Questions about legal review slow Mount Dora’s business at hand.
Graced by a strawberry moon on the summer solstice, Mount Dora city council capped off a short plate of business with a long debate about just how much of its business requires legal review by its new city attorney.
All members of council were present and quite visible, thanks to a reconfiguration of the dais by Parks and Rec director Roy Hughes. Bill Colbert (of Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert & Wigham) sat in for city attorney Lonnie Groot, who was out of the country.
Rev. Tom Biery, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Dora. gave an invocation for the victims, families and first responders involved in the Pulse massacre in Orlando.
Council approved a proclamation by the city expressing its “sadness, condolences and encouragement” to Orlando in the wake of the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting. Copies will be sent to both Orlando city mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County mayor Teresa Jacobs.
During public comment, resident Richard Eggert spoke in support of more proactive code enforcement in the city, something recommended by some members of council at their previous meeting. He said the city’s borderline neighborhoods “need help,” and suggested that enforcement be taken over by Planning and Zoning.
Megan Glass, the city’s information officer, presented planned updates to the city’s website. The website hosting platform and content management system (CMS) are contracted with Civic Plus, and every four years a free refresh along these lines are offered as part of its $11,000 a year contract. Cityofmountdora.com gets about 80,000 page views and 34,000 unique visitors a month, with the home page and online bill pay page the most popular. The refresh will streamline navigation, provide an updated calendar, allow departments more latitude to brand their own sections and update the overall look. Council had no significant concerns. The updates go live the first week of August.
Council next entertained the first reading of an ordinance to amend the city’s land development code for the Innovation District to allow limited multi-family home development. This ordinance simply brings the land development code in sync with changes already made to the comprehensive plan at the April 19 council meeting. The express goal in this and previous councils is to assure that development in the Innovation District has commercial priority. Council approved the reading 7-0 with no discussion or public comment.
Just as the meeting had settled into a productive clip, the next agenda items tangled council in a protracted debate about how much legal review by the new city attorney is required for the city to do its business.
Interim city manager Leinbach prefaced the discussion by saying that the next two items—both engineering proposals—bring up an issue of “role clarification” between the administrative and legal functions of the city, and he wanted council’s direction.
Public works director John Peters was brought to the podium to explain the issue. The long-awaited road expansion and utility relocation projects related to the Wekiva Parkway are now rolling out. The city maintains a number of contracts with consultants for various aspects of this major project—utility lines and relocations, the road relocation at Wastewater Plant 2, etc—and as work is needed, addendums to those contracts for things like engineering, design and easement acquisition are brought to council. All of the contracts had received legal review by then-city attorney Cliff Shepard.
Leinbach said that since these engineering items were covered under existing contracts, he didn’t see them needing legal review. However, city attorney Groot disagrees, saying they proposals should go through him. Leinbach said this sort of scrutiny had not been standard operating procedure in the city in the past, and asked council if this is the direction they now wanted to go.
“This is a matter of trust in your skills (Peters) and the city manager,” said councilman Cal Rolfson (second district). ‘I don’t see what the legal review should be.”
Mark Slaby (at-large) took the opposite position. “We haven’t asked our city attorney for help (on this) and I think that is odd. There is a moral hazard to this”—meaning the cost to the city for additional attorney services, now billable by the hour—”but I am wondering of the need to pass this tonight. We should have legal review. As a council member, I have a fiduciary duty to ensure that the city doesn’t expose itself to financial risk.”
Peters said that he hoped to get these proposals passed at the night’s meeting to keep up with a tight schedule rolling out related projects.
Bill Colbert, the attorney sitting in for Lonnie Groot, was asked his opinion. Colbert said that while he didn’t disagree with Peters’ statement that these engineering requests were part of the existing contract, most cities amending contracts ask for legal review. He added that some contracts were written on engineering firms’ forms which sometimes are drafted in favor of the contractor. He said the review of these two items needn’t be a “dandruff to nails review,” but he recommended it anyway.
Mayor Girone was not in favor. “If we put everything up to (legal) review, I’m not sure that would be prudent, either,” he said.
Ed Rowlett (third district) said an hour and a half of legal fees was a lot less than “a mistake that might cost us $10,000 dollars.”
Mark Crail (fourth district) suggested that the city attorney come up with a set of guidelines for what does and doesn’t require legal review. “There are dozens, even hundreds of change orders that can come in a big construction project.”
“That could cost us dearly,” said Cal Rolfson. “Especially now that we’re paying by the hour.”
Council seemed in agreement with Crail’s suggestion to ask the city attorney create guidelines for legal review and moved on to address the business at hand.
The first proposal to approve an addendum to the BESH engineering contract for $47,575 in additional design and easement services along Britt Road, was passed 6-1, with Slaby casting the sole dissenting vote.
The second proposal was to authorize a $26,200 purchase order to the same engineering firm for master planning of utilities along Round Lake Road, paid for out of a 2014 construction bond.
Mark Slaby reiterated that he couldn’t support it without legal review and Ed Rowlett agreed, saying without legal review the city is vulnerable to “a $10,000 mistake.”
In public comment, resident Rozann Abato criticized council for not putting enough trust in staff. “You consistently say what an incredible staff we have here in the city. I can’t imagine how such an excellent staff would not thoroughly review these things before making their recommendations. Legal review of every dot and tittle isn’t necessary.”
Back to council, Laurie Tillett said that legal review protects staff.
Mark Crail said he agreed, “but the flip side is that if Mr. Peters or Mr. Leinbach are unsure in any way, they would ask for legal review. When it’s boilerplate stuff, we have to rely upon their experience and discretion.”
The motion to approve carried 5-2 with Slaby and Rolfson casting the dissenting votes.
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The third item of old business was consideration of a staff recommendation to approve FDOT utility engineering agreements for Wekiva Sections 3A and 3B to the tune of a total $246,000, reiumbursable to the city by the FDOT. Laurie Tillett asked if there are overruns, will the FDOT cover them? (Peters: According to the contract, overruns are payable by the engineering firm.) Mark Slaby asked if there had been legal review. (Peters: The entire document had been reviewed). Council passed this item 7-0.
Concluding old business, council considered a recommendation to renew a 5-year agreement with First Baptist Church Shelter for use for city personnel and their families during emergency events. In return for use of the space, the city provides a 200 kilowatt generator and maintains it. In the only discussion, Mark Slaby asked if the city attorney had reviewed the agreement. (He had.) Council passed the recommendation. The new agreement goes into effect June 21.
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City manager Leinbach then addressed an item that was added to the agenda that night regarding the updated agreement with Lake County to pave a three-block stretch of Fifth Avenue from Alexander to Tremain. At their last council meeting, an earlier proposal had the city not only paying for half of the paving costs (about $26,000), but also taking ownership of the road (and all responsibility for future repairs) at that time. Apparently Mayor Girone had spearheaded the project and public works director John Peters had not been included in the negotiations. Council saw many problems with the agreement; significantly, with the street in terrible shape, all of the financial responsibility for future repairs would fall upon the city. (You can read council’s deliberations on this in our summary of the meeting; a link to video of the meeting is included.) Cal Roflson had called it “a sweetheart deal for the County,” and council told Leinbach to get with Peters and go back to negotiate something better.
This time it was all good news. According to Leinbach, the County now agrees to drop all references to Mount Dora’s taking ownership of the road and responsibility for any later repairs. All the city has to do is pay for half for this paving project. This will allow the county to move the project to the top of its roads priorities list and get started soon on the work.
Council was mostly supportive although they recognized they were only getting a temporary fix. (At some later point, all of it will have to be torn up to replace aged utility pipes below and then properly milling and paving the street.) “This may be putting lipstick on a pig,” said Laurie Tillett, “but I’d rather have lipstick on a pig than an ugly pig.”
Marie Rich (at-large) was not in favor of the quick fix, saying that what the city should do instead is move up its 5th Avenue streetscape project and get it all done at once.
Mayor Girone reiterated what he had said at the previous council meeting, that downtown merchants were told they would get a break for a while before the city initiated more construction downtown (he had said three years, but it was actually one year). Laurie Tillett added that the city is spending big dollars right now on big construction projects now rolling out at the city’s edge.
The motion passed 6-1 with Marie Rich dissenting.
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In the only item of new business, council deliberated a request for a road closure of Edgerton Court for the second annual Mount Dora Seafood Festival, August 26-28. No one on council had an issue with the event or the request, but comments spiraled out with questions about staff performance. Laurie Tillett questioned whether enough staff had been budgeted, and she was worried that the planned kids’ area was to close to the edge of Lake Dora, an alligator habitat. Mark Slaby questioned if the city was being properly reimbursed for use of their facilities, saying the use of Elizabeth Evans Park should be charged for three days’ use, not two, and wondered if use of the parking area should also be a chargeable item, since merchants are deprived of those spaces for their customers. Tillett joined back in saying the city should do a review of its fee structure of all its events.
Parks and Rec director Roy Hughes said that since there are no other events that time of year, the Seafood Festival is warmly received by downtown merchants. He added that Parks and Rec had just updated their billing policies and that more signs warning of alligators and snakes are being added to the lakefront.
Council passed the recommendation 7-0.
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In his city manager’s update, Lienbach said that renovations are continuing on the interior of the Martin Luther King Center. Laurie Tillett praised the move, which is seeing more use now as senior events now staged there are becoming popular.
Leinbach added that the recruiting contractor will be submitting to council on July 5 a synopsis of its 5-10 recommended candidates for the permanent city manager position. Interviews will be scheduled in the weeks soon after.
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In council comment, Mark Slaby again rolled out a laundry list of items he wants council to address, including: Getting a policy regarding legal review of purchasing procedures on the agenda; getting a presentation on the parking survey prior to council’s goal-setting meeting; hiring an economic development manager; changing code enforcement to one entirely compliance-based; getting a city flag; making freedom a big theme of its Fourth of July celebration; and thanking all those who choose to run for municipal office this fall.
Ed Rowlett asked about fallen tree limbs in the library parking area and what was being done about the problem. (John Peters: five trees are of concern, and an arborist has been hired to make recommendations for removal.)
Mayor Girone echoed Mark Slaby’s desire for a city flag. He said he doesn’t have the authority to lower the official flags now flying outside City Hall —only the President can do that—but he could order a city flag to be lowered. He suggested a flag design contest. Gwen Keough-Johns, the city clerk, reminded Mayor Girone that the city already has a seal. Mayor Girone said maybe the city flag could incorporate it.
And with that, council was done with their business for the night, adjourning in time to catch the last of light on the longest day of the year glowing a faint orange on the white walls of City Hall. A strange, doubting cast of light, crepuscular and weak, as if to raise questions about the commonweal of elected and professional government and the growing distance between them under a new attorney’s gaze.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)