Source: Charley – Ten Years Later
Originally published in 2014. Since repeated.
by Charlie Whitehead
Bid Protest, Favoritism Charges Cloud Lee/Beach Project
So how does a firm angling to run a $50 million county project go from rated dead last among those seeking the work to walking away with the contract?
That’s what officials with Wright Construction want to know.
A cloud hangs over a major project at Fort Myers Beach as Wright claims Lee County officials steered a construction management contract worth millions to a favorite.
The project would re-build Estero Boulevard, the main drag in the county’s tourism lifeblood barrier island town of Fort Myers Beach. It’s a $50 million road and utility project, to be funded in increments every two years over the next decade.
It will include utility work approved in a referendum by Beach voters in 2007 when current Commissioner Larry Kiker was the town’s mayor.
The project itself faces enough hurdles without the bid protest. Numerous Beach businesses have encroached with parking and even building into public right-of-way needed for the project. When Beach voters approved a referendum to pay to fix the leaky run-down water system the town bought from Florida Cities Water Company in 2001 early estimates were it could cost as much as $18 million to fix, well above the $7.5 million included in the county project.
Both county and town officials described the project as a high-profile lightning rod sure to create controversy. Estero Boulevard routinely becomes a 6-mile parking lot during the busy winter and spring season, a situation sure to be made worse by construction.
Even the county’s own project newsletters admit the project is not designed to ease seasonal vehicular traffic congestion, describing it instead as a means to allow travelers to shift to bicycles, walking and trolleys.
In a bid protest hearing on October 28 attorney Trent Cotney argued the pending award of a construction management contract for the widening of Estero Boulevard to Chris-Tel Construction was a predetermined conclusion.
Cotney claims Assistant County Manager Doug Meurer influenced the 3-person county short-list and selection committee to select the firm that the committee initially ranked last among the six seeking the work.
Meurer did not attend the hearing and will not comment on the pending bid protest. The selection committee was comprised of three men who are his subordinates. He is heard on the tape of first the short-list meeting and then the selection meeting pushing for Chris-Tel.
At the bid protest hearing three other county higher-ups, one of Meurer’s co-workers and two of his subordinates, backed him up. That, according to Cotney, is no surprise.
Cotney said that simply listening to the tapes of the two committee meetings it clear to him.
“Any reasonable person would conclude the selection of Chris-Tel was a foregone conclusion,” Cotney said.
Berk Edwards, attorney for Chris-Tel, said if that’s true the whole process was corrupt.
“If it’s a foregone conclusion then people are pre-decided,” he said. “On the take is a harsh way to say it, but that’s what foregone conclusion means,” he said.
But Cotney pointed to the initial committee rankings. Two of the three committee members selected Wright first and one picked them second. All three picked Chris-Tel last.
“Chris-Tel was in last place, and they were in last place for a reason,” he said.
In fact the short-list committee was expected to ‘keep’ only three firms. Meuer urged them to add Chris-Tel to the list, citing his ‘experience and knowledge of personnel’.
“I’m going to maybe try to influence who we talk to,” he said. “I’d like to add a fourth interview: Chris-Tel.”
The short-list committee – Transportation director Dave Loveland, transportation project manager Rob Phelan and utilities project manager Luis Molina, all three Meurer’s subordinates – agreed. They kept five of the six instead, discarding only the one firm with no local office.
But Edwards said once Chris-Tel was on the short list they started afresh, on the same footing as the others. He compared it to getting a ‘B’ on a midterm and then acing the final. He noted town officials at the selection committee meeting said they’d been ‘blown away’ by Chris-Tel’s presentation.
“The fact that Chris-Tel blew them away is not favoritism,” he said. “Wright is essentially saying that from the inception everybody was on the take.”
This is not the first time Wheeler and Chris-Tel have found themselves in the teeth of a county contract controversy. In 2008 his romantic relationship with then-Commissioner Tammy Hall had Commissioners Frank Mann and Brian Bigelow questioning the county process. Both men specifically criticized it for creating selection and short-list committees of county bosses and underlings.
The process, they said, is rife with opportunities for favoritism and undue influence. That is precisely what Wright alleges.
Back then the focus was the contract to build the new Red Sox stadium. Chris-Tel was identified by main contractor Manhattan-Kraft Construction as a sub, and Hall obtained a staff ethics opinion that she must cast her vote. Kraft got the contract with Chris-Tel as a sub. Chris-Tel has since hired away two Kraft employees, cited by Meurer as a reason to favor Chris-Tel.
Hall is gone, tossed from office when she was caught stealing more than $30,000 from her 2010 campaign account. Bigelow is gone too, resigning to run unsuccessfully for another office in 2012 before cocaine charges in 2012 and 2013 derailed his public career.
Mann is still in office.
Wright has made public records requests for internal emails and other communications between county officials as well as county commissioner election finance reports. Chris-Tel president Howard Wheeler is active in local politics and wrote checks to the campaigns of all five current county commissioners.
Wright’s records request had not been filled when the protest hearing took place. Cotney said people are reviewing the extensive information received since.
Unsurprised by the protest committee decision, Cotney said the case will go before county commissioners. If they go along with the recommendation the next option is court.
“It was pretty clear they had an agenda,” he said of the selection system. “They missed the mark on fairness from the very beginning.”
‘Jason Maughan is missing’ screamed the postcard-sized ad, which takes the Senator’s challenger to task for numerous votes he did not cast in elections from 2004 through 2016.
Now I believe that is a bad thing for a candidate. But that’s not the point.
The ad was paid for by a Political Action Committee called Truth Matters. So who could possibly argue with that? Of course truth matters.
And since truth does matter here’s a little bit of it from me to you.
Truth Matters was created in February of 2014. It appears to be the progeny of an Electioneering Communication Organization of the same name, a group also funded by those who pervert our elections, including yet another ECO called Americans for Economic Opportunity. Again, who could possibly oppose economic opportunity?
Well Americans for Economic Opportunity invested over $500,000 in Truth Matters convincing you to vote their way. That money came from that same list of perverters of democracy, including U.S. Sugar.
Since those big investments Truth Matters has run through over $1.1 million manipulating our elections. It got that money from a lot of different places – including the usual suspects.
For example when this fledgling truth-loving group was just getting started, shortly after it banked the $500,000 from Americans for Economic Opportunity, it got $100,000 in support from Florida Crystals.
At the end of a long list of contributions from other political corporate entities, again precisely the bunch that has twisted Florida’s government so badly that it currently functions for the benefit of the few and against the interests of the many, coincidentally just under a month before the ad landed in my mailbox, came a check for $10,000 from U.S. Sugar.
As I have been telling voters for a very long time, if you receive a communication – on your TV, on the radio, in the paper – from a PAC or from one of these scumbag committees hiding behind a high-sounding name DO NOT DO WHAT THEY SAY.
I promise you that these sleazy groups want you to vote in their best interest, not yours. If you think the interests of U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals are the same as yours I suggest you open your window and look out. Take a walk down to the beach and – if you dare – stick your toes in the water. Or drive to any south Florida beach and have a look.
And another aside, this one to my friends in the sleazy politics business. I’m still here. If you send me this shit I will gladly share my feelings and my knowledge. It took me but a few seconds to run this one down. It’s easy if you know how. Please carry on.
Whither Bay Oaks? Courtesy of the Island Sand Paper By Charlie Whitehead I struggled a lot with this. I struggled first over whether to do it – I’m retired from journalism you know – and then how t…
Source: Whither Bay Oaks
Courtesy of the Island Sand Paper
By Charlie Whitehead
I struggled a lot with this. I struggled first over whether to do it – I’m retired from journalism you know – and then how to.
But Missy is no dummy. She knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist digging into rumors of a threatened Bay Oaks future. She knows I’m still neck-deep in Beach Little League. She knows that I see Bay Oaks as the most important thing on Estero Island.
She also knows, as do town council members and anyone else who’s heard me talk, that I do not live on Estero Island and therefore I do not pay the taxes that flow to Bay Oaks and the rest of town government.
Now for things she might not know – well until now anyway.
I wrote about Bay Oaks before it opened. While I was stumbling around trying to learn how to be a reporter in the mid-1980’s the county was building Bay Oaks. I wrote about the grand opening. I hosted the free-throw shooting contest at that grand opening. I helped launch the first-ever adult basketball league at Bay Oaks – way back in those days when I could still play that game. My name is still on plaques hanging in the lobby.
I started umpiring on the Little League fields at Bay Oaks in the late 1980’s. I’ve been doing it ever since. I umped two games this week. I’ve had the great honor to have served as president, on the board and as a coach for several teams along the way.
My kids grew up at Bay Oaks. They went to the after-school program. They played flag football. They played in the youth basketball league. They went to ball games. They hung out in the teen room. My oldest daughter works at Bay Oaks now.
I even served as a member of the old Bay Oaks Advisory Board, both in the days when it was a Lee County facility and while the county and town were jointly running things. I designed the Frisbee golf course. I had the huge honor of knowing Al Oerter and Larry Costello, two fine men and sports giants who are no longer with us but who did great things for the community of Fort Myers Beach and whose names are on the weight room and one of the two basketball courts. I got to work a free basketball clinic with NBA Hall-of-Famer Costello (I still have the T-shirt) and was the master of ceremonies when one of the Bay Oaks courts was named in his honor. Perhaps the best thing I ever wrote was a remembrance of self-effacing 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist Oerter, whose money went to start the weightroom and whose artwork decorates the facility.
I scattered the ashes of a dear friend on the outdoor basketball court at Bay Oaks, and I attended a similar ceremony years later on the ball field for another friend.
I left the Bay Oaks board only when the newspaper I then worked for created new ‘ethics’ rules that prohibited newsroom employees from serving on appointed committees.
I knew Wade Jenkins, a Beach kid tragically taken too early whose name is on one of the ball fields, and Rod Vayo, who devoted hundreds of his hours to the youth of this community as an umpire before his time, too, was cut short, and whose name is on the other field.
In short this is a visceral, emotional issue for me. Missy knew that when she called.
And I understand the conflict that is inherent when a journalist is also an advocate. I have always drawn a very bright line between the two, and lately have given up journalism altogether. I even helped launch the new Beach Area Civic Association, becoming the group’s first president and laying my pen aside, so to speak. We feel we’re doing important work – definitely advocacy and not journalism.
I’m trying here to wear both hats. It’s hard. It may be impossible.
A few months ago there was a short-lived ‘Save Bay Oaks’ movement. Concerned Beach residents had heard rumors that the facility, including the rec center and the pool, might be closed down. Town officials scoffed at the rumors, assuring folks such a thing would not take place, and the group faded away.
After Missy called I started digging around and asking questions.
The Bay Oaks 5-year development plan, created by a town-appointed committee and blessed by the town council, expired in 2014. There is no new plan.
When the county handed ownership of Bay Oaks over to the town the county manager was Don Stilwell. Stilwell is now Fort Myers Beach town manager.
At the time county officials – Stilwell – said the county could no longer afford operating costs. There was talk then of closing the facility.
The transfer deal included a payment of $490,000 from the county. The agreement specifically mentioned the facility roof, air conditioner and floor, though it left it to the town to decide what Bay Oaks-related improvements the money would be used for. None of the discussed work has been done.
Four members of the Bay Oaks Rec Campus Advisory Board saw their appointed terms expire in October. They had asked repeatedly to be re-appointed. Those re-appointments were made at the March 7 town council meeting after I started asking questions of council members, staffers and BORCAB.
BORCAB members have heard the rumors. They say they feel ignored and marginalized.
During town budget hearings in November the town council said it intended to leave Bay Oaks funding intact while ‘a hard look’ was taken at its operation. At its next hearing the council adopted a budget that set parks and rec funding at $806,000, not the $931,000 that had been proposed. It axed the entire capitol budget and eliminated funding for the full-time senior program coordinator. The person in charge of the active group Bay Oaks Social Seniors.
Some council members and town staffers continue to refer to a ‘$900,000 subsidy to Bay Oaks’ that is fictional. According to documents provided to council the actual $806,000 parks and rec budget is partly offset by between $210,000 and $240,000 in annual revenue that the Bay Oaks (and pool) programs produce. That would make the ‘subsidy’ between $566,000 and $596,000, not $900,000.
I told the council March 7 that Florida Recreation and Parks Association numbers show the current parks and rec budget is $118.34 for each of the not quite 7,000 residents. The Florida average for towns of similar size is $160.21. The FRPA numbers were included in budget documents provided to council before the budget vote.
Stilwell helped me reach a different per-capita number, pointing out the Florida League of Cities pegged the town population at 6,200, not the more than 6,800 number the FRPA used. That means the current town budget spends $130 per capita, still around 20 percent less than the FRPA average for similar Florida towns.
Stilwell said a per-capita comparison is not the way to set a budget. A look at where parks and rec services are now, he said, what level of service is currently being delivered, is not where you start assessing and discussing the future. It’s what the budget can afford.
This next part is delicate.
On February 11 town parks and rec director Randy Norton got word his services would no longer be required. He considers it a termination and has said so repeatedly.
“I think they want to say it’s mutual,” said Norton. “When they come to you and tell you it’s not working out and you should start looking for a new job it’s not mutual.”
Three weeks later the town council had not been told about the termination of a department head. When I called to ask Stilwell if he was hiring a new director or if the director’s duties would be parceled-out to others he told me he had terminated no one and no one had resigned.
He says he wanted to give Norton an opportunity to find other work and resign rather than simply terminating him.
Stilwell also says there is no move afoot to close Bay Oaks and/or the pool.
I have known Don Stilwell since he came to Lee County in 1993. I wrote about his troubles and travails as Lee County manager, shared the campaign trail with him when we were both county commission candidates and observed him as town manager. He says he kept quiet about Norton’s termination in an attempt to keep a blemish off his employment record. I do not disbelieve him.
On March 7 council briefly discussed the situation, a discussion Stilwell called ‘important…but awkward.’
The exchange came when Council Member Summer Stockton brought up quarterly reports Stilwell gives to council, reports he says are time-consuming and seemingly of little use, since he’s never asked about them. He said he believes simply keeping council members in the loop on a regular, often daily basis would work better.
But Stockton said if that were the case she wouldn’t have learned about Norton’s departure – she described it as ‘forced to resign’ – three weeks after the fact.
Mayor Anita Cereceda said she was aware of the situation – I had asked her about it – and Council Member Rexann Hosafros pointed out the reports don’t address personnel matters – Stilwell’s responsibility – anyway.
Stilwell said he had concerns over the privacy expectations employees have in such cases. Cereceda cut the conversation off.
I like Randy Norton. I believe he’s tried hard to make things work. A former baseball coach himself, he took his own time to help my son work on his hitting. He may not be the right guy to be parks and rec director for the town right now – and it is Stilwell’s decision to make – but he is a good guy.
That said Stilwell and I have different priorities. He is concerned – quite rightly – with what he thinks and what council tells him is best for the government of the Town of Fort Myers Beach. I am concerned for what I believe is best for the community of Fort Myers Beach.
As I told council they are different things.
Norton has been forthcoming. He says his termination is no secret, and people have been coming to him, telling him they were sorry to hear of his termination and are fearful for the future of Bay Oaks. One of them is Dave Anderson, a BORCAB member, Beach Chamber chairman and local business owner. He was one of those re-appointed March 7.
“The town has said they’re looking at other uses for the property,” Anderson said. “There’s been talk of half the gym becoming an equipment barn.”
Anderson claims facility use has actually exceeded projections and goals in the expired 5-year plan. He said the BORCAB feels like its reports to and requests of town council have been ignored.
Betty Simpson is a long-time BORCAB member and its chair.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I really don’t,” she said. “But I’ve heard all kinds of odd rumors. One thing I hear that really bothers me is that the town needs Bay Oaks for parking public works vehicles. What kind of games are we playing?”
Simpson said it is true that she and BORCAB have expressed concerns over Bay Oaks operations. More and more consistent use of the 18,000 square foot facility and its almost 10 acres and better outreach and marketing have been recurrent themes.
Simpson said she was frustrated trying to get the committee members re-appointed. Her own term has not lapsed, though others have. She said she was told to come to the Feb. 15 council meeting to discuss the re-appointments.
She did, telling council the committee stood ready to start meeting again and get to work on a new 5-year plan. There were no appointments.
That was four days after Norton was given his notice.
“I’m totally frustrated,” Simpson said. “Don’t tell me to come to the meeting to get people re-appointed and then not do it.”
Simpson said she was also told to tell Norton and his staff to stop spreading rumors of Bay Oaks closing. She said she had heard the rumors, but not from Norton or the parks and rec staff.
“Why don’t they want us to meet?” Simpson asked. “What are they trying to hide?”
Rae Sprole is another BORCAB member re-appointed. Sprole is another business owner who’s also a past member of the Little League board. She said the original Bay Oaks plan was done by a town-appointed committee and the advisory board.
“I thought it was a good plan” she said. “But if public works takes over you can write off Bay Oaks. I swear to God they must have bought 30 vehicles.”
Stilwell has argued that Bay Oaks is functioning as a regional park, serving San Carlos Island and the mainland but drawing funding only from Estero Island property taxes.
The liaison between Bay Oaks and the council is Council Member Summer Stockton. Stockton works full-time and her attendance at BORCAB meetings has been spotty at best, she admits, though she says Norton and Simpson kept her up-to-date.
Stockton grew up on Fort Myers Beach, and said Bay Oaks was her second home as a child.
“Close Bay Oaks? I would never in a million years agree to that,” she said. “That was my other home. Every day after school it seemed I was the last one there, kicking the ball against the wall.”
All council members echo that sentiment to one degree or another. There will be, however, a hard look. There will be an examination of the operations and the expenses and the potential revenues.
The exchange when Stockton brought up re-appointing the BORCAB members may be foreshadowing.
“That’s on my list, too,” Cereceda said. “It leaves a sense in the community that there’s a pending action, and there is not.”
Cereceda said nothing has come before council in what she referred to as “let’s call it a reorganization phase.”
Councilman Alan Mandell, sitting in his final meeting after six years, remembered council talking about merging some of the advisory committees and whether all of them would be re-appointed.
Cereceda said that the work of some committees is done, but the BORCAB is still needed.
“Unless we plan to get rid of Bay Oaks, and I never heard a single person say to get rid of Bay Oaks,” she said.
Stilwell said there’s a lot of misinformation being repeated, and he didn’t think re-appointing the BORCAB members was the right thing to do.
While Stockton pushed to re-appoint Stilwell said he doesn’t want BORCAB to think they’re planning the facility’s future. He’s said he wants the facility’s future planned by staff, though some council members have said they’d prefer a ‘bottom-up’ process in which the community drives the plan and not a ‘top-down’ plan from staff.
“If they’re re-appointed then they think they’re involved in the planning, and we can’t keep operating the way we’ve been operating,” he said.
Hosafros said re-appointing the committee doesn’t mean it will be meeting. BORCAB missed its March meeting date with no quorum. Simpson said she would ask when another meeting could be scheduled.
Stockton said she’s worried.
“Don Stilwell was the one who gave Bay Oaks to us, saying the county couldn’t afford it” she said. “I think he’s doing the same thing now.”
For his part Stilwell said it would be ‘pretty stupid of Stilwell’ to contemplate something as radical as closing Bay Oaks with the sentiment council has expressed and with a council election pending.
“The only thing I’ve ever heard is that it’s a big gym that gets little use,” he said. “There’s never been even at the staff level a discussion about doing anything. We’ve been trying for several months to get our arms around it.”
“We collect under $3 million in property taxes and we spend $800,000 of it on Bay Oaks,” he said. “Council has to decide if that’s a good return on investment.”
He’s right. I personally believe it’s the best investment council can make of the property tax dollars it collects from island business owners and home owners. But the people elected to town council by the voters of Fort Myers Beach will decide. That’s their job. Stilwell and town staff will guide their discussions and provide information to aid their decisions. That’s their job.
And I won’t be trying to wedge both my advocate hat and my journalist hat onto my head at the same time again. That’s not my job.
But I will continue to advocate for the future of Bay Oaks and for the other things I think are best for the community we all share. I guess that is my job.
For a few brief moments this Sunday morning I believed the Fort Myers daily paper had gotten one right on its editorial page.
I shoulda known.
“We Deserve Much Better” the headline screamed. And I thought ‘Yes. Yes we do.’
The people of Florida, and of southwest Florida and the readership area of the paper more specifically, do deserve much better. Our state has dysfunctional government all the way from Tallahassee down to the local courthouse. It’s manned (and womanned) by politicians who kowtow to big money contributors, by shallow minds who don’t or can’t think past their next fundraiser, by opportunists who prefer to sing from the re-election songbook instead of the public service hymnal.
It should be no surprise when this collection of misfits and miscreants cannot agree to do the will of the people, or when they categorically refuse to serve the needs and desires of the voters over those of their contributors.
Who can question why ‘our’ representative fashions a path to legitimization for fracking when others elsewhere are taking steps to ban it? Are we really surprised when ‘our’ representative files a bill to eliminate pollution clean-up standards for corporate agriculture and major polluters? Can we muster any alarm when ‘growth should pay for growth’ is tossed into the dustbin of history? Don’t we realize who these people serve and who put them where they are?
Well, gee. No. We don’t.
You mean local readers (and voters) don’t know which of our local elected officials took the cushy trip to the King’s Ranch hunting lodge in Texas when the sugar industry was wining and dining them to further its agenda? You mean readers of the Fort Myers paper didn’t read what the rest of the state did about those trips and the halting, stumbling response/denial/explanation/equivocation of those who accepted the free vacations?
Yes. That’s what I mean.
You mean that ‘our’ local paper didn’t tell us which of ‘our’ local elected officials is in office right now through the support of Big Sugar interests who stand against any meaningful Everglades restoration?
Yes. I mean that too.
You mean ‘our’ paper doesn’t examine local decisions on growth management and funding in light of which development groups funded which candidates?
You mean ‘our’ paper didn’t tell people which candidates were bankrolling their campaigns with dark money from PACs and which ones took cash directly from groups like Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers’ political influence group whose own agenda includes stopping the dreaded Obamacare whether or not close to a million Floridians suffer from lack of health insurance?
Yes. I’m afraid I do mean that too.
You mean the readers of ‘our’ local paper don’t even know who heads the Koch brothers group here in Florida and who his dad is? And how his dad’s votes have tracked the Koch legislative agenda both before and since his son was hired?
So you see I do agree with this morning’s headline. ‘We’ do deserve much better. We deserve to know who is funding whose campaign while the campaigns are underway. We deserve to be told which of our elected officials owe fealty to which PACs and which of them blatantly ignore the stated will of the voters to further their goals and not ours.
Unfortunately the headline did not herald an apology from the local paper for keeping its readership in the dark. It did not include a pledge to dig deep into motivations and connections of ‘our’ elected officials. It did not promise to expose the sleazy campaign secrets and actual goals of ‘our’ elected officials and those pulling their strings. It included no commitment to properly vet future candidates so an informed electorate can avoid repeating the egregious mistakes that have put us where we are.