On Jan. 17, 2020 the News-Press published an OpEd from Women for a Better Lee, as well as a response from Lee County’s manager. Below is the response to the County’s answer.
Lee Future also urges the County Commissioners to adopt this modest “wish list” put forward by Women for a Better Lee. The suggestions for civic engagement, along with those proposed in Lee Future’s July 29th: Citizen Engagement in Lee County, are the first step in “setting the table” for improving the quality of life for citizens of Lee County.
Response from Women for a Better Lee
AND EMBARRASSING TO HAVE COME FROM OUR COUNTY MANAGER
There has been a back-and-forth between Women for a Better Lee (WFBL) and our county manager over a wish list that WFBL compiled and was published as an op-ed by the News-Press (see link in the article below). The Manager has responded with a full-throated roar of defensive nonsense full of dissembling, evasions and wacky theories. This is actually good, since we now have him on record.
Below are some of The Manager’s claims (in bold type) followed by the WFBL analysis (in regular type). It is a lengthy piece, but worth reading to the end.
This is important: if you care about our county’s future NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT — forward this to 10 people and ask them to send it on to 10 others. Be part of the Power of 10 campaign.
An opinion piece about “a 2020 wish list to improve the lives of Lee County citizens”
[https://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/contributors/2020/01/15/opinion-2020-wish-list-improve-lives-lee-county-citizens/4479614002/] uses misinformation and outright falsehoods to create fear and advance a personal political agenda.
The 10-point wish list, published online (link) in the News-Press on January 17, is meant to put forth positive solutions to improve our quality of life. The Manager’s rebuttal is classic citizen-shaming of those who dare to speak up for good government. Disparage us all you want, we ain’t going away.
The Lee Board of County Commissioners promotes responsible growth management, prioritizes quality of life issues and strives to be inclusive and transparent to all citizens.
Really? Since when?
Below is factual and accurate information.
Land-use and zoning issues: The County uses a quasi-judicial zoning, which is completely transparent and prevents any particular party from influencing the decision-makers behind closed doors. No resident has ever been punished for violating the ex parte communication rule.
So why even keep it on the books? Intimidation. We have three letters from county staff to residents warning them about ex parte communications on zoning matters, as well as a first-person narrative of a group’s experience with this prohibition published in a local weekly (copies available from WFBL2020@gmail.com). The current zoning process seeks to dampen public participation by requiring citizens to attend zoning hearings (which can last for days) and speak at just the right time in the process. If you do not speak during the Hearing Examiner’s process, you are forbidden from commenting at the BoCC adoption hearings, and, of course, you cannot write to your commissioner.
Cooperation with municipalities: The assertion that the county does not work well with its cities is simply not true. The county has numerous cooperative agreements with our local municipalities including participating financially in community redevelopment districts in Cape Coral and Fort Myers, funding half of the City of Bonita Springs’ $16 million Old U.S. 41 streetscape project, agreeing to pay $2.2 million for the Village of Estero’s paving and pedestrian improvements on Estero Parkway, committing $4 million to the expansion of Harborside in Fort Myers, partnering with the Town of Fort Myers Beach on the reconstruction and utility improvements of Estero Boulevard, and funding $3.2 million of the cost of Sanibel’s Recreation Center.
Why didn’t the county join the municipalities’ suit against the Water Management District regarding minimum flows from Lake O? Why did it ignore the pleadings of the five mayors and other elected officials who cancelled their meetings to testify before the commission regarding the elimination of Map 14 which removes restrictions on the mining industry?
All county commissioners are a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and regularly attend meetings. County staff, particularly DOT and Transit, also routinely attend the monthly meetings, which provide direction in planning future transportation improvements.
All county commissioners are members of the MPO, but not all always attend; in fact, only twice in the last two years did a full contingent of commissioners attend (this takes into account the period after the death of Commissioner Kiker). The MPO is critically important (and mandated by the federal government) and is at the nexus of planning for our transportation future. All commissioners should attend all the time; staff attend because it is their job, however, they are no substitute for the commissioners.
Waterways: The state Department of Health (DOH) is the designated agency for posting warning signs related to public health, and county staff works collaboratively with the state, complementing the efforts of DOH and the Department of Environmental Protection.
The Manager dodges the question about public health warning signs. We want the county to advocate on our behalf for warning signs on the county’s polluted waterways. Lee County has the authority to post signs along inland waterways that may threaten public health when the Florida Department of Health fails to do so.
Commissioners have funded a two-year study and are enhancing bacterial analysis of various county waterways, including those in areas with septic tanks as the county assesses septic-to-sewer options.
This does not address any point made on the wish list; just a pat on the back for a too little, too late effort. Studies by the Department of Environmental Protection and the County’s own existing data measuring fecal bacteria contamination of various waterways show that the contamination is widespread. Our small fixes are being outpaced by explosive growth and until we commit to sustainable growth management our water quality will continue to degrade.
The county is at the forefront of water quality efforts locally. The Conservation 20/20 program has purchased 30,000 acres, and many of these preserves are used for groundwater recharge, filter marshes and water quality improvements. In 10 years, the county has spent $28 million on specific water-quality projects and currently has $34 million of projects planned or under construction.
Again, this does not address any point made on the list. Another pat on the back, (but note: after diverting dedicated land acquisition funds into the general fund in 2013, the county only upped its game following a ballot referendum in 2016 to continue the program approved by 84% of Lee County voters).
The county is also actively coordinating with its municipal partners and Florida Gulf Coast University as it relates to resiliency issues. More information will be forthcoming this year.
The County-commissioned study on sea level rise was completed at a cost of $50,000 in 2010 and has never been implemented. In an August 2, 2014 News-Press article on sea level rise, Brian Hamman said: I think we need to look at how fast sea levels are rising before we start throwing out ideas.” So what are they waiting for? Five years later, the county just announced that it is working with other groups on a resiliency plan, but the status of the old study is uncertain. Was it a waste of taxpayer money by a BoCC that claims to be so cost conscious? You decide.
Roadways: This board implemented an innovative strategy called Growth Increment Funding, which captures the increase in taxable value created annually by new construction and real estate transactions. It does this without the economic impact of increased fees. Impact fees – at any collection rate – do not keep pace with the demands placed on our roads.
True, impact fees do not cover all costs for new roads. But they should be raised to 100% before the county goes willy-nilly into the market and borrows more money than we would actually need were developers not given a 55% discount on the amount they owe.
Commissioners adopted a “complete streets” policy for land development that requires streets to be planned, designed and operated to enable safe travel for all modes of transportation, such as bicycle, pedestrian and motor vehicles.
Yes, the policy was “adopted,” but has it been fully implemented? Too many poor souls have lost their lives on our roads since this policy was adopted.
National studies frequently use flawed methodology when evaluating warm-climate locations in which people walk and pedal year-round. The county’s comprehensive plan ensures future roadways are designed to be safe, convenient and accessible within the context of the surrounding area.
This is a red herring – and a wacky theory. People are injured and dying because they’re outdoors too much due to our great weather? These studies are done by a nationally respected organization and they do not attribute pedestrian deaths to the fact that people in warm-weather areas are outside more. According the “Dangerous by Design” report, which ranks metro areas: “Why is this happening?” authors of the report asked. “We’re not walking more and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008. What is happening is that our streets, which we designed for the movement of vehicles, haven’t changed. In fact, we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”
All county and city citizens and visitors use the county’s major roads network, including new residents, long-time residents, snowbirds and tourists. Just as most homeowners incur mortgages to help pay for their homes, the county has borrowed money for road projects throughout its history. In fact, at the height of the economic boom in the mid-2000s, the county still had to issue debt and use property taxes to pay for the incredible demand for increasing road capacity.
And why this “incredible demand for increasing road capacity”? Answer: a headstrong determination to develop every last piece of county land without taking into account the impact on our schools, parks, roadways and other amenities. We understand the need to borrow; we as taxpayers just do not want to subsidize wealthy developers, who, by the way, fund the campaigns of the very same county commissioners who adopted these discount policies on impact fees.
No one revenue source, be it gas taxes, tolls, impact fees, property taxes or growth increment funds, have ever been enough to pay for this area’s incredible and enduring growth on a completely cash basis without undertaking debt.
Yes, we all use the roads, but taxpayers are paying a disproportionate share since developers do not pay their fair share. If they did, we wouldn’t have to borrow so much – and would save taxpayers lots of interest payments on the loans.
Public comment and information: Citizens routinely have meetings with county staff at all levels without communications employees present. Any assertion otherwise is false.
The practice of having a “minder” was relayed to us by a source who asked to remain anonymous. Citizens do have meetings with county staff, but certain department heads are frequently accompanied by a communications employee, which chills the conversation.
Citizens can sign up to receive emails and newsletters on an array of topics, and the leegov.com website contains a vast library of information and documents, both current and historical. The county exceeds the state’s legal requirements for public notification of various meetings, including land-use, advisory committee and board sessions.
Yes, citizens can sign up to receive emails, etc., but they can’t sign up to receive notifications of upcoming meetings as is done in Bonita, Estero and Sanibel, for example. Residents who wish to attend BoCC meetings would be more likely to come if proactively notified. Raise your hand if you want to be notified. And raise your hand if you can find such “historical documents” as Board agendas before 2017, or the Sustainability Plan. To this county administration, “historical” means back to 2017. And it says so right on the website.
Workshops are a useful tool for the board to meet in public to informally discuss ideas with each other and county staff. No final decisions or votes are taken. The public is invited to provide comments on commissioners’ workshop topics at the conclusion of the same-day regularly scheduled board meeting. No final decisions or votes are taken at workshops; rather, all decisions are made at subsequent commission meetings where yet another opportunity is available for public comment.
The workshop agendas do not specify time for public participation. There is a call at the morning BoCC meeting for public comment, but there is no time set aside in the workshops themselves for citizen input. Consequently, citizens must attend both meetings if they want to comment. And while no decisions are taken at workshops, consensus on items is arrived at. Of particular concern are budget hearings. People can attend budget hearings and listen to the discussion then have 3 minutes at separate commission meetings to make their case on often complex issues.
County commissioners welcome participation and input. The next regularly scheduled board meeting is at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, in the Old Courthouse, 2120 Main St., Fort Myers. Stop in and see open, transparent government in action instead of relying on misinformation and outright falsehoods perpetuated by individuals with their own political agenda.
If they really wanted our “participation and input” they would adopt our wish list, especially our suggestions for civic engagement. And yes, we have a political agenda: to elect members to the commission who are truly in tune with the needs and concerns of the citizens of this county.
Again, the link to the WFBL wish list:
Women For a Better Lee educates and encourages Lee County citizens to elect public officials to our Board of County Commissioners who are committed to smart growth, environmental stewardship and respect for civic engagement. They seek a county government that is transparent, accountable and fair to all that will improve the quality of life and well-being for citizens in our community.