Mount Dora City Council Gets Down To Work, And A Bumpy Ride

photo: Lining up for their official city photo prior to the Dec. 1 Council Meeting: (standing, l-r: council members Mark Crail, Laurie Tillett, Mark Slaby and Cal Rolfson; bottom row, l-r) vice-mayor Ed Rowlett, Mayor NIck Girone, council member Marie Rich

A night when routine business and controversy kept fighting for center stage.

Mount Dora City Council’s Dec. 1 meeting was a marathon of city business that gave the 100 or so citizens who turned out a look both at how city business will pick up after the election— and how the wheels of that process remain prone to lurches and bumps.

As the meeting lasted some 4-1/2 hours, this report is long. If you attended the meeting, hopefully we won’t wear out your posterior again.

Janet Gamache, Don Stuart and Brian Young of Visit Mount Dora™ with Deputy Fire Chief Tim Griner - along with the 5 wheelchairs donated to the Mount Dora Fire Department
Janet Gamache, Don Stuart and Brian Young of Visit Mount Dora™ with Deputy Fire Chief Tim Griner – along with the 5 wheelchairs donated to the Mount Dora Fire Department

Opening public comment had several items of note. Don Stuart, President of Visit Mount Dora™, thanked the city for a fine “Light Up Mount Dora” event the previous weekend and announced that his group had purchased five wheelchairs for donation for use for medical issues in future events. Elizabeth Forbes announced that the Lake Concert Volunteer band was performing a free concert in the community center at 7 p.m. on December 10, with donations to benefit Lake Cares food pantry.

A leadoff presentation by Cathy Baker with Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity reviewed Council on the city’s progress applying for Community Block Development Funding, a state program which can bring grants of up to $750,000 into the community. This was first public hearing, which had its own procedural protocol which had to be followed—presentation, public comment: Nothing to decided yet but there infrastructures in the Northeast community are being considered—renovations to the Martin Luther King center, water cutoff issues and water and drainage projects. Cal. Rolfson of the Second District voiced strong support for the idea, and Laurie Tillett questioned how the board deliberated as they did.

A proposal for Penguin Paddling Mount to use the Fourth Avenue docks for their business of renting kayaks and paddle boards was discussed. It was decided to divert the operation to the the Simpson Cove docks and a caveat for how the storage unit will look.

A copier lease and maintenance agreement was passed with Ms.Tillett questioning what the city needs to make copies in the digital age (hard copy is a legal requirement for many documents the city produces upon request) and Mark Slaby wondering why the police department needs three copiers.

A motion to change the city’s online payment vendor due to service problems with the current one was approved, with Mr. Girone asking if the city can file a claim for lost city time in resolving processing issues and Mr. Slaby making a plea for improved customer service.

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The first turbulence of the meeting arrived when council took up proposal from Mr. Pastue to perform an inventory of trees in the city’s right-of-way and city-owned properties. The goal of the inventory is to determine maintenance issues that are looming in the city’s aging canopy. It’s a lot cheaper to address the problems in maintenance, he said, than deal with them when they come down. Earlier in the fall. Mr. Pastue had added $50,000 to the city budget to address the city’s tree canopy issues, and the current proposal includes hiring an arborist to assist with the inventory and make recommendations to the city for a wider plan that addresses tree health, safety, utility line needs and promoting a healthier diversity in the canopy.

Ms. Tillett said that citizens expect a newly-created tree board to work in concert with the city, overseeing a process which would include the “re-greening” of downtown, apparently replacing palms planted in earlier streetscaping projects with oaks. She made a motion to have committee qualifications and a charter be approved by the next council meeting.

Mayor Girone said the right process couldn’t be achieved by having a board created so fast, and city attorney Shepard there were many inherent problems in chartering a committee that should be closely worked out to avoid legal tangles down the road. The scope of authority is important (which trees do they have authority over? how much work can they require?). He also said that if it’s a city board, posts will have to be filled according to state sunshine laws and the process will have to be open.

Mr. Rolfson complained that Ms. Tillet’s urgency in creating the board was premature since the tree proposal hadn’t even been written yet.

However, Ms. Tillett was adamant that the citizen board be up front in the process and influence all decision-making going forward with the city’s trees.

Ms. Rich asked for clarification, asking if it was the city manager’s job to hire the arborist as he does all city staff, not a board, and Mr. Shepard agreed.

Here Mr. Slaby jumped in with a comment about the voters’ mandate to come to council with “pitchforks in hand,” effecting strong change in the way the city does business.  He recommended that the city spend all of the earmarked $50,000 on trees alone—nothing for a fee for the arborist and the tree board make the decisions for the arborist.

In public comment, Ms. Farago asked Mr. Shepard if some kind of quasi-governmental board be created not subject to government sunshine laws and hence highly listened to. According to Mr. Shepard, if the board is an official body of the City, eligible to use facilities, get funding, use staff, etc., the answer is ‘No’ because sunshine laws recognize such bodies as public record. Citizen groups like Visit Mount Dora and the Chamber of Commerce can operate in such a way, but they are not a part of any government body.

A motion was made to instruct the city manager to develop qualifications and a charter for the tree board and then bring them back to the next meeting for further discussion in concert with the request for proposal. Council approved it 4-3, with Ms. Rich, Mr. Rolfson and Mr. Girone dissenting.

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Assistant city manager Mark Reggentin gave a long presentation on the road construction and utilities infrastructure relocation projects slated to begin in 2016, looking for approval by council for a Joint Planning Agreement with Florida’s Department of Transportation that will allow the city to begin their work that has to be completed before the road work begins. The current access road to the city’s wastewater management facility will have to be moved, and in exchange for getting access to the new space (just south of 46), the state in turn will receive a number of small easement parcels along 441 to address the grading and traffic flow issues to be created by the overpass exit turning from 46 onto 441 north.

The JPA would give the city a lot more authority in early work and the state will reimburse it for some $1.8 million in costs for relocations of utilities not directly under the planned work). Plus, with the aggressive schedule for the work, the city must be done ahead of the DOA’s work, and this will allow it to keep things moving.

Ms. Tillett voiced concern for First District constituents when she asked about impacts of the work upon the Southern Arms mobile home park that borders it.  Mr. Slaby then questioned the 2013 decision to create a land-level intersection at 46 and 441, a construction which he thought would have a profoundly negative impact on the First District. Mr. Reggentin told him that DOT officials would be available to discuss the decision with Council in early January. Mr. Pastue said at this point there was no real change for what amounts to remaking a wheel that was already in motion.

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Moving on, Police Chief O’Grady reported on the purchase of two SUVs for use by school community resource officers that will have decals in the colors of Mount Dora High and the Mount Dora Middle. Mr. Rolfson voiced support for community-based policing and council murmured their agreement. Mr. Crail, previously had been opposed to the purchase, told Chief O’Grady that he’d changed his mind on the purchase. With some 1,500 students attending Mount Dora High and middle, it’s a significant part of the city’s 13,000 population.

Mr. Pastue mentioned the city’s policy book update and asked council to provide recommendations at a later date. Mr. Rolfsen said that although some of the more experienced council members may have read the policy manual in the past, an annual review of them will keep them aware of important ethical issues that should never be forgotten.

Mr. Slaby took issue with the process by which the council’s policy book had been written, citing criticism by several U.S. Supreme Court justices that the federal legislative branch was ceding too much power to the executive branch. “I might be full of it,” he said, “but council is giving too much power to city staff.”

Ms. Tillett suggested that the recognition in January for outgoing council members be expanded to add out-going volunteer members. (Was this to mollify feathers ruffled at the last council when then new council block pass a motion to drop citizens from 11 board seats and replace them with others?)

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With the hour getting late and eyes growing bleary, council moved on to some of the contentious issues from the previous meeting.

They dispatched in relatively short order the resolution to ratify board and committee removals and appointments made in the Nov. 17 meeting. A number of protocols were breeched, such as failing to notify current holders of committee seats that they’ve been removed and allowing for an open process of application. Furthermore, too many citizens were appointed to the city’s planning and zoning committee. Mr. Shepard sidestepped the legal problems that this created by cancelling the next planning and zoning commission meeting and start over in this meeting.

Apparently much had been worked out between council and staff by then, because there was little discussion. Mr. Slaby complained that the criticism he had drawn for his appointment of Drew Hall to the Historic Preservation committee, since city protocol had not been followed with the removal of Drew Hall by Ms. Rich from the same committee earlier in the fall. (Ms. Rich had actually followed procedure, notifying the applicant of her intent in advance of the meeting and then bringing the issue to the council for a vote.) Ms. Tilllett wondered why some boards had alternates and others did not; Mr. Shepard wasn’t sure, but he thought that some committees had decision-making that required quorums and needed a manner to make sure enough people would be on hand.

The next item of business was the scheduling of a special meeting for the background and status of the Medallion Home litigation. In the Nov. 17 meeting, council had tentatively scheduled a private meeting to discuss the situation with Medallion Home, the current developer of the Lakes of Mount Dora which has been embroiled in a zoning dispute with the city for some time. At that meeting. Mr. Shepard reminded council that only the city attorney can call a “shade” meeting, so it would have to be cancelled and handled appropriately in the next council meeting.  So at last night’s meeting council scheduled an “open special session” on Dec. 8 between council, city staff and the attorney, and representatives from Medallion. Although the public may attend, there will be no public comment, according to the mayor.  “They and their lawyers know exactly why they are coming, and so do we,” said Mr. Shepard, though later in the meeting it became unclear whether he would be required to attend or not.

In his City Manager Update, Mr. Pastue said a commercial non-discrimination ordinance would soon be going to council for consideration. Ms. Tillett said that a a group of concerned citizens would like to present a draft of that ordinance to council in early in February. Mr. Shepard said he hoped the draft would be modeled on ordinances that have been successfully passed in other municipalities (Mascotte had recently passed one – which his firm had written) because doing so risks far less chance of challenge.

Pastue also brought up the request from Epic Theater to expedite three variances they want to planning and zoning to approve. Mr. Reggentin said the request was greatly accelerated over normal process and would require significant additional staff resources and have to be completed without the usual public notice or open meeting processes that accompany development approvals.

Mr. Shepard voiced a concern for “mission creep”: “If we do it for one, we will have to change the process of application for all,” allowing other developers to skirt processes. Mr. Rolfson said this was of special concern now with so many developers lining up on immediate road ahead.

However, Mayor Girone said that it had been too long to get this project going, and if the city could do anything to expedite it, they should. “This is what the community wants,” he said. Mr. Slaby said the city needs to show more enthusiasm for service.

Mr. Shepard suggested that the motion be amended to say that the city manager will do all he can that’s legal to expedite the process, and that motion carried.

Other items from Mr. Pastue’s update included changing the manner in which Council confirms election results, awarding holidays for city employees for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and a plan to conduct downtown parking needs survey from five simple locations.

Mr. Pastue’s final update mentioned the setting of future Council meeting agendas. Mr. Slaby took issue with because he felt the agenda was council’s job, not the city manager’s “The Mayor runs council,” he said. “He has the primary role of setting agendas.” Mr. Pastue said that for the city to operate smoothly, all parts have to work together. Mr. Girone added that he can’t be privy to everything that’s going on.

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The final agenda item was a review of the city attorney, Mr. Shepard. He began by saying that his employment was at-will and that he had no influence in what council decided. “I serve at your pleasure, you have absolute control over me.”

Mr. Crail said the review was high on his list. “It is my belief that contracts like this need to be reviewed on a periodic basis. I’m looking to review what’s out there for us. It’s our duty to make sure we don’t have contracts that go on forever without review.”

Mayor Girone, Council Member Mark Slaby, Council Member Cal Rolfson, Council Member Laurie Tillet

What Mr. Slaby did next astonished the room. He moved that the city discharge Mr. Shepard’s firm immediately and start working with an interim agency until a suitable replacement is found. “There is no longevity without review,” he said. “Mount Dora of 2006 is different from now. This is about fresh eyes to look at the city.”

Ms. Rich responded first, recalling how much money in litigation costs Mr. Shepard had save the city over the years and his reputation as an authority on Sunshine Law. (In one case, he saved the city $2 million in a utility dispute with the Sullivan Ranch subdivision without having to go to court.)

Mr. Rolfson was visibly upset. “This is huge. It is legally dangerous for us to do this. We should not risk the legal issues of 13,000 citizens because of campaign promises.” When he asked council if they had anything negative to say about Mr. Shepard’s service over the years, only newcomer Mr. Slaby spoke up, repeating that the city needed a fresh set of eyes.

Mr. Shepard spoke to defend himself against the only other possible issue—his cost—by sizing it up against his experience. “I have no problem competing on credentials…more so because I’m more qualified than any other lawyer you’re going to find,” he said. “You’re not going to find a lawyer that represents more cities and more governmental agencies, so on qualifications I have no issue.”

Public comment was heated.

“Mr. Slaby, this is the most irresponsible and nutty motion ever made to council,” said resident Rozann Abato. “If there is no performance issue, then what is the point? He has served us well. To dismiss him outright when we are facing the legal issues ahead is lunacy.”

Eventually, Mr. Slaby amended his motion to remove the discharge language and change it to a put out Request for Quote/Request for Proposal for other attorney services within 90 days.

In a vote that drew more groans from the remaining attendees, Council approved the measure with Mr. Rolfson and Ms. Rich voting no.

Council adjourned at 10:35 p.m. Outside the deep night was warm, but all the holiday lights flickering across Donnelly Park suggested a winter wonderland—far from the hard business at hand inside City Hall.

David Cohea, Writer (