Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The More You Know...

As our City Council has begun to more seriously discuss City issues over the past months, an interesting difference in opinion between certain City officials has become clear. The issue was highlighted openly by Commissioner Shuck at the recent January 6, 2015 meeting, when he made the following statement in the context of considering plans for Delia Beach Park proposed by the UCF Stormwater Management Academy:

"Just one thing while we're on this [topic], and it really deals with any large city projects, it kind of seems that individual commissioners are going and talking to UCF and Dr. Chang and various and assorted things, which is fine..."

"That's our job." stated Commissioner Readey.

"Well, I beg to differ. I personally think that is the city manager's job because that's what he's paid for, to run the city," responded Commisioner Shuck. "We put our faith in the city manager, I think we ought to keep it there."

This exchange highlights extremely differing viewpoints regarding the Council's role in our City's governance. Whereas Commissioner Shuck advocates for a "hands off" approach, in which City Council members simply vote on whatever ideas are presented by the City Manager, Commissioner Readey believes in City Council members taking an active interest in reviewing City planning, construction and expenditures as well as personally exploring new ideas for our City. That's why you'll often find Commissioner Readey out and about examining our lakes, streets and parks so that he can form his own ideas regarding City issues.

This dichotomy was further explored at the January 28, 2015 workshop meeting when Mayor Brooks chastised Commissioner Readey for independently seeking to verify the competitiveness of the Belle Isle Police Department.

By way of background, I am sure most readers are aware of the string of troubles that affected the Belle Isle Police Department last year and finally ended with the resignation and eventual indictment of Belle Isle's prior Chief of Police. In the wake of these extremely troubling events, which posed serious ethical and financial implications for the City of Belle Isle, many residents contacted their commissioners with concerns about the propriety and financial status of the Belle Isle Police Department.

To help alleviate some of these concerns, Commissioner Readey made a quick call to Sheriff Demmings, known personally to Commissioner Readey through his many years of service as a Sheriff's volunteer, in order to inquire what the present rate would be for Orange County's police services. Although Sheriff Demming's response - providing a formal written proposal several months after the initial request for information - may have been a bit of an over-response to an informal personal inquiry, the proposal is quite illuminating as it directly addresses the question of whether the Belle Isle Police Department is competitive as compared to their Orange County counterparts.

The proposal demonstrates that not only would Orange County's services cost the City more, but our level of police service would be greatly reduced. So why is this bad news for Belle Isle, which now has indisputable evidence of the BIPD's service level and efficiency? According to Mayor Brooks at this morning's meeting, even asking for facts related to the BIPD is harmful to the City because it undermines faith in our police. It appears that the same concern did not apply in 2012 and 2013 when Mayor Brooks sought to evaluate the service level and efficiency of our Orange County firefighters by initiating a feasibility study for a Belle Isle fire department.

Regardless, the evidence clearly shows that our Belle Isle Police Department is a good value for the citizens and that we are getting better service than we would be receiving from Orange County. Furthermore, even those most vocal regarding their concerns about the BIPD at the time of Chief Jackson's resignation have come to have significant faith in the BIPD under Chief Ring's leadership. That is an amazingly quick turnaround in the public relations world and Chief Ring should be extremely proud of his part in this achievement.

But in spite of Attorney Kruppenbacher's unequivocal opinion that Commissioner Readey "did nothing wrong," Mayor Brooks again admonished Commissioner Readey for seeking information about Orange County's services because Mayor Brooks "already knew" that the BIPD is the best thing for Belle Isle. Fortunately, Commissioners Gold and Nielsen brought a voice of reason to the table, stating that it is always good to have more information, if for no other reason than to quell the concerns of interested citizens.

Interestingly, it appears that a local TV reporter is investigating a news story about whether Belle Isle will be going back to Orange County's police services. The answer is a clear and resounding "no," as every single Commissioner affirmed their solid commitment to keeping and supporting the BIPD's services (except Commissioner Ady who is still recovering from a recent medical issue - please wish him well).

But while reporters can always request public documents, the question becomes how any reporter knew that this proposal had been received by the City. Although Commissioner Readey requested that the proposal be distributed to Council so they would all be aware of its contents, the City Council was not actually informed of the receipt of any proposal until City Manager Keith Severns and Mayor Brooks used the proposal as the basis for an "ambush attack" against Commissioner Readey at this morning's meeting.

Commissioner Readey, presently up for reelection, is a long-time proponent of instating performance reviews for our City Manager and also one of the few Commissioners willing to question our Mayor at public meetings. It was entirely improper for our City Manager and Mayor to present Orange County's proposal in a manner clearly designed to demonstrate that Commissioner Readey wants to "destroy the BIPD," though nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Florida Statutes, Section 110.233(4)(b) states that it is "unlawful" and "prohibited" for a city official or employee to "[u]se the authority of his or her position to secure support for, or oppose, any candidate, party, or issue in a partisan election or affect the results thereof."

If this situation sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it bears a striking resemblance to what took place in last year's election, when Commissioner Nielsen's political opponents attempted to paint her as trying to "destroy Cornerstone" simply because she inquired about the school's organization and finances. Our City Council needs accurate information to make the important decisions that affect all of us. Our elected officials should be praised, not attacked, for volunteering their time to ensure they are acting on accurate information. In the immortal words of that old NBC ad:

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