Monday, February 24, 2014

The Real Issues

I recently learned that Mayor Brooks and his supporters have been calling upon residents to vote for City Council candidate Eric Spaulding - warning that this election will decide the future of Cornerstone Charter School, the Belle Isle Police Department, and "everything else you love about this city." But despite Mayor Brooks' concerted efforts to cast this election as a decision about which candidates support our new city institutions and the services they provide, this is simply not the case.

There is not a single candidate in this election who favors cutting police services or closing Cornerstone, either of which would have devastating effects on our City. For that matter, Cornerstone has its own governing board and administration - City Council members have absolutely no say over Cornerstone's operations. So what are you really deciding in this election?

The real question is whether you approve of the way our City's present administration conducts business: Awarding high-price contracts to favored vendors, often without soliciting bids. Openly refusing to schedule meetings at times when working residents can attend. Repeatedly attempting to violate our City Charter in pursuit of its own purposes. Hiring desired employees without job announcements or candidate searches. Waiting until the last possible moment before publicly addressing critical City issues in order to avoid resident inquiry and explain the lack of advance notice to residents.

In sum, this election is not about whether you support our City's new institutions like Cornerstone and the Belle Isle Police Department, but about whether you support the present administration's well-established pattern of backdoor dealing and making decisions without resident involvement.

That may have sounded rhetorical, but it's not. Many residents believe that this is how a government should operate. For example, one of Mr. Spaulding's supporters recently stated on Facebook that Mr. Spaulding's frequent absences from City Council meetings are excusable because the real work is done behind the scenes, not in public meetings.

It's up to you to decide whether you support this way of conducting business. But know that regardless of how you vote, the sun will continue to shine, the police will continue to patrol, and the students at Cornerstone will go about their business. The only thing you get to decide in this election is who you think best represents your vision of how our City government should operate.

Please make every effort to share this information with your Belle Isle friends and neighbors. It would be a tragedy to see Belle Isle residents work so hard at holding a full and fair election, complete with a citizen-organized candidate forum, only to have the election decided based on misinformation about the issues. If you'd like to print this article, you should see a green "Print" button below (click on the article title above if you don't see it).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Transparency Should Be Free

By now, you should have received the Spring 2014 edition of the Belle Isle Bulletin. As you may be aware, City Hall recently revived our City's tradition of mailed bulletins as part of it's new "transparency" push to get important information out to the residents of Belle Isle. City Hall is certainly talking the right talk when it speaks of increasing governmental transparency and encouraging resident involvement, but is it walking the walk?

City Hall's initial effort to bolster communications was to hire Kacie Boniberger, our City's first ever "Communications Manager." She was hired on July 15, 2013 at a salary of over $30,000 per year. The Communications Manager position was never formally advertised by the City, so I am unsure how City Hall located Ms. Boniberger for the position.

Although Ms. Boniberger recently left her employment at Belle Isle, she certainly managed to increase the volume of City Hall communications during her tenure here. These days, subscribed residents receive email notices from the City multiple times per week in addition to the mailed bulletins. But sheer volume means little when the vital information is left out.

Transparency and open communication mean notifying residents of all important information, not just the information that City Hall finds convenient. Despite sending out three email notices regarding the City's showing of "Despicable Me 2," City Hall has never sent a single email notice about the election or the qualification dates for potential candidates. Were it not for the hard work of Belle Isle residents in convincing the City Council to pass the "Bernstein Ordinance," residents would not have received anything about the positions up for elections or the qualification deadline, which many potential candidates don't realize comes up four months before the election.

I have heard a lot of City Council discussion over the past year about using the Belle Isle Bulletin as a vehicle to get information out to the residents about elections and important city decisions. So as I opened the Spring 2014 Bulletin, mailed just before our first City Council election in almost a decade, I assumed that a large section would be devoted to information about the upcoming election.

Instead, I found nothing in the entire eight page newsletter. Outside of a small "Municipal Election Day" entry in the calendar section containing no election information whatsoever, the only mention of the upcoming election was in Commissioner Readey's opinion column in the "Commissioners' Corner" section.

Except for Commissioner Readey's thoughts buried on the last page, the Spring 2014 Bulletin contains nothing to clarify the fact that Belle Isle voting is "at large" and that all voters get to vote in both upcoming elections. Nothing about which districts are up for election or who is running. No information about when and where to vote or how to request an absentee ballot.

So while I certainly appreciate City Hall's recent focus on the idea of transparency and open communication, our elected representatives have a long way to go towards implementing real change. Transparency doesn't mean spending taxpayer money on a full-time communications manager or an expensive web designer, it simply means that our elected representatives should communicate with residents before important deadlines and City Council decisions. Transparency should be free.

When City Hall begins announcing election information beyond the bare minimum required by law, when our City Council representatives finally stand up and say "NO" to controversial changes in city services without advance notice to residents, that's when you'll know that Belle Isle has made some real progress towards city transparency!

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Few Words About Cornerstone

by Sue Nielsen

Here at the Belle Isle Sun, we have heard that some residents are unclear on the Sun's stance towards Cornerstone Charter Academy. So I wanted to take a moment to make sure readers have all the facts.

Having a local school in our community benefits families with Cornerstone students as well as those without. The benefits to families with Cornerstone students are clear. A school within our community is easily accessible to parents and students. It also gives parents the peace of mind that their children are safe and nearby.

Besides safety and convenience, a small charter school like Cornerstone brings the benefit of flexibility to respond to the particular interests and needs of our unique community. I appreciate that Cornerstone requires parent involvement and volunteer hours to ensure that the parents are active participants in their children's education progress.

In addition, Cornerstone brings tangible benefits to the many Belle Isle homeowners who do not have children attending the school. A good school within our community attracts younger home buyers and increases property values throughout our city. I’m sure this economic benefit is something we can all appreciate.

I personally have a vested interest in Cornerstone Charter Academy, both as a homeowner and as a grandparent whose grandson may one day attend Cornerstone. I want to ensure the success of our charter school as well as the financial well-being of our city. To that end, here are my thoughts on some of the ways we could improve Cornerstone:

I am opposed to micromanagement of schools by government officials. The proper role of a school board is to set school policy and hire a school administrator who will run the school on a day-to-day basis. I have been told that we have an excellent administrator at Cornerstone. It is now time for our city government to step back and allow her to do her job instead of attempting to micromanage the school from City Hall.

Furthermore, I do not support the idea of our city paying over a half-million dollars per year to a for-profit company to manage Cornerstone Charter Academy when our school’s administration is more than capable of handling this task. I believe that spending taxpayer money intended for the education of Cornerstone students to instead benefit a corporation like Academica is a misuse of your tax dollars.

If you'd like to learn a little more about Academica, please see the below article:

Academica: Florida’s richest charter school management firm

I also echo the sentiments of many Belle Isle residents who take issue with the methods our city government used to procure the school facilities and establish the school. Just as with the Belle Isle Fire Department, many residents felt betrayed by the way our elected city officials pushed this huge financial commitment through without any effort to give residents advance notice that our city was even considering the purchase of a charter school. Openness inspires citizen confidence, and I believe that a little extra effort to notify the public when important issues are coming up before the Council is a vital step towards establishing real transparency in Belle Isle.

But regardless how you feel about the way our charter school was procured and established, it is vital that residents of Belle Isle continue to support Cornerstone. Our city is committed to Cornerstone and we cannot afford for it to fail. While our city officials are fond of stating that the City of Belle Isle is not directly responsible for the $9.6 million dollar debt we incurred to purchase the school facilities, the fact is that failure of the charter school could financially devastate Belle Isle.

Do you still have questions for me about Cornerstone Charter Academy or anything else? Please give me a call at (205) 253-8841 or write me at

Monday, February 10, 2014

Belle Isle Candidate Forum Next Monday

I just received word that the City of Belle Isle Community Group on Facebook has organized a Belle Isle candidate forum event for next Monday, February 17. Here's the program description:
There will be an open forum for the citizens of Belle Isle to meet our four gracious candidates that have stepped up to run as a Belle Isle council member.  The forum will be held at Pine Castle Women's Club at 7:00 p.m. on February 17. I'm asking for recommendations for a neutral moderator. Please keep in mind that we are asking that all candidates be treated with the utmost respect. Also, please respect those asking questions. This is nothing more than an opportunity to get to know our candidates a little better.

 ~Amy Sutherland Trendafilov
Please chime in on the City of Belle Isle Community Group Facebook page if you have a suggestion for program moderator. I am told that the League of Women Voters have provided excellent program moderators for similar events in the past.

Please be sure to mark your calendar for Monday, February 17 at 7:00 p.m. Again, the forum will be held at the Pine Castle Women's Club located at 5901 South Orange Avenue.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

2014 City Council Candidate Questionnaires

Voting by mail has begun in the 2014 Belle Isle City Council election. "Voting by mail" is the new official term for absentee voting, and is meant to reflect the fact that you don't have to have any reason or excuse to request an absentee ballot. If you want to request an absentee ballot, you can call the Supervisor of Elections office at (407) 836-2070, or just click the following link to request an absentee ballot online:

Orange County Absentee Ballot Request

With residents preparing to cast their votes, it's time for the results of the Belle Isle Sun 2014 Candidate Questionnaire. To view the responses, simply click on each candidate's name or picture below.

Happy reading! If you want to ask a question or request a yard sign from a candidate, you can quickly find the candidates' contact information at the link below. I'm sure the candidates would love to hear from you!

City Council Candidate Contact Info

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Canvassing Board Changes Temporarily Tabled

At last night's meeting, Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles spoke regarding the importance and responsibilities of an election canvassing board. Following this presentation, the City Council discussed Proposed Ordinance 14-01, which would change the Belle Isle canvassing procedure in local elections.

City Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher cautioned the Council that the month before an election is not an opportune time to overhaul our City's election procedure. He advised the Council to table the proposed ordinance until after the election when it could be considered in outside of a politicized climate and without the "specter" of any wrongdoing. After considering Mr. Kruppenbacher's advice, the Council voted to table Proposed Ordinance 14-01 until after the upcoming election.

Mr. Kruppenbacher further stated that he does not believe that Proposed Ordinance 14-01 violates Article 3.03 of the Belle Isle City Charter, an issue raised by Commissioner Harvey Readey. However, Mr. Kruppenbacher used this question to highlight why he believes, along with Mayor Brooks, that it is time for Belle Isle to revise and update its entire City Charter, including Article 3.03.

To this end, Bill Cowles offered his assistance to ensure that any future City Charter revisions are compliant with state and local election laws. Mr. Cowles believes that the best way to do this is to have the City Charter simply defer to state and local law wherever possible, only filling in the blanks where necessary.

Thank you to all the residents who attended last night's meeting. I hope to see you all again next month!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Canvassing Information from Bill Cowles & Meeting Agenda

This afternoon, I spoke with Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles about some resident concerns regarding Proposed Ordinance 14-01, which changes the composition of Belle Isle's election canvassing board. According to Mr. Cowles, the primary function of an election canvassing board is to certify voter ballots and election results.

The election canvassing process takes place at the Supervisor of Elections office at 119 West Kaley Street (also where early voting takes place). Elections canvassing happens on election day and is open to the public. The requirements and procedures for election canvassing are set forth by state and local law.

However, the canvassing board still has a significant amount of discretionary authority. Mr. Cowles explained that one of the principal discretionary functions of the canvassing board is to determine whether absentee voter signatures match those from their voter records. Such determinations are made solely by the canvassing board and are binding unless challenged in the courts.

With something as important as our local elections results on the line, it is reckless to attempt a major change our City's canvassing procedures before next month's election. Surely our City Council representatives members can endure one evening of election canvassing while we take additional time to properly consider the effect of Proposed Ordinance 14-01 and whether it is even legal under the Belle Isle City Charter. This would also allow the vote on Proposed Ordinance 14-01 to take place at a regular council meeting, instead of a special meeting called for the sole purpose of passing this ordinance before the upcoming election.

If you want to know more about elections canvassing, Mr. Cowles will be attending the February 4 City Council meeting to explain the canvassing process and answer resident questions. An agenda this meeting was finally posted today by City Hall, you can view a copy here:

February 4 City Council Meeting Agenda

Please be at the meeting this Tuesday, Febraury 4 at 5:30 p.m. for a discussion of election canvassing and Proposed Ordinance 14-01, as well as other City matters. See you there!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Election Canvassing Changes at Tuesday Meeting - Potential Charter Violation

There will be a City Council meeting this Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. Although this meeting begins in less than 48 hours, City Hall has yet to publish an agenda that would allow residents to know what will be discussed at the upcoming meeting. However, last week's workshop meeting revealed some clues as to City Hall's agenda for this Tuesday.

I previously speculated that City Hall's purpose in calling a special meeting last week was to allow for an initial reading of Proposed Ordinance 14-01, an ordinance designed to change Belle Isle's election canvassing requirements. (You can read more about it here.) It appears that the actual purpose of last week's special meeting was to appoint Commissioner Karl Shuck onto the Cornerstone Charter School Board of Directors. I am unclear as to why this school board appointment was so pressing that it required City Hall to call a special meeting in advance of the regular Council meeting scheduled for six days later.

Regardless, Proposed Ordinance 14-01 was not given an initial reading last week, but will be given its first reading and discussion at the Council meeting this Tuesday. It was also indicated at last week's meeting that City Hall plans another special meeting in the coming weeks to pass Proposed Ordinance 14-01 in advance of the March 11 election.

Residents often question City Hall's motives when special meetings are called to pass a controversial ordinance or make a major decision. While the purpose of this ordinance may be entirely innocuous, the sudden rush to pass it in advance of the March 11 election, and outside of the eyes of the regular meeting attendees, may make residents question the real reason City Hall is pushing so hard to have it passed in advance of the election.

Furthermore, Commissioner Harvey Readey states that Proposed Ordinance 14-01 violates our City Charter. Specifically, changing the composition of our City's election canvassing board would violate section 3.03 of the Belle Isle City Charter, which clearly states that "The city council shall be the judge of the election and qualification of its own members, subject to review by the court." The City Charter cannot be changed without a public referendum to the voters of Belle Isle.

Please plan to attend the the City Council meeting this Tuesday, February 4 at 5:30 p.m. for discussion of Proposed Ordinance 14-01 as well as any other matters that may be added to the as-yet-unposted agenda. Hope to see you there!