Lee County government has become the antithesis of what used to be its motto: “community, transparency, and accountability.”
Over the past six years, this Board of County Commissioners (with the exclusion of Frank Mann) has systematically dismantled the many ways citizens had opportunities to be engaged in their government. By their policies and actions, the County Commission and administration have clearly communicated that citizen involvement and input is not welcome.
As with many things under the current county regime, somewhere along the way the County’s motto quietly disappeared from its website. It vanished into the dust bin of many previous county policies, studies, reports, official documents, and more, which aren’t consistent with the direction of this Board. Officials erased the inconvenient history that doesn’t serve their purposes.
This is the message to citizens from our current Board: “We’re in charge.” “We’ll solve the problems ourselves, and we’ll tell you what we’ve done,” “Look how wonderful we are.”
It’s a well-oiled spin machine – funded by your tax dollars.
The drastic change in the way Lee County government operates may best be summed up by comparing their two logos.
The County’s logo in 2010 (left), touting “Community, Transparency, and Accountability,” reflected county government’s focus on community engagement. Their motto was evidenced by the many planning efforts undertaken with full community engagement: The Horizon 2035 Plan, the Sustainability Plan, and Complete Streets Implementation, among other efforts. This logo disappeared from the county website sometime in 2013.
The County’s new logo (right), first seen on a county official’s signature block in 2019, is focused inward on the county structure rather than on the citizens it serves. It’s about “them,” not “us.” One of Lee Future’s Facebook comments captured the essence of it: “I see a deep hole, or vortex, where citizens’ voices and opinions about Lee County’s quality of life are sucked in, never to be listened to.”
There is a strong public sentiment that the majority of this County Commission is not listening to the voters and is not putting the interests of its citizens first.
Rather, they are serving the interests of the developers, builders, realtors, and other business interests (who have put these board members in office through their campaign contributions). It is no wonder that citizens feel disfranchised and have no trust in their county government.
Bottom line: Open government is critical to an informed public and an informed public is critical to democracy.
Changing the County’s way of doing business with the public is the first step in trying to restore the public’s trust in the County Commission and county government. It is also the first step in “setting the table” for improving the quality of life for the citizens of Lee County.
For the future of Lee County, this needs to change. Here are some actions the County can take to get back to representing “community, transparency, and accountability:”
– Improve transparency through more public engagement and information sharing.
This means restoring opportunities for meaningful public comments as part of all commission meetings. Letting citizens know what will be discussed at all of those meetings at least a week in advance. Look to citizen advisory committees and outside experts for input on specific topics (rather than limiting input to staff only). Restore the county website as a library of all county reports and information (not just the ones that agree with the current administration).
– Remember who government really works for – the people.
This means holding community meetings to listen, not just spin the facts and tout “accomplishments.” Ensure that committee appointments are reviewed for conflicts of interest and that conflicts are acted upon rather than ignored. Eliminate the rule that bars citizens from contacting their county commissioner on rezoning and land use issues. Ensure that all public records and Sunshine Law regulations are being met by county officials and staff.
– Ensure citizens have the tools needed to participate in their government.
Make agendas and briefing materials for all public meetings available on the website at least one week before any meeting. Set up a proactive email notification system, whereby a person signs up online requesting to be notified by email with link to agenda and briefing materials as soon as it is posted on the website (standard practice for local municipalities and other counties). Encourage citizens to express their opinions about county issues electronically, via email, Facebook, and other platforms – and reflect those comments at public hearings so commenters can see their voice is being heard.
– Ask our officials to put the public good ahead of special interests.
Make commission seats nonpartisan and ensure that all county voters (not just party partisans voting in a primary) have a voice in electing their government. Require a commitment to collaboration between county government and the various municipalities, from both officials and staff. Make sure that lobbyists are registering with the Clerk of Courts (as required) and that meetings with commissioners are recorded and reported in real-time. Develop meaningful limits on campaign contributions and require electronic reporting of those in a timely and publicly accessible manner.
– Commit to seeking a better future for all Lee County residents.
Restore “smart growth” and sound planning to county government by returning to the robust comprehensive planning processes that made Lee County a leader in planning for a sustainable future. Return to collecting 100% of the vital impact fees this County needs to stay on top of its continued growth and eliminate the ability for the commission to reduce those fees on a whim. Make the County an active leader (not a passive observer) in the drive to improve our water quality and eliminate the toxic Lake Okeechobee releases. Make it clear that county officials support environmental protection as the means to economic growth that our natural resources are our greatest attributes and that development must be balanced with improving the quality of life for current and future residents.
Lee County once stood for “community, transparency, and accountability.” For the sake of its future, we need leaders who will work to restore county government to that lofty standard.
Spread the word by sharing with your neighbors, friends, and family.