Lee Future believes that working together to challenge the status quo in Lee County is the pathway to change. Our water, environment, and sense of place are not partisan issues, they are people issues. This article shows why we need to keep showing up and demanding a voice. The proliferation of groups in Lee County, like the article says, “are finding a bigger purpose than their name suggests.” That purpose is quality of life.
Lee Future encourages our region’s news outlets to continue their focus on the new groups that this article highlights. We need meaningful change and county commissioners that tackle the real issues.
OpEd Originally Published by Bill Smith in the News-Press on November 29, 2019
Some are organized for a specific purpose, others to exert political pressure, and still more just want to sharpen a sense of community lost to social media and the world of quick text messaging.
Civic engagement groups are proliferating in Lee County. Some want existing policies changed. Others want more respect from public agencies and their communities’ elected officials. Recruiting or backing candidates for public office has become an option for many.
Their proliferation shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Margaret Banyan, a professor of politics at Florida Gulf Coast University, said it’s difficult for a single group to become the voice of the community on a large scale, such as throughout Lee County.
“There is not the same kind of communications network we can’t all go to the same church, we don’t all sort of cling together under one communications umbrella,” Banyan said. “There’s not enough places where we can all have community dialogue; the newspaper is the only place … people in Estero may talk to other people from Estero but not necessarily people from Lehigh.”
And many are finding a bigger purpose than their identifying names or slogans might suggest.
Organizing with a purpose
Marcia Ellis was an organizer of the Inner Loop Working Group in southeast Lee County.
“Inner Loop Working Group was formed when our neighborhood was the future location cited for a trash transfer and sewage facility,” said Ellis, a public school teacher in Lehigh Acres. “It has changed our perception and widened our vision of the community.”
The group organized after Lee County traded a Conservation 20/20 county preserve for a piece of developer Joseph Cameratta’s Place at Corkscrew venture. Residents perceived an environmental threat and became politically involved on the issue but have managed to avoid the partisanship that occupies an increasingly significant part of discussion of public issues.
“Part of the reason this happened is that we are a very politically diverse community,” Ellis said. “It is an agricultural area, we have people from both sides of the political aisle and we started to perceive things as not really being in opposition (to each other), recognizing that our common ground was much bigger than our differences.”
Environment vs. property rights
The Board of County Commissioners in Lee County often hears voices in disagreement with many of its decisions that have an impact on the environment. At commission meetings, when a citizen can’t make a case in the three minutes allotted per speaker, that often impassioned plea is shut down by the pounding of the gavel.
Changes in some of the basic rules for development in Lee County in recent years worry many conservationists, whose positions are at times on a collision course with Florida laws protecting private property rights.
Residents worry that commissionapproved policy changes will unacceptably change the flavor of their neighborhoods.
The county’s Conservation 20/20 program has become an important part of conservation efforts locally, using tax dollars to buy land outright rather than risk development.
A group that organized to support a 2016 ballot referendum that endorsed continuing Conservation 20/20 has repositioned itself as a citizen watchdog group making sure the 20/20 program focuses on conserving environmentally sensitive lands.
Organizer Pete Cangialosi says Eyes on 20/20 reflects opposition to recent county policies.
“Senior leadership in the county is just not taking us to a place that we want to be and people are objecting — and one way to object is to organize,” Cangialosi said. “I think that’s the primary reason why you are seeing these groups form.”
Cangialosi is a former environmental director of the Estero Council of Community Leaders, a citizens group that headed the successful campaign for Estero incorporation in 2015.
The ECCL is a coalition of representatives of individual gated communities and other organizations that banded together to stake out a sense of community.
The founder of the ECCL, Don Eslick, has been working with others to create a new organization, Lee Future, that will be more directly involved in political issues.
Eslick noted that the ECCL-backed candidate for county commission against Larry Kiker in 2016 was Dick Anderson. Anderson started without a political base, but with a perspective that was friendly to environmental groups and voters. He lost by 1.56% of the more than 64,000 votes cast in the Republican primary.
“We started early this year to create Lee Future. We exist to advocate and fight for responsible government and the right of all Lee County residents to enjoy a sustainable future and high quality of life,” Eslick said. “We planned ahead for a two-year program, initially up through the 2020 election — 2020 could be a real change election. We have three of the five county board offices up for election.”
Only one of the three county commission races will feature an elected incumbent. Frank Mann, a 40-year veteran of Lee County political battles, is running in District 5 for what would be his final term as a commissioner under the term limits the commission imposed several years ago.
John Manning, whose District 1 includes much of Cape Coral and the islands north of Fort Myers Beach is not running again. The third seat up for election in 2020 is the District 3 seat held by Ray Sandelli, who was appointed to fill the vacancy left when Kiker died.
For a grassroots civic group to have an impact across a wider area, such as one of the five county commission districts, their candidates face a different measure of success and a more difficult way of achieving it than do smaller scale groups seeking change, reform or even status quo in their neighborhoods.
That’s because county commissioners are elected at large, with than 462,000 voters eligible to cast ballots.
“You have to have a product to show people. Then it helps to feed your ability to get more people to be followers,” Eslick said. “We’ve reached a point where we have got the system operating pretty well and for the last month or so have been working primarily on growing the reach. We’ll continue to do that for the next 10 months.”
Another relatively new group working to build a countywide organization, Women for a Better Lee, also has a clear political agenda.
“We are very concerned about the deteriorating quality of life here in Southwest Florida, both for ourselves and for future generations,” said Charlotte Newton, a leading organizer of the group. “Our goal is to elect new commissioners to the board of county commissioners.”
Only five women have held seats on the county commission. Two were convicted of federal crimes, although the conviction of one was vacated.
Two women were elected to the commission decades ago, one in the 1970s and one in the 1980s. Another woman, Melvin Morgan, became the first black commissioner when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1983 but was defeated when she sought a full term.
Women have held other offices and have been elected as mayor in Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach. Cape Coral’s city council includes four women and four men. In Fort Myers Beach, three women, including the mayor, are on the town council with two men.
Both Women for a Better Lee and Lee Future have endorsed Estero Councilman Nick Batos for the District 3 commission seat.
Pine Island incorporation drive
Civic groups can be created as the first step in forming new incorporated cities.
Pine Island and Matlacha are now the target of an effort similar to a Bonita Springs annexation spree that helped spur the forces that combined to create the village of Estero.
Cape Coral’s interest in annexing areas near Matlacha has energized a drive to incorporate greater Pine Island. The interest has been formalized with a letter of intent to incorporate formally filed with the county and state lawmakers and sent to Cape Coral.
“It will be a multiyear endeavor,” said Scott Wilkerson, president of the Pine Island Civic Association. He plans to bring other civic groups in the area into the fold to press the incorporation issue.
“We plan on doing outreach with some of the other organizations on the island, some of the clubs, if they’ll have us,” Wilkerson said. “The important part is the questions and answers and there are a lot of questions and answers.”
The Pine Island group, which also intercedes with county government, is pushing for greater vigilance in keeping track of bacteria levels at Tropical Point Park, a small county- controlled beach that Wilkerson describes as “two small holes punched in the mangroves.”
North Fort Myers: citizen control
In another part of the county, the North Fort Myers Civic Association has been reborn after its leadership dared to suggest that North Fort Myers suffered from an image problem. The group recommended the area’s name be changed, igniting the passion of longtime residents who saw it as disrespectful to their community.
The residents who accepted that dare to get involved then stuck with it. A year after organizing to defeat the idea that North Fort Myers needed a new name, opponents took over the civic association’s board, rewrote the bylaws and adopted the “promote community pride” mantra as the purpose of the organization and made “a destination not a direction” its motto. Association President Doug Dailey and Danny Ballard, a vice president, sat with a reporter to discuss what the group had done in the past couple of years. An expected half-hour stretched to an hour, then two, as they laid out plans for the organization’s future.
An all-ages Wiffle ball tournament fundraising event was a big success last year and will be expanded later this spring. Dailey and Ballard hope its legacy will be to mark the start of the spring training baseball season. Proceeds from a list of fundraising events are invested back into the community. Making sure local students have proper calculators is at the top of the list. “We want to be able to take the organization in a different direction,” Dailey said. “We can’t just be concentrated on government, but more on how do you get the word out about the community.”