its plans in an effort to sway public opinion..

The original rendering of the proposed 165-room hotel located at 580 Elkcam Circle and 870 Park Avenue, two parcels of land adjacent to Veterans Community Park. The Marco Island City Council rejected the project in January.

In January, Bob Mulhere and Patrick Neale, representatives of Small Brothers, LLC, revealed the revamped plans for the hotel, which included a reduction in height from 95 feet to 75 feet, a reduction in the number of rooms from 165 to 153, and an agreement to pay the city $1 million in exchange for the park's intensity credits rather than add $3.5 million worth of enhancements it.

More:Small Brothers reveal revamped Veterans Community Park hotel plan

More:Planning Board pauses Veterans Community Park project

Despite the developer's best efforts, the Marco Island City Council voted 6-1 that the city will not be a co-applicant on any project involving Veterans Community Park, thereby putting a stop to the hotel.

Council, in conjunction with the Planning Board, also placed a moratorium on the transfer of density or intensity credits.

More:Proposed Veterans Community Park hotel is off the table

More:Marco city councilors question planning board process

City Manager Roger Hernstadt resigns

Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt submitted a letter of resignation during the Feb. 6 City Council meeting. Hernstadt said he felt it was no longer in the best interests of the city for him to be the city manager.

More:Marco Island city manager resigns effective immediately

Hernstadt’s departure was dubbed a resignation, but it appears he was forced out in an agreement that essentially paid him to leave immediately rather than work through the rest of his contract, which had been set to expire July 7.

Former Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt

A new majority on the seven-member council — incumbent and then-Chairman Larry Honig and newly-elected members Jared Grifoni, Howard Reed and Charlette Roman — were blamed by some residents for ganging up on Hernstadt. Many residents also cited the Veterans Community Park hotel project as the origin of the tension between Hernstadt and the council, and the reason behind the councilors' decision to have Hernstadt leave immediately.

More:Marco Island residents say new council majority fired good city manager

More:City Council rejects Hernstadt's initial separation agreement

However the hotel wasn’t the first controversial project on Hernstadt’s record; in early 2016, the city became embroiled in a dispute with The Esplanade after city crews encroached on its property while constructing the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, renamed the Herb Savage Bridge. Settling the dispute ended up costing taxpayers more than $30,000.

Another source of bitterness between Hernstadt and the council began several weeks prior to his departure when councilors started questioning his contract.

Ultimately, the councilors accepted Hernstadt’s resignation 5-2 and later agreed on an $89,000 severance package. They also appointed Finance Director Guillermo Polanco as acting city manager with a $3,000 per month stipend.

More:Marco council accepts severance pact with former city manager Hernstadt

More:Former Marco city manager takes job as Fort Myers Beach town manager

City Council hires new city manager

Immediately after Hernstadt's resignation, the council began the search for a new city manager. It selected executive search firm The Mercer Group, Inc. – the firm that tapped Marco Island’s original, and longest-lasting, city manager Bill Moss for the position of Naples city manager in 2008 – to conduct the search.

Marco Island city manager candidate Joshua Gruber speaks to the Marco Island City Council Wednesday, July 20, 2017. In a 3-4 vote, council opted not to hire Gruber, the sole remaining contender for the position.

W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. of The Mercer Group, Inc. presented a list of semi-finalists to the councilors on June 21, and the council selected two finalists: Joshua Gruber of Beaufort, S.C. and Anthony Hamaday of King of Prussia, Pa.

More:Marco council selects two city manager finalists

More:Marco council selects city manager search firm

However Hamaday later withdrew his candidacy, making Gruber the sole finalist. 

The appearance of a default city manager left a bad taste in the mouths of some Marco residents, who recommended that the councilors pause the selection process until they've had a chance to choose more finalists.

Council continued with the process but ultimately rejected Gruber in a 4-3 vote.

More:And then there was one: City of Marco left with lone city manager finalist

More:No new city manager – Marco council rejects Gruber in 4-3 vote

The Mercer Group, Inc. terminated its contract with the city after the failed initial search. The termination appeared to have stemmed from tension between Honig and Higginbotham, Jr.

The two ultimately came to terms and Higginbotham, Jr. agreed to continue the search process. He presented the council with a new list of semi-finalists in early October, and the councilors selected four finalists: Daniel Alfonso, David Fraser, William Malinen and Lee Niblock.

Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

More:Under fire: Marco City Council criticized for city manager search

More:Marco City Council selects four city manager finalists

The finalists met with each councilor individually and then appeared before the council as a whole at a public meeting on Nov. 2. After the councilors had one final opportunity to ask the candidates questions, they voted 6-1 to offer the position to Lee Niblock.

More:Marco Island Council names Lee Niblock as new city manager