McIntosh Mirror: Reflecting news in the Tosh

Want to impact your community? Many of McIntosh's citizen boards have open seats and a council at a loss as to how to fill them.

Light-up McIntosh December 15

Light-up McIntosh will begin at the Civic Center at 6:30 p.m. The event will host Santa Clause and an area choir from six local churches will sing.

06.30.06 -- PUBLIC RECORD: "Raise your right hands... "

I get a lot of questions about the workshop meeting from February 25, 2006.

The questions I heard in the week following the meeting were about which residents the council had dubbed "troublemakers." They named names. They chose six troublemakers who were causing all the problems in town.

The other question I get is, did Jim Strange ask other council members to raise their right hands and agree nothing should leave the room.

Yes, he did.

I am attaching a link to a windows media file of a digital recording I made when I went to this meeting. It was supposed to be a public meeting but my understanding was that people were urged not to come. I've written about this meeting in the Sunshine stories. The audio recording was made in a noticed meeting where minutes were not recorded by the town until asked for the next week by several people in town, including myself.

I pulled out the pertinent recording because people ask for the whole 5 hours and they really want to just hear this.

Transcript begins with a discussion about charging the Lion's Club to use the Civic Center and how much they can charge for various things because they use heat, cooling, papertowels.

Susan Phillips: That's opening a can of worms.
Joe Phillips: A lot this is probably going to open a can of worms but...
Jim Strange: I think it's discussion right now.
Joe Phillips: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim Strange: Nothing really should go out of this room. OK, guys?
Danaya Wright: Right.
Jim Strange: Really. Raise your right hands, we're just brainstorming here.
Susan Phillips: (To Frank Ciotti) You didn't raise your hand.
Many: Laughter.
Frank Ciotti: I don't even talk to my wife... (garbled...)

***

Have a listen and decide for yourself: "Raise your right hand ..." (Windows Media File, download 473kb)

I hope to post all of the workshop meetings eventually.

posted by Cher @ 5:36 PM, , links to this post

6.29.06 -- Editorial: The Nazi Ordinance, a footnote

At the June 22 meeting, Casey Girardin, owner of Sportsman's Cove, brought her attorney Sam Mutch. For the last month or so, when Casey attempted to address the council during public meetings, she was shot down by different council members and told she is not allowed to address them unless her lawyer is present.

Now, I am pretty sure, this raises some interesting questions regarding the Sunshine law. To take comments from everyone else but single one person out without knowing what that person is going to say and prohibit him or her from addressing elected officials without employing an attorney ... it's sketchy, at least. It's feasibly limiting her access to her government. Florida's public meeting laws are designed to prevent this kind of action on the part of public officials.

But, in some ways, the council and Casey have done the town's residents a favor by making her bring her attorney to last meeting. Because she employed an attorney and brought him to the meeting, he was a vocal, adamant voice against the proposed ordinance regarding hazardous buildings that was would have allowed an official working for the Land Planning Agency to enter buildings for administrative inspections.

It's what I think of as the Nazi Ordinance.

The sticky-wicket portion of proposed ordinance (for posterity):

"9.4.1 - Right of Entry: The Land Development Code Administrator shall enforce the provisions of this Chaper, as such Land Development Code Administrator, or their duly authorized representative upon may enter any building, structure, dwelling, apartment, apartment house, or premises, during all reasonable hours to make an inspection or enforce any of the provisions of this Article. If an owner, operator or other occupant of a building, structure or premises refuses to permit the enforcing official to enter and make inspections, the official is authorized to petition the court for an administrative warrant to allow entry and inspection."

When the ordinance finally came up, it was 9:30 p.m. The crowd had slimmed down somewhat from the original 40 or so people.

I was heartened to hear Jim Strange speak out against the forced entry nature of this ordinance. He said he envisioned inspecting hazardous buildings and property as checking for misquito nests and the like. The council seemed to be moving toward tabling this ordinance. Tabling would be fine for the moment but the problem with tabling an ordinance like this is that it can always come back up later.

It was Mutch who pushed for a defeat of the proposed law.

I don't think that anyone realized they could ask for a defeat of an ordinance in a council meeting. I honestly don't think the council would have defeated this ordinance if Casey's lawyer hadn't pushed them to do it. I believe they would have tabled it to another time when there were fewer members of the public present. When Mutch asked Danaya Wright to defeat the ordinance, he pointed out that residents had been waiting there for more than three hours to tell the council what they thought and the council should listen to its constituents.

Granted, Mutch went a little bit too far at the end of the meeting. We all could see that action got heated. When he was addressing the council and Wright, Mutch was so animated by the end that it seemed to have figuratively moved three rows forward in his anger even though his feet remained planted in the last row.

But in many ways, I can't blame him.

He was shaking the ordinances and speaking to how unconstitutional they were. He was admonishing Wright for being an officer of the court and even considering some of these ordinances. He said she smirked at him. She said he was grandstanding. She does have a habit of appearing a wee bit smug at times. And he probably *was* grandstanding -- not that I know definitively either way.

I saw Jim Strange watch Mutch and shake his head at the lawyer when he spoke more than once. Any way around it, I am sure the council members didn't like what Mutch was telling them.

I wondered during Mutch's last tirade if he was trying to get Wright to have the deputy toss him. I can' t think what he would gain from it.

But when I got to thinking about it, I understood.

See, Wright is a law professor. She's an expert in land planning law. She's also the chair of the UF faculty senate. She's a UF trustee. When I think of all of those things, and I think that she purposely told the town clerk not to turn on a tape recorder in a five hour workshop meeting in February resulting in keeping her constituents from knowing what their elected officials were saying about them and planning, I have been angry. I have been very angry. I sat in that February meeting and I heard all of those things the council members said and planned but I never knew until the next week that people in town were asked not to come.

I have lost sleep over it. I have called professors. I have called Sunshine law experts. I have talked to editors. And Mutch's outburst at Wright as an officer of the court who did not immediately defeat an ordinance that was clearly -- in his words -- unconstitutional, a local law that would allow forced entry into homes ... well, I don't blame him for being angry.

I have been angry, too. I expected better.

I am glad that the council had the sense to unanimously defeat the Nazi ordinance. Granted, all this ordinance is now is a footnote, thankfully. But it's also a vital lesson that we have to watch carefully the laws crafted in this community.

It concerns me, still, that when it was on the table for discussion, Code Enforcement Officer Art Davis seemed to think it was completely reasonable and that if anyone refused him entry, he could simply obtain within two hours county paperwork and gain access, anyway. Scary.

But I think what's more frightening is that the citizen board members who drafted this ordinance are still on a committee writing codes.

posted by Cher @ 2:06 PM, , links to this post

06.25.05 -- ARTICLE -- Filtering out the Sunshine through the moss

This article was written for an in depth reporting class March 22, 2006. I am posting it now because it brings some history of the current local news events in McIntosh to light and it discusses one of the main problems small towns have with no media coverage to force officials to follow the state's Sunshine laws.

Filtering Sunshine through moss
How the Sunshine law plays out in a small town


By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH -- Ever wondered how a governing body in America would operate without the watchdog media in the wings?
Just wander outside the city limits and beyond the circulation area of the local paper and take a closer look at small town politics.
McIntosh is a tiny burg caught exactly halfway between Gainesville and Ocala, edging up to the Alachua county line on its lake side but firmly planted as the northern-most city in Marion County. Even though most of the town’s residents work in one city or the other, the town is located too far away to warrant trips from either New York Times owned newspapers based in the town’s neighboring cities, leaving the town’s business uncovered in local news.
McIntosh’s town leaders are volunteer politicians, most of whom have no background dealing in most kinds of government including Florida’s Sunshine laws - and it shows.
Since the last election, in the absence of a watchdog press, council members have fallen into a pattern of toeing the line of the Sunshine law.
In January, council e-mail conversations discussing town business issues got to the point where Mayor Marsha Strange wouldn’t even reply to them.
At first, she said she would attend a meeting and be in the dark about subjects that came before the council because the council had been discussing it in e-mail without her.
“See, they were e-mailing among themselves and when they were discussing something, I would say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ Then Danaya would say, I need to get your e-mail, you should be included on this,” Strange said.
After Danaya Wright, town council president, included Strange in the group e-mails, the mayor said she still was concerned about replying to them.
“At some point when they were e-mailing they asked, ‘Marsha, are you out there?’” And I would not interact because you are not supposed to be doing that,” she said.
These communications also left out council woman Eunice Smith. Smith has been in politics in McIntosh for 27 years as either the town clerk or a member of the town council. She does not use e-mail and was therefore excluded, with the rest of the town, from the council’s e-mail discussion.
The council members attended a training session offered by the Florida League of Cities in late January. Returning with ideas for raising revenues, they also stopped their e-mail correspondence. Strange said the League of Cities went into great detail about what they could or could not e-mail to each other.
But the trend continued in other ways.
For a council workshop on Feb. 25, Wright asked local business owner Casey Girardin not to attend a publicly noticed council workshop.
Girardin said Wright promised to smooth over a conflict she was having with two council members. When asked why she asked Girardin not to attend, Wright said she thought that Girardin would not be interested in the subject matter.
But during the five-hour workshop, the council hashed out more than differences between Girardin’s business and other council members.
In addition to discussing increased fees for Girardin’s business, Sportsman’s Cove, the council made short and long term plans for the town including tax and water rate increases, plans to hire a town manager, citizen board issues, as well as plans for development. The council ventured into areas of personality, naming names of residents who some members felt were causing problems in the town and discussed firing the town’s lawyer. At one point during the meeting, Council Member Jim Strange asked the rest of the council to raise their right hands and agree that nothing said during the meeting would leave the room.
Florida’s Sunshine Law states public officials can not meet in private. While the workshop was publicly noticed, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Board said there weren’t very many people there for a reason.
“They were hoping there wouldn’t be,” Beverly Dodder said. “It was a council workshop to try to iron out some differences. But sometimes you can’t let your hair down if there’s an audience. I was going to come but I thought that maybe they just needed to hash things out and maybe get on the same page.”
Normally, the council meetings have a regular attendance of 15 – 30 residents. Recent discussions involving a community redevelopment agency, land development, code enforcement issues and budget issues are firing up the grapevines through the small town and increasing attendance.
But only two people attended the workshop meeting other than council members: the spouse of a council member and a reporter.
Another issue with the meeting was that the council members did not seem to understand the nature of a public workshop.
Town Clerk Julie Musselman set up a tape recorder at the beginning of the meeting but was told by Wright not to record it. The clerk bases her minutes on the recordings of the meetings.
“I couldn’t believe Danaya told her to turn the recorder off,” Smith said, who witnessed the exchange.
Charlsie Stott, former council member, requested a copy of the tape at town hall the following day and found that neither a recording of the meeting, nor minutes, existed.
“That really shocked me when she told me that she didn’t tape that meeting,” Stott said.
Later in the week, Wright turned in some notes which Musselman handed out as minutes. Wright later said in the March 9 council meeting that these notes were never meant to serve at minutes.
At that meeting, after residents specifically asked for minutes to be reported to the public regarding the meeting, Wright filed a more complete version outlining subjects talked about at the meeting.
But the town attorney Scott Walker said the minutes of a workshop do not have to contain any more than a summary of subject presented.
Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation said the meeting was problematic on two issues. The first was that the ban of a member of the public in a meeting.
She said that if a member of the public is acting out in the meeting, the council can ask that person to leave. But she said there is no way for the council to know beforehand if that person would act out again.
Harper said the other potential problem was the nature of the minutes. Though the town is not required to tape record these meetings, they are required to provide minutes that indicate the nature of the conversations that led to the decisions taking place.
Both sets of minutes turned in to the town office were notes taken by Wright summarizing the decisions made at the meeting and do not detail topics like firing the town’s attorney, details about a controversial redevelopment project and concerns about specific individuals voiced by council members.
But Harper said the spirit of the Sunshine Law is meant to allow the public to participate in the decision making process. She said minutes should be complete enough to allow people to follow the discussions that led to the decisions.
For instance, the second version of the workshop minutes compiled by Wright indicate the town council members discussed raising water rates but still do not detail how much they plan to raise the rates or other planned fines, fees, charges and tax increases.
On March 10, the town council called an emergency meeting with three hours notice for the purpose of hiring Jim Sewell as the town’s interim code inspector.
Again, no minutes were taken of this meeting and no recording was made.
Musselman said she would have to write them up from memory when a public request was made for a record of this meeting.
While the town charter allows for emergency meetings, notices for these meetings have a line of fine print on them. Any challenges to decisions made by the council in these meetings should be verbatim. With no minutes, no recording and three hours notice, none of the town’s residents could challenge the decision to hire Sewell.
A closer look at other McIntosh public meeting shows a workshop meeting on Feb. 23, presented by students working for University of Florida’s Conservation Clinic in the Center for Governmental Responsibility was also not recorded and minutes were not taken. Materials detailing a plan for a community redevelopment agency – CRA – which would affect 42 land owners and 54 parcels of land in McIntosh were presented to the residents, two town council members, as well as the mayor. Maps, timelines and financial plans presented regarding plans for the town are still not available to the public through the town office.
A public record request that by law should take 24 hours was directly made to Srujani Pagidpati, a UF law student working on the CRA, took a week to deliver. Tom Ankerson, the director of the UF Center for Governmental Responsibility, said that any future requests needed to be sent to the town office and would be available in the office.
On March 2, the local ministers of McIntosh sent the town council members a certified letter regarding the redevelopment project stating: “We request that all state and local legal documents pertaining to the creation and operation of the CRA be compiled, copied and made available in the town office to any and all of our citizens who wish to read during that year.”
Wright, a law professor at the University of Florida, as well the chair-elect to the faculty senate, meets with these students every week to discuss their progress in planning McIntosh’s future.
None of these materials regarding the CRA have been made public to the McIntosh residents in the more than six months UF students and Wright have been researching and organizing the redevelopment project.
Harper said she could make several suggestions for the town of McIntosh because the town’s leaders are showing concerning trends. She said that if any of the residents are concerned they can call the Florida Attorney General’s office and request mediation. Harper said the drawback for the residents is that this would be voluntary on the part of the public officials.
Her other suggestion was the First Amendment Foundation could present a Sunshine workshop to the council and the town’s residents for the cost of their travel from Tallahassee– about $70. Council members paid $700 per member for the League of Cities presentation.
Other than that, Harper said that the best remedy to this kind of trend is for reporters to keep writing about it.

posted by Cher @ 12:13 PM, , links to this post

06.25.06 -- EDITORIAL: Why July 11 is a very, very important day

WHEN: JULY 11
WHAT: A public vote for McIntosh Residents on an amendment to the McIntosh Charter that would BAN expansion of the historic district -- a charter law that can not be repealed by any future council.
WHO: Amendment was written by Charlsie Stott, petitions were circulated by Stott, Howard Walkup and Jim Walkup

By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH -- Due to a family obligation, I was late to last Thurday's meeting and missed most of the argument when the town council passed the new historic board ordinance. I got there in time to see the council pass the new laws and watch people walk out of the meeting in disgust. I got there in time to hear people call out to the council, "You don't listen to us." I got there in time to see a lot of pissed off people.

I haven't read the new ordinance. I hear it's a tome, literally. One of the things grossly wrong with this town is how it doesn't communicate with its residents. Changes like these should be posted online and a great deal more discussion should go into them than an agenda posted in a shadow box outside the town hall and a bunch of legalese running in a local paper. It scares me stupid for the people living in the historic district that this ordinance was passed so quickly. It's even scarier given the nature of laws that weren't passed last Thursday. But we'll get around to discussing that...

After reading some of the other local laws presented, I've come to understand this council is more interested in checking off their to-do list, than in shaping responsible laws. Gary Greenberg had a very good point when he stood up in that meeting and scolded the council for passing the historic ordinance as it was written.

There would have been nothing wrong with sending that ordinance back to the committee for rewrite. In fact, it would have been the right thing to do.

But that's not the point of this editorial. The point of this editorial is that McIntosh residents need to get out on July 11 and voice their opinion about the historic district. It's even more important now because the historic ordinances have become more strict.

July 11 is the date for a vote to add an amendment to the town charter that would ban expansion into McIntosh's historic district. What does this mean? It means, by voting YES, you would be adding a law to the town charter -- think of it as a constitution -- that would prohibit the town from including your home in the historic district unless you specifically wanted to be included. This means, if the historic board doesn't already tell you what kind of roof and the color of paint you can use, they wouldn't be able to in the future unless you wanted them to have that power.

The existing historic district is as it is. It's not going to change. But people who live on the west side and down in Robert's Acres and in Sportsman's Cove and around the perimeter can put a stop to further expansion. I understand the new ordinances passed last Thursday allow for expansion of the historic district. I first heard this when a committee member mentioned it on the first reading. (Let me point out that the council passed this ordinance without reading it on the first reading at the protest of Mayor Marsha Strange. See previous post from the May council meeting.)

By allowing for expansion of the district in this ordinance, the council has proven themselves liars. I watched in February and March meetings as some council members said over and over that they don't want to expand the historic district. Clearly, if a new ordinance includes method for expansion, this contradicts their previous protests.

In theory, I happen to agree with arguments made in the past by council members -- yes even Joe Phillips -- that limiting the power of a municipal government is dangerous. But in practice, I think the tendency in McIntosh toward irresponsible governing by laypeople is even more dangerous due to abuse of power. When I talked to Marion County Commissioner Charlie Stone in February, he said that one of the problems with CRA boards are that they tend to garner too much power the longer they exist. [EDITED see below]

I think this was one of the main reasons that a CRA would fail in McIntosh: McIntosh is not ready for it because it's citizen boards don't know how to handle a little bit of power. This is evident in the historic board and in the code enforcement board. I can't even begin to unravel how screwed up the LPA must be if they drafted that basically unconstitutional ordinance that allowed for an officer to demand entry into homes.

So get out and vote July 11. People walked out of that meeting the other night saying the council didn't listen to its constituents. There are ways to make them listen and this is one of them.

[Clarification: This editorial is my opinion based on reporting and observation. I referenced a conversation I had during a CRA meeting with Commissioner Charlie Stone about CRA boards because it helped me understand their limitations. I have corrected the formatting so it is clear where Stone's direct comment ended and my editorial opinion began. I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.]

posted by Cher @ 9:32 AM, , links to this post

06.25.06 -- ARTICLE: Historic Just Ain't What It Used to Be, March 22, 2006

This story was orginally written for an in depth reporting class March 22. The reporting is based on observation in public meetings as well as one-on-one interviews both in phone and in person. I'm posting it now because the petition vote is coming up July 11.

Historic Just Ain't What It Used to Be

By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH – A group of former McIntosh town leaders gathered enough signatures to petition the town to add an amendment to its charter limiting expansion of the historic district and contradicting the charming character of McIntosh.

The small town of about 450 people is known for its historic district. Every fall, 40,000-some odd Floridians pack the quaint streets of McIntosh for its 1890’s Festival.

But some of its residents are saying, enough already.

The amendment petition states that town leaders would not be allowed to expand the town’s historic district unless a property owner bordering the historic district specifically wanted to be included in that area.

Charlsie Stott, the petition committee chairman, said she did this for several reasons but the overwhelming reason is that residents living outside the district don’t want to be told how they can and can’t live.

She said one of her criticisms of the current historic district in McIntosh is the Historic Preservation Board focuses on dictating how the homes and yards of the other homes in the historic district should be without concentrating on the upkeep of the historic structures themselves.

The town’s council members challenged the petition on several levels.

Council member Frank Ciotti went as far as to say in a Feb. 15 town council meeting that he believed the signatures were gathered dishonestly and the residents of McIntosh were lied to.

Stott said that she absolutely did not lie to anyone.

All she has to do is point to a recent Historic Preservation Board meeting as an example.

In the Feb. 21 meeting, an argument between audience member Susan Phillips and board members became heated over Randy Brown’s roof, on his family home located on U.S. 441.

At one point, Phillips demanded the board refuse Brown’s proposed roof and fine him if he attempted to put a metal roof on his home.

This was Brown’s second request before the board in a period of one month.

Phillips had insisted at a previous meeting the gray metal roof Brown requested approval should denied based on color. The proposed gray metal roof might not be close enough to the color of tin that a tin-colored metal roof. The board listened to her and Brown’s roof was refused.

The Brown home, off U.S. 441, is a Classic Revival built in 1910. Currently, the roof is shingled tile but Brown was approved a permit for tin metal roof because other Victorian homes in the historic district had been given permission by the board for a metal roof. Phillips argued at the meeting that this roof would not look appropriate.

Late last year, the McIntosh Land Planning Agency – a zoning advisory board – suggested an historic corridor to the town council. This corridor would create a protected area around the historic district.

“They want to create what they call an historic corridor, or transition zone. If they do that, it would give them control over that area. People don’t want to be told every board they can paint and what color. You lose your property rights when you do that,” said Howard Walkup, former town council member.

Town council members, however, denied even entertaining the issue of an historic corridor.

Meanwhile, Stott's petition committee gathered enough signatures that the town clerk had to certify the petition. The town will have to have a special election for members to come and vote on whether they would like to expand the historic district.

This petition has become, like most other things in McInotsh, a point of contention. When Lee Winters suggested the town council add to the ballot the proposed CRA because so many people were upset, it opened up another wave of criticism for the petition from council members.

One method the council members initially chose to take on was writing the residents of McIntosh a letter challenging the petition and asking anyone who wanted to remove their names from the petition to come to the office and file paperwork with the town clerk.

Mayor Marsha Strange asked the town clerk to fax this letter to the attorney general’s office for a second opinion. She refused to sign it and wanted to know if it was valid.

Individual town council members criticized Strange in a public meeting for questioning their letter and for using the town’s fax machine saying she had no business using town equipment, even though she is the town’s mayor.

Danaya Wright wrote another letter encouraging the town’s residents not to vote for this amendment. She said that expanding the historic district was not legal.

Jim Strange countered these moves in a February workshop meeting in relative privacy. He told other council members that by protesting the petition, they were opening themselves up to criticism.

However, council member Joe Phillips continued to challenge the certification of a petition in March after it had been certified for a month based on first the size of the paper the petition was filed on and then he accused the petitioner’s committee of not forming a political action committee as Florida Statues require of state constitutional petitions. But the town charter contradicts Phillips.

“Joe’s just pickin,’” Stott said.

Stott and Walkup said they were on the phone with the supervisor of elections Dee Brown the next day and they’re petition is in the clear. The vote will take place later this summer.

posted by Cher @ 9:07 AM, , links to this post

06.09.06 -- EDITORIAL: Proactive Code Enforcement

By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH -- Last night was not the first town meeting I've walked out of angry. I'm most angry with myself when I feel moved enough to say something.

But I am a registered voter in McIntosh. I'm not covering the town for a newspaper.

I've been to quite a few meetings now and I know Fred Del Russo to be an even-tempered, fair person. I've heard him discuss both sides of an issue. More than several times, I've seen him withhold judgement -- something alot of people in McIntosh find a challenge.

I've also seen the council gearing up for this code enforcement battle.

In the February workshop, Jim Strange said he'd like to light a match to the whole town by giving a code enforcement officer the freedom to be proactive. I had a bad reaction to that statement on that day.

During the meeting, it came out that after 40 hours of code enforement work, Art Davis had not written and complaints or violations of code. He just went around warning people, he said.

I blurted out, "That's harassment."

Some people in the room didn't take too kindly to that comment. Joe Phillips. Harris Fellman. I'm sorry the comment was out of turn but I'm not sorry for saying it. What is harrassment if not bullying?

See, like many people around town, I've heard the rumors that a certain Board of Adjustment member has been driving around with Davis looking for infractions, from house to house to house.

I looked a little bit deeper today for why this bothers me so much and I think this is it: the police are not allowed to search your property without probable cause or a search warrant. They don't get to just walk around your yard and look for reasons to create a complaint against you and then cite you or arrest you. So, why is the town of McIntosh empowering a man to be able to do just that?

I read this morning a code of ethics for code enforcement officers from the Florida Association of Code Enforcement, Inc.

Some of those guidelines were:
1. Members will recognize and uphold the rights of all citizens as granted by the
Constitution of the United States and the State of Florida.

2. Members will enforce all codes and ordinances in such a manner as to ensure a
quality of life expected by the citizens.

3. Members will perform all duties in such a manner as to instill in the public trust and
confidence in the code enforcement process.

4. Members will, at all times, conduct themselves in accordance with the standards of
conduct for Public Officers and Employees as contained in Chapter 112 of the Florida
Statutes.

*****

What I am not seeing in town is code enforcement being handled in an ethical manner. Instead, I see it being handled in a way that wrecks the public trust.

This was my concern when I learned earlier this spring that they council had learned that code enforcement could be used as a revenue building method. Why not just raise taxes?

One of the reasons I've heard during my reporting for the need for a code enforcement officer was that the town has been run haphazard for many years and that people have gotten away with breaking rules in a selective manner. Meaning that if you are on the right side of the council you are golden, if you weren't, you were denied.

I don't see how this council is running any differently as long as they see code enforcement as a means of raising revenue for the town's coffers. And when that code enforcement is proactive, that makes it far worse. It opens the door to harrassment and discrimination.

posted by Cher @ 1:33 PM, , links to this post

06.09.06 -- REPORT: McIntosh divided by CRA, U.S. 441

March 22, 2006 -- McIntosh divided by CRA, U.S. 441

By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH – A project leaders thought would bring the town of McIntosh together is tearing it apart.

Town Council President Danaya Wright spearheaded a community redevelopment agency last year drawing on her contacts as a law professor at the University of Florida to work with a group of law students from UF’s Conservation Clinic as they researched and designed a redevelopment project for the town.

The project would create a community redevelopment agency, or CRA, along the U.S. 441 corridor through McIntosh. Other CRAs in area include Gainesville’s University Corners and Ocala’s Downtown Main Street.

The proposed CRA would encompass every property in McIntosh along U.S. 441 corridor through reaching one block into the town on both sides of the highway. The purpose of the CRA is not firmly set although Wright has said she would like to see the highway reduced to two lanes through McIntosh, as well as crosswalks, historic streetlamps and façade improvements to the buildings along the corridor. She said the highway running through the town creates a division between east and west McIntosh.

“U.S. 441 is a problem for us. It divides out community,” Wright said in a February town council meeting.

But some community members and business owners don’t agree and say the CRA itself is what is tearing apart the town.

Richard Shutterly was the first one to bring up two words that have become dreaded in McIntosh: eminent domain.

Shutterly, a Micanopy commissioner, owns two parcels of land along the U.S. 441 corridor.

In a February council meetings, he asked the council members how many of them had actually read the Florida statutes empowering local boards to create redevelopment areas.

Shutterly’s concerns were that a CRA would give a board the power of eminent domain, as well as the power to enter owners’ property for inspection.

“This is all about a police action,” Shutterly said, waving printouts of the statutes he’d downloaded online.

His strongest concerns involved eminent domain. Florida statutes allow CRA board to put out bids to developers and invite them in without the owner’s consent.

Council members’ answer to Shutterly’s concern was that the town of McIntosh already had eminent domain and they don’t use it. Wright has stated this repeatedly in public meetings including the CRA workshop the council host on Feb. 23 with the students who researched the CRA.

The workshop presentation detailed the steps the CRA would take.

The first step would be for the town council to declare the corridor "blighted." The students presented a timeline that would allow the town to begin applying for grant money by the end of March and set up the financial funds with taxing authorities and through a trust fund by the end of June.

The plan estimated that town could generate as much at $4 million after 30 years. The CRA’s superfund would be based on TIF money – or tax increment financing. The town would generate funds for the CRA from increases in property taxes— 95 percent of increases on homes which are not homesteaded would go into McIntosh’s CRA fund as opposed to Marion County.

But the residents in the workshop weren’t convinced. They meeting broke out into small groups so the students could try to address and record residents' concerns. They also made notes including stipulations the residents wanted written into the ordinance like the CRA board would not be able to use eminent domain and CRA funds could not be used to improve a private home.

While the residents met, Marion County Commissioner Charlie Stone for District five observed the CRA meeting -- the town's representative at the county level. He said there were two things about the McIntosh CRA that were good and bad.

He watched Wright explaining to a small group part of her plans for what the CRA could bring to McIntosh.

“The first is that there is someone who** is using some vision – giving the town something to pull it together,” Stone said.

But he said that the second point about the CRA is that without trust, something like this could tear apart the town as easily as it could pull them together.

“And these people don’t trust each other,” he said.

The UF students were barely able to scratch the surface of their presentation due to resident complaints.

When Wright stopped to talk to Stone he made two suggestions to her. The first was that their timeline was too tight and the second was to bring in people who had some experience with CRAs. Wright made plans with the students creating the CRA to bring in someone to the March meeting but then she took the CRA off the agenda in March.

She also decided to move the timeline back four months. The new timeline has not been announced.

Stone said that many first-time CRAs fail in communities because towns aren’t ready for them. But he also said that they tend to come back to the idea a year later and try it again when residents are more unified.

And that is what the ministers in McIntosh would like to see happen.

The four churches in McIntosh are the social hub of the community. Those churches ministers, Pastors Jim Walkup. Murray Musselman, Al Bryan and Larry Pearson, together wrote council members asking them to put off the CRA for a year until everyone in town had a chance understand it, specifically asking for the council to make all the materials available to the town regarding the research for this project. To date, none of the background and research has been available through the town office even though it should be part of the public record.

The McIntosh Ministerial Association asked, “Will you please delay for a year the final vote on the implementation of the CRA and see to it that our comprehensively informed about every aspect of it?”

Though Wright refused to allow pubic comments in the council meeting where Mayor Marsha Strange read the ministers’ letter into the public record, she did reply in council to their concerns.

She said the council had already decided to slow down the timeline.

“This is not the council driving this,” Wright said. “This is for the community to develop this. The students were requested to go ahead and draft the ordinance on the Feb. 23 so that people could see that all of those fears and rumors that are being spread around are untrue.”

Wright handed the ordinances out and said, “Fine, if people don’t want it, we’re not going to do it.”

One of the concerns in the Ministerial Association’s letter dealt with the timeline.

“We are deeply concerned about the division that is being created among our citizens by what appears to many of them an unnecessary rush to the establishment of a CRA. That perceived haste makes them anxious and perplexed about the benefits and dangers generally and for their personal property, particularly,” the ministers wrote.

The CRAs timeline was based on several factors.

The first is the students who researched it are graduating in May. Wright asked other students to finish the work in the fall. The second reason is that the first of three grants the town would like to apply for have deadlines at the end of March through June. If McIntosh had an established CRA, it might have better chance of obtaining grant money. The third reason is that the council plans to increase the property taxes – or cease the tax rollbacks – for the first in longer than 10 years. Wright said the TIF superfund estimating the $4.2 million over 30 years is based on a 3 percent tax. McIntosh’s current property tax is 1.6 percent.

The next day after the letter was read to the town and the council, Wright wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation regarding a notice given to the town that U.S. 441 and the sidewalks will be repaved next year.

Wright said the town was in the process of creating a CRA that would likely focus on road, sidewalks of the highway including sidewalks, street lighting, lack of crosswalks, utility lines, inadequate parking, drainage, signage, traffic lights, and landscaping.

She was confident enough to say that “some of the sidewalk work you may be doing could potentially be undone if we receive funding and authorization to place the utility lines underground or wish to improve the sidewalks with brick or brick stamping.”


**Edited - "who" was added to the quote. I spoke with Commissioner Stone July 14 and read him over his part in this story and we agree I left "who" out of this sentence. I am sorry for any convenience this may have caused.

posted by Cher @ 1:18 PM, , links to this post

06.09.06 -- EDITOR'S NOTE: Lowdown on Audio Files

I've attached my audio files of public meetings under links on the sidebar.

These are primarily Town Council meetings. Some are .wav files which means you can click on them and they will open a player in your browser screen and you, too, can hear town meetings unfold.

My more recent files are .wma -- windows media files. (I bought a new audio recorder with more memory.) The files work spectacularly in my world because I am a PC user. When you click on them, you can download the files and can save them to your computer. If you really want a file and can't make it work -- drop me a line and I will try to help if I can.

What you won't find on here are any audio files of one-on-one interviews since they are private between me and my sources. Public meetings are fair game though. I feel like the town should be more committed to making this information accessable.

Most of the news reports I write on here will be based on public meetings -- feel free to listen and make your own decisions.

posted by Cher @ 12:55 PM, , links to this post

06.09.06 -- Town Council Meeting June 8

By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH -- The McIntosh Town Council officially told residents Thursday night the council has empowered its code enforcement officer be proactive in his search of code violations. Council members discussed upcoming water rate changes and the council heard the first reading on new town laws that would redefine the codes for the historic district, as well as the land development code.

According to citizen complaints during the meeting, Code Enforcement Officer Art Davis worked a 40 hour work week and wrote no code violations. Resident Fred Del Russo addressed the council voicing his concern that Davis threatened to make him remove several Sago palms from his yard because they did not meet a corner visibility setback that Davis told him the town required.

Del Russo said Davis told him he'd pull the palms up with the town's backhoe. Davis denied he made the statement.

An argument broke out between town council members Jim Strange and Joe Phillips and Del Russo, with Strange taking offense with Del Russo for bringing his concern to the council. Strange admonished him for not calling him at home before he complained to the council. When Del Russo got his phone out to ask for Strange's number, Strange scolded the public for having a phone on and told Del Russo if he wanted his number, it was in the phone book.

Phillips took offense with Del Russo bringing a subject the resident was angry about before the council. But then Phillips turned around and took his own frustration out in the public forum over an argument between his wife Susan Phillips and another citizen board member that apparently happened in Del Russo's front yard. Del Russo said he'd already apologized to Susan Phillips for the argument.

In a February town council workshop meeting, the council hashed out what kind of water rate changes they wanted to make later this year. Though the three teired water rate change was never detailed in minutes of the February workshop, Council Member Frank Ciotti was adamant at the time that residents be informed of the rate change in June in order to plans their budgets. He made good on his plans Thursday night.

The water rates in McIntosh have not been raised in about 10 years and the last time they were raised, they were reduced the next year because the rates caused a hardship for the town's elderly. McIntosh has the lowest water rates in Marion County.

The town also heard proposed new ordinances that would detail the kinds of paint colors and roofs, as well as what kind of vehicles could be parked in the historic district in the future. Not discussed but apparently part of the ordinance is an allowance that would detail how McIntosh could expand the historic district.

In past response to a petition to ban expansion of the historic district, council members have said they absolutely do not want to expand the historic district and Historic Board Chairman June Glass has said in discussion that it would not be legal. The petition amendment vote will take place in the McIntosh Civic Center on July 11, 2006. The vote will give the town's residents the power to cap expansion of the historic district. As it stands, historic district homes must adhere to federal and local guidelines that control everything from what color paint to the type of roofs -- and in the proposed ordinances, what kind of vehicle can be parked in the historic district. The amendment to town charter would limit the expansion to homes bordering the existing district and include them only if the owners' chose to be included.

The council also heard a number of changes to the land development code which effect zoning and other changes to future new homes built in McIntosh.

DATES TO REMEMBER:

JULY 11, 2006 -- Amendment Petition vote for banning expansion of the historic district.

Others TBA.

posted by Cher @ 12:32 AM, , links to this post

Editor

Editor and Publisher:

I'm Cher From McIntosh, FL I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida working on a master's degree in Mass Communication. While I was finishing my undergrad degree in journalism last year, I reported on McIntosh, Fla. for an in-depth reporting class. I figured that the reporting and the public record files should go somewhere people can access them. Reporters don't report to keep the information they find to themselves. Some of that reporting is included here in a forum that allows response. McIntosh suffers because with no news coverage, the local government and the rumor mill have too much potential to run rampant over residents. I moved to McIntosh in the fall of 1999. My profile

About This Blog

The primary purpose of this blog is to accurately reflect what happens in town public meetings and dispel rumors. I record the meetings and make them available for download. One of the goals of this blog is to offer residents a place to voice opinions. The comments, views and opinions expressed there are not necessarily those of the editor.

 
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"A Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, 1822

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