By Sean Hartman, Cape Coral Watchdog

This week’s Council Watch is brought to you by Keith Long’s BS Alarm.  Are you an elected official who is supposed to be fighting for your community, but have to deal with pesky City staffers who try to sway your decision instead of doing what they’re told because they forgot who the bosses really are? Detect their BS with Keith Long’s BS alarm.  

Here’s how it works: whenever a city staffer lies to you in an attempt to sway your decision on an important vote with spin or misinformation, a voice pops up in your head screaming “BS! BS! BS!” allowing you to react and call them out on it.

Keith Long’s BS Alarm will require you to shave your head to receive accurate BS frequencies, but it’s worth it to finally be alert on all the BS from city bureaucrats.

Now available at Farmer Joe’s.

Del Prado & De Navarra Have Too Many of De Crashes

At the request of District 7 Councilwoman Jessica Cosden, discussions on a traffic light at Del Prado Boulevard and De Navarra Parkway were moved before Citizens’ Input Time to allow city staff to make the necessary excuses before the Gator Circle residents chastised them.

City Manager Rob Hernandez wanted to “put everything into context” for citizens coming to speak about the intersection and had Mark Mason and Mike Ilczyczyn explain why the City Government responsible for roads can’t do anything about their roads.

“There’s a lot published on social media that makes it seem like the City is either unaware of the issue or just not interested in resolving the issue and I can tell you that is pure fiction,” said Rob Hernandez. 

Mark Mason explained that the chaos began on January 31, 2005 with a planned development called “Entrada.”  The Entrada was to be responsible for financing the traffic signal, which at the time was deemed unnecessary.  In a textbook example of government genius, the City was prohibited from adding traffic lights, thereby preventing them from solving the problem, or possibly just allowing them to place the blame elsewhere.

Fast-forward.  It’s 2023.  A lot has changed.  Cell phones have become smartphones, we are out of Afghanistan, we’ve had both a black AND an orange President.  Most importantly, the intersection of Del Prado & De Navarra now needs a traffic light.  

So naturally, the Entrada Community Association, responsible for the light, is ready to go with a traffic light.  They have the design.  They have a contractor.  What they don’t have is the $120,275.85 to pay for it.  

So they are asking the City Council to loan them the money to build the traffic light, which will take a year or more to be installed, as it has to be constructed and customized to the specifications of Del Prado & De Navarra, which itself could take 6-9 months.

Gator Circle residents are tired of the delays, as the City Council is keenly aware from the angry emails.  A temporary traffic light has been discussed, similar to those used after Hurricane Ian was approved, but they are not without their problems: temporary lights don’t have options for turns and there are no backup operations like regular lights, so if there’s a glitch, the whole traffic light will be down.

The City Council unanimously agreed that a loan was appropriate and necessary to expedite the traffic light and directed city staff to move forward with drafting the appropriate ordinance.  An additional intersection, Del Prado and Averill, had a traffic light approved in December.  That intersection is not under a ridiculous agreement with a developer, so the city can actually act on it.

Citizens Input Time

Several North Cape residents spoke about the dangerous Del Prado/De Navarra intersection.  The intersection, close to Island Coast High School, has become one of the most dangerous intersections in the county.  District 7 Councilwoman Jessica Cosden, who represents Northwest Cape Coral, requested an explanation from city staff prior to Citizens Input Time.  

But the staff’s explanations did not placate the well-organized Gator Circle residents.  About a dozen came with horror stories from accidents, including one where someone was amputated in front of a driver.  

But the most succinct and passionate speech came from Sarah Kyle, an admin of the Facebook Group Gator Circle – In The Loop.  

“We are asking today for the City of Cape Coral to put in the lights,” Sarah began. 

“Cape Coral citizens of Northeast Cape have been promised stoplights at Del Prado and De Navarra and Averill intersections by the City of Cape Coral for years.  Our area continues to grow exponentially and both of these intersections continue to become more and more dangerous to the residents in these neighborhoods…to the wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, the students driving to Island Coast High School, employees of area businesses, and those just driving through on their daily commute.”

She continued with details of recent car accidents in just the last month.

“We just had another accident this morning,” said Sarah.  “In December, we had an accident on 12/7, 12/15, two at the exact same time at De Navarra AND Averill, December 23rd, and we finished out the month on 12/29.  We are tired of the years-long promises, we are tired of the blame game, pushing accountability onto others.  We are tired of continual accidents.”

Sarah ended strongly, making it clear the Cape Coral City Government is responsible for the vehicular carnage that has plagued those intersections.

“City of Cape Coral Government…YOU are responsible for each and every ignored plea, each and every injury,” Sarah said forcibly.  “It is time to do your job and put in the lights.  Hold the developers accountable and send the bill, but we need you to put in the lights. How many people need to get hurt?  How many people are we waiting to die?  How big does the lawsuit have to be to get attention, that we citizens will have to pay for when the inevitable happens?”

Councilwoman Cosden, who represents Gator Circle, was very defensive about what the city perceives as misinformation on Facebook (because the government is always good at labeling misinformation on social media, just ask Hunter Biden.)

“First of all, I don’t lie about traffic lights or anything else to my constituents,” said Councilwoman Cosden, responding to a comment made by Sarah about her saying the lights would come two years ago.  “When it comes to passing along information, Council doesn’t construct traffic lights, Council doesn’t even approve them as far as I’m aware.”

A shocking revelation that the City Council does not have the power to construct traffic lights on their own roads!  Councilwoman Cosden continued by throwing staff under the bus, though making it absolutely clear that’s not what she’s doing.

“I’m not throwing staff under the bus,” said Councilwoman Cosden, “but the information I shared with you is the information I’m getting from staff, and I trust them.  Obviously, we were delayed on these lights for many reasons.  I wish we could have come to an answer sooner but I do think this new solution will help a lot in bringing accidents down to zero.”

District 6 Councilman Keith Long would like it to be a matter of policy in the future that the City could loan developers funds to make immediately-needed improvements.  Mayor John Gunter added to that, suggesting a “performance bond” that the City could tap into if a developer or responsible party is unable or unwilling to pay for improvements.  

Mayor Gunter also dismissed the speed limit request because it requires a traffic study to move forward and apparently the City Council is powerless to pass a resolution bypassing the traffic study to move forward with the speed limit change.

Michael Batali spoke for Cape Coral’s forgotten vagabond community, opposing a recently passed ordinance that prohibits solicitation and peddling on public streets and private property.  The ordinance, similar to the Lee County ordinance, was primarily to protect the safety of residents, as many vagabonds would place themselves in dangerous positions where they could be hit.  However, Michael argues the ordinance is unconstitutional.

“Solicitation has time and time again been ruled a constitutionally protected activity,” said Michael.  “This ordinance criminalizes a constitutionally protected activity.  Every section of this ordinance itself weaponizes the police to cite someone and arrest somebody for just hearsay statements.  I really think the Council should revisit this considering the neighboring Fort Myers ordinance was deemed unconstitutional and pretty much any ordinance that restricts speech in Florida has been shut down.”

Gabriel Denny, a new resident of Cape Coral and early frontrunner for the position of  “Cape Coral’s resident libertarian” was “not stoked” about hearing the $35,000 bill for the Utilities Expansion Project.  “I don’t want to get a bill for $35,000, inflation-adjusted,” said Gabe.  “That’s not okay.”  He noted that city water has had 220 boil water notices last year, though in different areas.

Gabe had just spoken after some Gator Circle residents and “If we can’t handle a traffic light, you’re going to ask me to pay $35,000 for a water system.”

Councilwoman Cosden asked Gabe to reach out to her office so she can explain the Utilities Expansion Project and why he’s S.O.L.

Lake Kennedy Improvements Move Forward…Pickleballers Rejoice!

A $10.7 million bid from Charles Perry Partners to improve the Lake Kennedy Center, which will include 32 more pickleball courts, 12 tennis courts, restrooms, a concession stand, a pro shop, as well as future plans for a massage parlor, hibachi restaurant, a casino, and a cross-dimensional transportation hub.

The main takeaway is the doubling of pickleball courts for Cape Coral’s pickleball enthusiasts, of which there are many.

District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden asked if they could reduce the tennis court to make room for a stadium, as well as suggesting a second-floor restaurant above the pro shop.  Expansion is possible according to city staff, either by eliminating parking or tennis courts.

But District 6 Councilman Keith Long stole the show (as much as a five-hour City Council meeting could be called a “show” to be stolen) with his inquiries.  Utilizing the skills he’s obtained as an alcohol attorney, he grilled the City Manager and staff about cost overruns,  additional funds, and even catching them in the middle of a blatant lie.

During his questioning, he asked city staff which projects using the GO Bond Parks have been 100% completed.  After much shuffling, one city staffer tried to claim Cultural Park was completed, which Councilman Long immediately called out.

“Cultural [Park]’s not finished,” said Councilman Long.  “Not 100%.  The answer is Cultural is not completed.”

The staffer later corrected himself, stating the original improvements are complete but additional improvements are being added…which means, by definition, it is NOT complete.

Councilman Long also asked a very specific question that will come into play later.  He noted additional parking in the site plan. 

“Those parking spaces meet the required parking calculations that we would require for that park?  In its totality?” he asked.

The response from city staff: “Correct.”

The improvements were approved with Councilman Long serving as the lone NO vote.

No Wave Pool for Sun Splash

The City Council shot down an amendment to the Sun Splash lease with Pro Parks which would have resulted in a new wave pool, finding the cost not worth the benefit.

The proposal would have had Pro Parks build the wave pool at about a $3 million investment, which would become city property.  Pro Parks estimated the wave pool would generate $22.5 million over 30 years, which comes out to $750,000 each year.

In return, the lease would be updated to reduce the city’s revenue from 15% to 7% once $4 million of revenue is reached.  In addition, the city would have to invest $3-$4 million to expand the parking lot, which City Manager Rob Hernandez would say could also be used for Lake Kennedy.  Unfortunately, this set off Keith Long’s BS alarm.

“I anticipated that staff would make that spin,” said Councilman Long, “which is why I directly asked the gentleman in the previous presentation (involving the Lake Kennedy expansion) if, on the site plans, they determined if we had adequate parking in Phase 2…and the gentleman’s answer was yes.  So stop telling me that we technically do have that but we’re going to have these in the future, we’re going to have these tournaments and we’re going to do this overflow parking lot for the tournaments. To the tune of $3.5 million, that doesn’t make sense.”

Councilman Long approached it as a free market conservative saying that there was a reason the city government got out of the water park business and challenged Pro Parks to invest in their business without government help.  He figured that, even with the competition, there would still be revenue gains, as opposed to consistent deficits from the park.

“Here we are saying let’s basically issue debt so we can help a private enterprise spend $3.5 million on the parking lot,” said Councilman Long.  “To me, it makes no sense how we even got this far.”

The city manager brought up the Great Wolf Lodge water park that will be coming to Naples. The well-known water park brand will, according to the City Manager, be major competitor to Sun Splash, which he chastised as a “tired facility.”

“Why would a parent take their children to Sun Splash which, although this company has done a good job reinvigorating the facility and injecting new life into the facility, it’s basically a tired facility that hasn’t changed much in over 15 years,” said City Manager Rob Hernandez, who is supposed to represent Cape Coral.  “Given the choice of loading up the minivan or station wagon…do you want to go to Sun Splash or do you want to go to the Great Wolf Lodge.”

But District 2 Councilman Dan Sheppard does not feel the city should be saving Pro Parks from free market competition. 

“That’s the whole reason we signed the lease,” he said.  “So we don’t have to worry about things like that anymore.  We have other businesses in the city that have to change their game all the time. As things change, they have to make investments to their business and I don’t see the city bending over backwards to help all those businesses who have to make major alterations to stay afloat. ”

Councilman Bobby Welsh was concerned that they would be reducing the city’s revenue to pay for the wave pool, but Hernandez countered by saying that though the percentage was less, the revenue generated would be more.  

District 1 Councilman Bill Steinke voiced his support for the wave pool, taking a different angle on the issue.

“I see us put millions of dollars into our parks.  We get zero return,” said Councilman Steinke.  “It’s an amenity for our citizens.  In this case, we have a park that we can invest money in that our citizens will gain benefit from and that we have the opportunity to make money in the venture.  We’re not Orlando.  We’re not the amusement parks in Orlando, but every one of them knows they need to remain relevant.”

Pro Parks made it clear this was not a make-or-break issue, noting that profit was still coming in and that they will reassess with different plans for growth moving forward.

Permitting Fees to Return

If you enjoyed fee-less permits from the city after Hurricane Ian, that has now ended.  The City Council approved an ordinance restoring fees for certain permits which were waived by the emergency.  

City Manager Ron Hernandez explained that they were matching Lee County’s direction because we can’t make our own decisions here in Cape Coral.  He also explained the city has incurred a financial burden for the fee-less permits, particularly with overtime from city employees.

District 2 Councilman Dan Sheppard and District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings opposed the ordinance, stating that residents are still waiting to find contractors to work on their homes.  They believe the dates should be extended.

District 5 Councilman Bobby Welsh disagrees, noting that a roofing permit is $80 and because inflation was so bad and prices were so high, the $80 doesn’t make much of a dent.  

“I don’t believe that $80, with the costs of a new roof going up, is really going to make or break me or another resident.”

Because what’s another 80 dollars in this economy?  

Rather than focus on costs to residents, Councilman Welsh thinks that he is looking to be a good steward of our tax dollars. “We need to look into what we are spending.  For the city to put out all this extra money for all these employees here, and not be able to collect any money for it because we’re saving a resident a $60 roof permit, I think we’re doing the city a disservice for it.”

Councilman Welsh is right to note the additional costs which would eventually come back to the taxpayer (possibly with a property tax increase), though perhaps it could have been done with less condescension. 

His words seemed to change Councilman Sheppard’s mind, who voted aye on the ordinance.  Councilwoman Cummings was the only no.

A second ordinance was passed which would allow trailers on residential properties until March 24th, 2024, to allow for FEMA trailers to come to Cape Coral.  Residents will still need to get a permit from the city to have the trailers on their property.

Mobile Food Trucks Regulations Gain Opponents

Elections have consequences and the recent election may lead to a different direction regarding mobile food truck regulations.  The once well-received ordinance being proposed found itself without support from new council members who ran on pro-business agendas. Council may put it back to the drawing board if not scrap it altogether.

Three members of the public spoke on the ordinance.  Two former political candidates, Cathy Stout (who ran for School Board) and Gary Aubuchon (a former State Representative who ran for Congress), spoke in favor of the ordinance.  Stout emphasized the help food truck vendors provided after Hurricane Ian as a reason to support.

But Gabriel Denny spoke out against new regulations, questioning whether the government should be involved in market decisions, calling the regulations “absurd.”  He talked about the bratwursts he gets from the Lowe’s food trucks, marking the first product placement ever in a City Council meeting.  

“Why is it of the interest of the city or the government whether or not commerce works?” said Gabriel.  “If somebody has a mobile food truck…and they’re able to sell, that’s the public voting.”

It should be of note that much of the ordinance involves rezoning to allow for it, with most of the regulations dealing with safety concerns regarding mobility, a fact reiterated by District 5 Councilman Bobby Welsh, who saw a false comparison between mobile food trucks in the ordinance and the food trucks at Lowe’s and Home Depot,

“The first word of this is mobile,” said Councilman Welsh.  “To say you’re going to go to Home Depot and miss getting your brat…I can tell you when I go to Sam’s (Club) and that $1.99 hot dog at the end, they put that commissary inside of the building. So if the point of going to Home Depot is for a brat, then I believe they will find a way to put that commissary on the inside of the building and regulate it.”

“We have some bad actors in the city that have turned what’s supposed to be movable into something that’s permanent,” said Councilman Welsh.  “We saw that when the hurricane came, they didn’t even move their trailers. They just took everything out of it and left.  I’m in support of this now and I’m in support of it on the 25th.”

District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings, a small business owner herself, spoke in favor of the mobile food trucks and against regulations.  She spoke about how many restaurants went mobile during the pandemic to better cater to customers in “unprecedented times,” and echoed Cathy Stout when she brought up mobile food trucks’ help during Hurricane Ian.

“We had a massive hurricane and it was historic,” said Councilwoman Cummings.  “The next day, those food trucks were out there for each and every one of us residents, giving us free food. They did that for quite some time and I don’t feel like the way we thank them is by telling them ‘now we’re going to put restrictions on you.’  I feel like right now we have other things we need to focus on versus mobile food trucks.”

These regulations have been discussed since last year with a final hearing set on January 25th. 

Councilman Welsh Wants to Move Citizens Input Time

District 5 Councilman Bobby Welsh wants to have a discussion about having Citizens Input Time at the end of the meeting, which has been put up for an upcoming Committee of the Whole Meeting.

The agendas are generally approved by the Mayor, and Mayor John Gunter, though open to discussing it, signaled his opposition to the idea, citing consent agenda items that residents would not be able to comment on.

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