By Sean Hartman, the Cape Coral Watchdog
Citizens Input Time
Representatives of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife expressed concerns about the “overzealous” clearing out of canals after Hurricane Ian, destroying the fauna in the process. They showed multiple photos of the damage, including owl burrows and gopher tortoise habitats that were destroyed. Contractors have also destroyed the habitat of the endangered limpkin bird.
Friends of Wildlife noted that the mandate for these contractors is to clear hurricane debris, not destroy wildlife and natural habitats. They also disputed claims from the city that gopher tortoise habitats are marked, saying that multiple habitats are not marked because gopher tortoises are wild and free and can go where they want because they aren’t confined by such things as traffic rules or other government regulations.
Michelle Mold, a member of CCFW board, read angry emails from other Friends of Wildlife members.
“Everything that was beautiful about the canals has been destroyed for nothing. The people destroyed some of the very essences that make our area what it is…got a truckload of money and we got destruction…and still have trash!”
Jim Collier had another, more malicious theory as to why this was going. Jim speculated that the contractors were clearing wildlife without a permit for the benefit of builders and developers, allowing them to clear out natural obstacles without applying for the proper permitting and doing it in an environmentally sound way. Solid Waste Manager Terry Schweitzer disputed this claim, saying the contractors were not being used to “promote [urban] growth.”
The Friends of Wildlife asked the City Council to enforce current environmental regulations, either through Park Rangers or Public Works.
Public Works Director Mike Ilczyczyn wanted to be clear that the City has heard their concerns and has actively worked on them. Ilczyczyn said he has gone out to contractors in the field to ensure compliance, though it came with a heaping side of sass, noting that when this was done in prior hurricanes, the Friends of Wildlife were nowhere to be found.
“We’ve done this in the past,” said Director Ilczyczyn. “Their level of advocacy has not been here in those previous storms. They’re here now and we accept what they are advocating on behalf. They are part of our community, just like any other group.”
According to Director Ilczyczyn, the wildlife removal is necessary to clear the hurricane debris, and therefore the destruction is inevitable.
“It’s not perfect,” said Director Iczyczyn. “I understand what they’re advocating and we realize that. The contractors and the debris monitors, their job is to make sure it’s not the free-for-all that is being described. The end result of that is going to be they’re going to saw-cut it, they’re going to remove all of that green canopy plus anything to get to it, and then they’re just going to fold it back.”
He explained that contractors are authorized to clear wildlife to get to debris, saying they were advised by the Natural Resource Conservation Society that the activities are “eligible activities for shoreline refurbishment.” Unfortunately, a quick Google search comes up with 0 results for the Natural Resource Conservation Society.
He may mean the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency within the US Department of Agriculture, but Director Ilczyczyn said the Natural Resource Conservation Society would need federal funding to assist Cape Coral, which wouldn’t be an issue if they were dealing with a government agency already receiving federal funding.
So who is the Natural Resource Conservation Society? I am inquiring with city staff and will bring you more as it develops.
District 7 Councilwoman Jessica Cosden grilled city staff on this issue, starting by asking if contractors can be cited for violating city ordinances, including environmental protection regulations. Terry Schweitzer confirmed they can if it is outside what is allowed in the emergency permit.
Councilwoman Cosden then cited a specific video of a contractor driving over an owl burrow. This prompted a dodgy response from Director Ilczyczyn, who said they needed to check Governor DeSantis’ executive order to see whether or not they can cite a contractor for destroying a burrowing owl habitat unnecessarily. That way, when they say they can’t do anything, they can make Governor DeSantis the scapegoat.
Councilwoman Cosden asked if contractors were allowed to drive on private lots, which Schweitzer confirmed they cannot, and asked if contractors have any wildlife expertise or certifications.
“They’re not required to be biologists or any type of certification like that,” said Schweitzer. “We provide them early on information on burrowing owls, gopher tortoises, things like that, and then if there is a question that comes up about some sort of wildlife, the work stops and we talk about it.”
Finally, Councilwoman Cosden asked if the city was coordinating with the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife to mark unmarked owl burrows. The answer was quite surprising. Terry Schweitzer told the Council that they were not coordinating directly, using the 3-1-1 tip line to identify the burrows, and then sending city staff to verify.
The Friend of Wildlife have traditionally worked with the City of Cape Coral to mark these locations, though Director Ilczyczyn explained that he “talked” with the CCFW about their activities. He told Council that because the CCFW is not a government agency, they can be arrested for trespassing if marking a burrowing owl on private property, but admitting that their help is valuable because they do not have enough staffers to mark the burrows. He confirmed that they are not working with the CCFW at this time, despite this lack of staff resources.
“Something about this just isn’t right to me,” said Councilwoman Cosden. “I feel like we can do more. I don’t know how, but maybe reconsider the contracts that we have because what I’m hearing doesn’t match what people are seeing and sending me…videos and pictures and descriptions, it doesn’t match. So I don’t know if we need to monitor the monitors, or reconsider who’s doing this. The City just had an event featuring a burrowing owl. I just don’t think we’re doing enough.”
District 2 Councilman Dan Sheppard thanked the CCFW for “dedicating their time to protect the wildlife.” But in a twist worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Councilman Sheppard also praised city staff for “educating us on the process.”
“It seems to me that there’s no intent of malice,” said Councilman Sheppard. “I think staff respect wildlife as well and it seems to me like they are going to do what they can to improve. I think they are going to make every effort to improve the process.”
District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings asked if the city looks at cleanup sites beforehand to notate wildlife that may need to be safely moved. Schweitzer explained there is pre-work done to see how the debris can be removed.
District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden wanted to make sure that mangroves were being protected and, if needed, replanted, if removed. District 1 Councilman Bill Steinke inquired more about the process, to which Schweitzer explained they use the least time-consuming method.
Mayor John Gunter explained that contractors have strict permits that the Army Corps of Engineers tightly regulate, but that the City must do more to ensure contractors stay within the confines of those permits. He took offense to Director Ilczyczyn saying that the City was not a stakeholder with the CCFW. The Mayor noted the City Council approved $200,000 in funding for them, some Councilmembers are members of the organization and the recent Ground Owl Festival as examples of the city’s long-standing partnership with the wildlife organization.
Councilwoman Cummings ended the discussion by asking if there was a plan for debris storage during the burrowing owl nesting season. Schweitzer explained they made the contractors aware of the nesting season.
City Attorney Recruiter Questioned
City Attorney Dolores Melendez is being forced into retirement by the City Council after two decades in service. During last week’s Special Meeting (the one where they gave the City Manager the boot), the City Council hired Narloch and Associates for the City Attorney search.
Renee Narloch answered questions remotely from the Council.
When asked by Mayor John Gunter what minimum qualifications they would look for, Narloch explained the list included at least ten years of legal experience, with a focus on “local and municipal law,” a preference for Florida municipal experience, and experience in multiple areas in municipal law: environmental, constitutional, land use and zoning, and employment.
They would find someone who wasn’t necessarily risk-averse, but willing to provide all risk options when approaching legal action. She said the City Attorney would have to be a good fit for the city and who can build trust quickly, noting Dolores’ decades of experience.
“They are there to serve everyone,” said Narloch. “That’s what public service is.”
District 6 Councilman Keith Long did not want the 10-year experience to be a hard cap, showing concern that they would get an attorney who would see it as a retirement job. He would rather have someone young but with experience.
District 1 Councilman Bill Steinke says he wants a City Attorney with experience in growing cities like Cape Coral. He asked Narloch what the time frame should be for this search. She broke down the 14-week process.
Narloch explained the process begins with a national search, noting that the City Attorney must be licensed in Florida and stating they would target Florida-licensed attorneys out-of-state who may want to return. From there, they provide candidates with a riddle, and if they solve the riddle, they will be required to fight a dragon for a golden egg which will have a secret message that will tell them where the mermaids took a loved one. If the loved one can be retrieved, that candidate will be presented to the City Council, at which they will either be approved, or sent to the lions to be eaten…just as the Rosen Brothers decreed back in 1960.*
This process takes about 9-10 weeks.
Mayor John Gunter asked Councilman Long how difficult it would be for an out-of-state attorney to pass the Florida bar exam, in the event they find a highly-qualified candidate without a Florida license. Councilman Long explained that the process is different for each person, but said he spent 12 weeks of 12-hour days studying for the bar, but said it may take several months for a practicing attorney.
District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden asked how long Florida law licenses are active. Narloch explained that the license has to be renewed regularly, which is mainly just a fee, but that many attorneys keep it active so they don’t have to sit for the bar again. She did note that attorneys who’ve been out of the state for a long period of time may not be eligible because of their lack of recent Florida municipal experience.
Councilman Hayden asked how many of Narloch’s City Attorneys stay at least four years. Narloch could not give an exact number, as she’s been in the recruitment game since the ‘90s, but estimates about 90% stay longer than four years. She mentioned her longest was the Norfolk County Attorney in Virginia, who left office after 23 years, and his successor, who has been there now for eight years. She also noted recent examples of one in Broward County (8 years) and Coconut Creek (9 years).
“It’s really about on the front end, assessing candidates for a good fit,” said Narloch. “We’re good at that, we have a good process.”
Narloch also explained that she usually provides less than 10 candidates to the Council at the end, but all applications will be available for the City Council. “I do not keep that to myself,” said Narloch.
Mayor Gunter wants to find a city attorney with experience in a city of a similar size to Cape Coral, as well as someone who is well-rounded in terms of legal expertise. The Mayor wanted to know if they would provide a minimum salary, but Narloch advised against it, stating she would advertise the salary based on experience. She mentioned the City Attorney’s and City Manager’s salaries are public records, and that City Attorney candidates may request a similar salary to the City Manager since they report directly to the Council.
“I don’t want to lose a candidate because of a number,” she said. “I don’t like to lock us into numbers on the front end.”
District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings asked how the firm will weed out candidates if, hypothetically, several candidates had the exact same experience. Narloch explained that there are multiple factors they would look at, including personal motivations, potential scandals, career accomplishments, management style, and their behavior in challenging situations.
* identified as satire in accordance with Poe’s Law