COMMISSION & BUDGET MEETING SEPTEMBER 11, 2023
Serena Hoerman from Florida Atlantic University gave a presentation on resiliency.
There are 161 miles of shoreline in Martin County with 21 miles of beaches. There are nearly 5000 waterfront parcels. The city is currently gathering information to create a sustainability action plan.
It was an interesting presentation. You can see it here
For some time, there has been discussion about moving the city garage located on Martin Luther King Drive to the water plant on Palm Beach Road and 10th Street. There were some very basic estimates to do so a few years ago but it was cost prohibitive. Mortell wants to do a more thorough study to see whether it is or not.
I think for Mortell the real impetus came when he was trying to find a place to locate Public Works and Utilities in the new city hall. Space had never been allocated for the department since, originally, a building was going to be included on the new public works site that would have included their office space.
Currently, it is an old mostly open-air facility. Is it really in the right place? With the new zoning overlay for East Stuart, the current site is a non-conforming use.
What Mortell asked the commissioners to approve was an increase of forty-two cents per month on the residential cart bill to have a real study performed.
The commission approved unanimously. You can see the presentation here
On the first ballot, the commission voted 4-1 to hire Lee Baggett as city attorney. The only dissenter in the ballot was Clarke who cast her vote for Zoe Panarites. She later seconded the motion to hire Baggett. You can read several stories detailing the history leading up to this vote below.
The commission had their first of two meetings to set the millage and budget for 2024. They were allowed to go to 5.5 mills under the previous approval of the budget. The manager was able to keep it at 5 mills, which is the current rate.
The total amount that will be collected is $98 million in all the funds. Ad valorem is a little more than $44 million. The CRA has funding of $13 million.
The uniformed services’ salaries are budgeted at 10% increases. While the rest of the staff will have what some commissioners are calling a COLA, but in reality, is a 4% increase. That will take effect (including for commissioners) on October 1st. There are also merit raises that are based on evaluations that could go as high as 6% which would take effect on the employee’s anniversary date of hire.
There was a discussion on the Fire Fee which has not changed since its implementation in 2014. The commission would like to have these discussions before the next budget to see whether it needs to be changed.
The budget and millage passed 5-0. The entire budget can be found here
THE LAWYER STORY
THE AUGUST 26TH COMMISSION MEETING
The commission looked at the schedule for hiring a new attorney, The screening committee reviewed the qualifications of the 11 applicants and narrowed the field to four. Three of the four have municipal experience.
Commissioner Collins wanted to have only the three candidates with municipal experience interviewed. He mentioned several times that, in the past, people had been chosen because of who they knew instead of based on their credentials. He didn’t want to see it this time.
The rest wanted to follow through with the “process.” If the committee thought these four should be interviewed, the prevailing sentiment was that the four should be interviewed. Process is important, but it seems to me there is more at work here than that. Collins has rubbed the others the wrong way since being elected. In his fervor to prove he is right; he has alienated the rest. That doesn’t mean he is always wrong. I believe he has a very valid point this time.
Commissioner Rich said this was not the time to debate their qualification but proceed to interviews. A motion was made to interview the four semi-finalists. It passed 4-1 with Collins dissenting.
The commission will individually interview them on September 7th and decide at the September 11th commission meeting to whom the job offer should be made.
There were no attachments to this agenda item. No resumes, reports, or even names. When the commissioners were speaking without using any names, I had no idea who they were speaking about. They mentioned one of the finalists who had no municipal experience but there were other things like lawsuits, bad credit, and unpaid bills that were uncovered by H.R. I am wondering why he is a finalist.
Why the secrecy? Is Collins right and the fix is in? Another applicant who had municipal experience didn’t make the cut because he did not have enough experience as opposed to none. There was no explanation for why these four were selected by this committee. The committee was comprised of Interim Attorney Nicoletti, Mayor McDonald, City of Stuart Paralegal Ryanne Cavo, Human Resource Director Roz Johnson Strong, and the only non-governmental member, Attorney Scott Konopka.
This is anything but government in the sunshine. Did the committee meet at an open government meeting? And if so, was it advertised? Even if not required by “sunshine,” shouldn’t that meeting have been open to the public since this is such an important and critical position?
Both the manager and attorney report to the commission. We hear all the time that they can be terminated at any time, but how often does it happen? The demeanor and past conduct of the manager and attorney must be unimpeachable.
The resumes or even the spread sheet and Nicoletti’s memorandum were not part of the agenda item. Perhaps the public could offer insight into a candidate that would be important. Or would that negate the intended outcome?
At my request, the city manager forwarded to me a memorandum from the interim city attorney and the prepared flow sheet summations. Manager Mortell does not look to be involved at all in this process, and he should not be since the attorney reports to the commission.
I am not much for conspiracy theories, but I am not completely naïve either. Lack of sunshine will do that. And from what I see there are lots of clouds and even darkness here. Interestingly, the four commissioners that were not on the committee did not want to include any other candidate. Looking at past searches in Martin County, including other candidates have been done in the past.
Collins may be 100% right here. The “Good Ole Boys” still want control. Will the commission be a compliant tool or independent? We will find out on September 11th.
Less Smoke But Just As Many Mirrors
In the last edition of Friends & Neighbors, I decried the lack of transparency given to the public in the agenda item regarding choosing a new city attorney.
Nothing whatsoever was included in the agenda packet that was provided to the public. There weren’t even the names of those who applied nor the finalists. Obviously, there was no thought given to interested citizens reading resumes, applications, or their understanding about why the finalists were chosen by the committee. Forget about citizen comments in this process. (You can see the article here )
For the special meeting to interview the next city attorney on September 7th a bit more was offered but nowhere near the full story. The information provided for the upcoming meeting was not the original information but rather an opaque memo trying to justify who should be picked. There still was not included the resumes and applications which are public record. There wasn’t even included the spread sheet the committee used to outline all the candidates plus why they picked the four they did (you can find it here ) In fact even the names were not listed except as a CC to the memo how would anyone know who they were.
In the special meeting’s packet, it was stated that the commission could immediately vote to pick a “winner” as if such an important decision should be made with no time for thought having just interviewed the candidates that same day. It smacks of a predetermined outcome.
Stuart seemed to be coming out of the “good ole boy” era for the past few years, but it looks like it could have slipped back into that arena. I was hoping that both Rich and Collins would be independent and not beholden to special interests. But it takes three votes so look for how the veterans cast theirs to have your answer.
There are three finalists who are a rational choice and one who should not be considered at all. Which brings me back to outside influence on the selection committee. One of the candidates has no municipal experience and a string of having bad debts…makes me wonder why he is on the list. What do you think?
But it would be impossible for the citizens of Stuart to form a knowledgeable opinion since the candidate information was never shared or made available. It was kept from them. And the commission wants them to think there was transparency? Perhaps having two lawyers on the selection committee was a mistake. How come no independent citizens were there. Each commissioner could have appointed one. Too many questions would be asked?
You can see the backup to the September 7, meeting here
STUART CITIZENS WERE THE WINNERS
From the beginning of the process, selecting a new city attorney has not been the most transparent process. It seemed that the best person was destined not to get the job because he was not the hand-picked candidate from the “good ole boys.”
There were four finalists from the initial search. On paper, three seemed to have municipal experience. The fourth, the insiders’ choice, did not. One of the three with municipal experience dropped out and was never interviewed by the commissioners. The commissioners interviewed the three remaining.
By the time of the interviews, at least two commissioners were leaning against the “good ole boy” candidate. Did the interviews change minds? I think they did. It became painfully obvious that a city attorney, like a city manager, should be more than their technical skill set. When a candidate doesn’t even have the skill set, it is hard to overlook that deficit.
It was discovered that one of the candidates with municipal experience had also been a real estate broker for a firm owned by “big sugar.” The attorney had worked for them in Palm Beach County but even more interestingly in Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic.
Perhaps if it had been disclosed up front, then the outcome would have been different. This is Martin County. The only thing that has saved us from the 2018 summer is that the Army Corps has not done massive releases from Lake O.
Imagine if the attorney for Stuart had been a friend and employee of the sugar people. Commissioners would have paid a political price. Even with that moniker, that attorney received Commissioner Clarke’s vote.
In the end, a fellow by the name of Lee Baggett was chosen by the other four on the first ballot. Lee is currently working as an attorney for Martin County. Before that, he worked for Port St. Lucie and previously he was with Lewis & Mortell in Stuart for about a decade. Lee lives in Palm City and knows the county. He was always the right choice.
This process revealed two things. One is that the “good ole boys” still have their hand in the game in Stuart and Martin County. Their influence is waning, but it is still there. As citizens, they should continue to have a voice like every other citizen. They should not have a veto or be able to dictate the nominee.
The second revelation was that sometimes the right person is ultimately chosen. Baggett appears to be a yeoman attorney. He knows the law and has litigation experience. He already has a relationship with Manager Mortell which means they can work together. The most important thing is he knows Martin County’s quirks and eccentricities. Baggett doesn’t appear to be in anyone’s pocket…not the “good ole boys” or sugar.