Monday, July 29, 2013

Wednesday Agenda and The Bernstein Mistake [UPDATE]

The agenda for Wednesday's workshop meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m. in City Hall, has been posted to the City website. There are many important items on the this month's agenda including:

  • Belle Aire Luxury Homes planned development
  • An urban chickens pilot program
  • Water quality report regarding the "Wipeout" event
  • The 2013-2014 proposed budget for Belle Isle

Documents regarding each of these agenda items, including our City's proposed budget, are attached to the meeting agenda.  You can find a copy of the meeting agenda here:


Additionally, our City Attorney will be presenting on the proposed "Bernstein Ordinance," which was requested by a number of residents for the purpose of announcing candidate qualification dates. Many potential candidates for Commissioner or Mayor never get to run because they are unaware that they must qualify in a specific week in November - four months before the upcoming election in March of the following year. The Bernstein Ordinance was designed to ensure that all potential candidates will be made aware of the qualification dates.

Proposed City Ordinance 13-07, represents our City Attorney's attempt to codify the Bernstein Ordinance. You can find it attached to the last two pages of the workshop meeting agenda. As drafted, proposed Ordinance 13-07 contains a major mistake, as well as some omissions, which will undercut its entire purpose:

1.  The proposed ordinance has been drafted to announce election dates, not candidate qualification dates as requested by Dr. Bernstein and others. Although announcing election dates is great, this is not the purpose of the ordinance. The purpose is to ensure that all residents are notified of the date by which they need to register to run for office.

2.  Although the ordinance correctly requires no less than 90 days advance notice, it also needs to state the maximum number of days notice permitted. This will ensure that the announcements won't go out so early that potential candidates forget about the qualification date before it actually comes up. Under the ordinance as written, the announcements could be sent out a year or more in advance and still technically satisfy its requirements.

3.  Two qualification announcements were requested by Dr. Bernstein in his proposed ordinance. One at six months out and another at three months out from the qualification date. Although proposed ordinance 13-07 addresses the three month notice, it appears that the six month notice didn't make it into the ordinance as drafted.

Obviously, the mistake described in number 1 above is most crucial as it undercuts the entire purpose of the ordinance. While it is unclear how this mistake could have happened, since both Dr. Bernstein and I provided drafts of the proposed ordinance to the Council, it should be easy enough to address these issues at the Wednesday workshop meeting.

But here's the rub. As of this moment, the Wednesday meeting has not been designated a "special" meeting. This means that residents may not be given the opportunity to speak, and we will therefore need to ensure that our elected representatives speak for us to get this proposed ordinance corrected. So please call or email your Commissioner and make sure that he or she is aware of these problems with the proposed ordinance. Your Commissioner's contact information can be found here.

UPDATE 7/30/13:  According to Commissioner Readey, the problem noted in #1 above was an honest mistake made by the City Attorney which will be corrected before Wednesday's meeting. However, I believe it is still important to address the issue raised in #2 above. This wouldn't be difficult, simply add the following language at the beginning of line 15 of the proposed ordinance: "No more than one hundred twenty (120) days prior to and no less than ninety (90) days prior to..."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Belle Isle's Latest Distinction: The Hiring of Keith Severns

by Sue Nielsen

After recently approving Keith Severns' City Manager contract on July 26, Belle Isle has earned the dubious distinction of hiring one of the highest-paid and least-qualified city managers in all of central Florida – perhaps in the entire state! A comparison of city manager qualifications in cities throughout the Sunshine State reveals that virtually all city managers have at least a four year college degree if not a graduate degree. Many city managers also have over ten years of experience in the job.  By comparison, Keith Severns has only earned a high school diploma and had zero City Manager experience prior to being hired by our City. So the reasoning behind our City Council's choice to hire Mr. Severns without considering other applicants, and then pay him one of the highest city manager salaries in the state, is rather unclear.

Although many factors go into determining a city manager salary, the general trend is that larger cities pay more than smaller cities with regard to salary and benefits. Other factors include whether the city has municipal utilities and the number of city employees. As a small city with no municipal utilities and relatively few city employees, there don't seem to be any factors supporting anything higher than a modest City Manager salary.

Mayor Brooks previously stated that he asked our city attorney to research salaries, responsibilities, and qualifications for comparable city manager positions. However, either this research was never performed or the city attorney never made his report public. Regardless, a contract was presented at the June 29 workshop meeting after being added to the meeting agenda less than 12 hours before the 8:30 a.m. workshop meeting.

The emergency that justified this last minute addition to the meeting agenda remains a mystery. However, Commissioner Readey suspects that the city manager contract was added to the agenda after Mayor Brooks learned that Mr. Readey – a vocal opponent to this City Manager contract – would be absent from the workshop meeting for medical reasons. Mr. Readey believes that the Council rushed to vote on the city manager contract in his absence to ensure a smooth approval without opposition.

So after every Commissioner in attendance voted to approve the contract at last month’s workshop meeting, Mr. Severns has finally received his written City Manager contract. He now receives a base salary of $150,000 per year plus generous benefits including a $500 per month vehicle allowance and the ability to remain on the City payroll for an additional six months after termination of his employment contract. You can view a copy of his entire employment contract here:

City Manager Contract from July 26, 2013 Meeting Agenda

Although our City Attorney never performed, or at least never presented, any of his promised research on city managers, I performed my own research and emailed it to Mayor Brooks and each City Commissioner on May 7, 2013. I received no response from anyone at City Hall except Commissioner Readey. Apparently, no one else thought these facts were relevant to determining a fair and reasonable salary for our City Manager. Here are the facts that our City Council had before them before approving Mr. Severns’ hiring and $150,000+ salary:

I obtained city population information from the 2010 census data. Then I selected cities throughout Florida that have a manager-council form of government as well as populations within 1500 residents of Belle Isle’s estimated population. By accessing the Florida Statewide Government Personnel Survey, I was able to produce the following table summarizing the city manager salaries and education levels in those cities.

CityPopulationSalaryEducationExperience
Treasure Island7500$105,046Bachelor's Degree10 years
Clewiston6357$85,000Bachelor's Degree3-4 years
Dade City6133$75,000Bachelor's Degree10 years
Fellsmere5108$115,000Bachelor's Degree5-7 years
High Springs5350$55,000Bachelor's Degree10 years
Live Oak6480$65,000Bachelor's Degree10 years
Newberry4950$86,112Master's Degree10 years
Sanibel6374$105,046Bachelor's Degree10 years
St. Augustine Beach6241$106,587Bachelor's Degree5-7 years
Surfside5800$18,000Bachelor's Degree10 years

So the next time you hear Mayor Brooks complain about the minuscule cost of mailing election announcements, or the next time he says that the City does not have money to fix your broken sidewalk or constantly-flooded street, think of the above table and the over $150,000 per year we are paying to Mr. Severns. Consider how many highly educated and experienced individuals in our area would happily take Mr. Severns’ job for half the amount we are paying him. I know I can name a few.

Remember that the qualification date for city council candidates from districts 1 and 7 is coming up this November. It’s time we elect some new Commissioners who will stand up to the corruption and cronyism that has permitted our City Council to approve such an exorbitant salary for a high-school educated city manager with no prior experience. Please email the Sun at contact@belleislesun.org if you are interested in running for Commissioner in districts 1 or 7. We’ll be happy to help you every step along the way!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Gateway Project "Survey"

I'm excited to introduce our first addition to the Sun editorial staff, Sue Nielsen! Although Sue has only lived in Belle Isle for about a year, she has significant experience in local government and is eager to help us pave the way for future changes at City Hall. Here's what Sue has to say:

If you read the Mayor’s Report in the recent Belle Isle Bulletin, you probably know that the Mayor’s vision is for the city it to be “central Florida’s premiere community.” What his article did not tell you is how this new plan will affect you, the community, your friends, and neighbors. We know from past experience that the Mayor’s plans are not always that popular with residents once the details are revealed. They also tend to cost a lot more than we expect. Could this be why our City has been in debt ever since Bill Brooks took office, even though it never was before in its entire history?

To promote the Mayor’s grand vision of becoming the “premiere community” - which means jumping into competition with much larger cites with much higher tax rates - our City paid Hahn and Hahn $25,000 to provide a 50% complete plan to show how this could be accomplished. Included in the $25,000 deal was a “survey” that would “engage the community” and show just how responsive our City Hall government is to its citizens. This sounds good in theory, until you actually look at the survey.

Guess how many of Belle Isle’s residents were asked for their thoughts on Belle Isle and its future direction? Seven! Also included is one former Belle Isle resident for a total of eight survey respondents. That is 0.1% of the population of Belle Isle. And there is more to wonder about. The respondents were all in the real estate business! Does this tell us something important about the purpose of the Gateway project? Does it make you feel that our City Hall wants to consider the opinions of all residents?

Citizen Responses from Survey Summary
Hahn and Hahn / Mayor’s Interpretation from Survey Summary & Belle Isle Bulletin
Charter school is disliked, called “Achilles’ heel”
Charter school is a “quality initiative” like the police department
Airport is convenient but noisy; not liked by all
Airport is a marketing plus
If you like Lake Nona, you won’t like Belle Isle, and vice-versa
Belle Isle needs bigger houses, mixed use areas, community gathering places, walking trail around lakes (more like Lake Nona)
No consistency about “blight” in Belle Isle; all respondents enjoy living here
Problem with “blight” on Hoffner, near Orange, and parts of Nela
No consensus about any needed change or redevelopment in Belle Isle
Belle Isle needs to leave a legacy, advance community desires, develop “Nela Row” shopping center, build expensive city gateways, and develop a community “brand”

As it turns out, the “results” of the survey as reported by Hahn and Hahn did not even consider the opinions of those few residents who were actually surveyed. In order to find out about this, I had to request the survey results from City Hall. The actual citizen comments, as compared to the interpretations of those comments, paint very different pictures. Below are a few examples:

And this is just a small sampling of the "selective" interpretations of the resident surveys. Make your own comparisons by reviewing the survey summary here. And don't forget that you can always find all the Sun's public records at records.belleislesun.org.

To put all this in a nutshell: the survey itself was done with a very small and select group. Even so, there was virtually no agreement between respondents’ comments and the Mayor’s vision as presented by Hahn and Hahn. As to the $25,000 paid for this “survey” and some partial plans, that amount is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the tremendous amounts our City will be spending on the Gateway project over the coming years.

Thanks again to Belle Isle resident Sue Nielsen for her contribution to this Sun! Do you have an idea for an article you'd like to publish? Please write me at contact@belleislesun.org.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Fourth of July Exercise in Democracy!

According to the discussion at Tuesday's Council meeting, the Bernstein Ordinance will be ready for presentation at next month's meeting. Now that the ball is rolling on the Bernstein Ordinance, it's time we address another crucial item for restoring democracy in Belle Isle: requiring general elections to replace retired Commissioners.

Are you aware that five of our seven Commissioners on the City Council were appointed by Mayor Brooks? How could this happen in our supposedly democratic society?

Ten years ago, the Mayor of Belle Isle only had the power to appoint replacement Commissioners when one retired or otherwise left office with less than six months remaining in his or her term. This Charter provision was reasonable - it prevented the City from having to run a hasty election when there were only a few weeks or months remaining in a retiring Commissioner's term.

When Mayor Brooks entered the scene, all of this changed. As the Council began to recognize that Bill Brooks was exercising the broad powers of his office much more fully than our previous Mayor, the Commissioners sought a change. To combat Mayor Brooks' excessive use of his office's power, the Council changed the City Charter to invest many of our Mayor's prior powers into the City Manager, who had to be approved by the Council.

Before permitting these Charter changes, Mayor Brooks demanded one seemingly small concession from the Council - the ability to appoint replacements for retiring Commissioners at any time in their three-year terms. Not realizing the potential effects of this Charter change, the Council conceded to Mayor Brooks demand.

Fast forward to today. Mayor Brooks has used his demanded power to appoint nearly every Commissioner on the Belle Isle City Council. With the Council in his pocket, Mayor Brooks proceeded to hire a City Manager who would follow the Mayor's orders without question. This means that Mayor Brooks has now regained the powers previously stripped by the Council while also adding the power to appoint the Council members who supposedly oversee his actions. Welcome to Belle Isle "democracy."

So I think it's time for a little Fourth of July exercise in representative democracy. Ever single person reading this article should call or write their Commissioner to let them know that the Charter has to change. Neither Bill Brooks, nor any future Mayor of Belle Isle, should ever again be permitted to appoint a member of the City Council. It's time to return to a sensible Charter that requires democratic elections of replacement Commissioners and only permits mayoral appointments when a Commissioner resigns during the final six months of a term.

Find your Commissioner's contact information below and contact him or her directly. Posting comments to the Sun, Facebook, or anywhere else is great for getting the word out, but it's not enough. The Council needs to see that we are committed to this cause and that we cannot be ignored!

Commissioner Map & Contact Info

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Attack on Commissioner Readey

At last Wednesday's workshop meeting, Mayor Brooks briefly discussed the council meeting he illegally cancelled last month. He stated that there had been violations of the law, leading those in attendance to believe that the Mayor was going to show some sign of contrition, or least acknowledge his violation of the law.

We could not have been more wrong. Instead of acknowledging that he had illegally cancelled last month's meeting, Mayor Brooks instead proceeded to attack Commissioner Harvey Readey for inquiring about the meeting cancellation. As you probably know, Commissioner Readey has been the only Council member in recent history to challenge Mayor Brooks' plans and questionable methods of accomplishing them.

Soon after learning of the last-minute meeting cancellation, Commissioner Readey emailed Mayor Brooks to inquire about the cancellation and its legality. Technically, this may have violated Florida's Sunshine Law, which prohibits elected officials from communicating outside of public meetings. But despite acknowledgement that the Council lacks Sunshine Law training, Mayor Brooks and City Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher did not hesitate to highlight Mr. Readey's minor violation without mentioning the Mayor's own breach of the law.

Had Mayor Brooks followed the legal procedure for rescheduling the prior Council meeting, Commissioner Readey's email would never have become necessary. Regardless, it seems that Mayor Brooks may intend to seize this opportunity to remove a thorn from his side and replace Commissioner Readey with a "friendlier" commissioner who will not question the Mayor's plans.

Call or email your commissioner and let them know how you feel about this attack on Commissioner Readey. And be sure to attend Tuesday's meeting to show your support for Harvey Readey and all he has done to promote democracy in our City.

City Hall's Latest Ploy & Tuesday Meeting Agenda

The Tuesday City Council meeting agenda has been posted, you can view a copy here:

City Council Meeting Agenda - July 2, 2013

The agenda states that the Council will be discussing the "surplus" building located at 5920 Randolph Avenue. It also mentions further Council discussion of the Inter-local Agreement with Orange County for Fire/Rescue services, which has still not been signed despite the City's seeming abandonment of its fire department plans. Although no other items are specifically mentioned in the agenda, many other topics may still be discussed at the meeting.

If you weren't at the workshop meeting last Wednesday, you may notice that discussion of the City Manager contract is conspicuously absent from this Tuesday's meeting agenda. This is because our City Manager contract was already hastily approved and awarded to Keith Severns at the last workshop meeting after being attached to the agenda at around 9:00 p.m. the night before the meeting. [Much more on the hiring of Keith Severns coming soon.]

How was the Council able to approve the City Manager contract at the workshop meeting when all Council votes are supposed to be reserved for regular Tuesday meetings? City Hall's latest ploy to thwart resident involvement is for Mayor Brooks to declare each Wednesday meeting as a "special meeting." By declaring these Wednesday morning meetings as "special" meetings, the Council can vote on controversial matters at a time when most residents are unable to attend and not expecting a vote - thereby allowing our elected representatives to avoid the hassle of having to listen to resident questions and concerns before voting.

How do you feel about City Hall's latest attempt to avoid your input and involvement? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, but please be sure to also contact your commissioner and make yourself heard at the upcoming Tuesday meeting on Tuesday, July 2 at 5:30 p.m.!