Lee legislative delegation to eye home rule, mergers and more in Thursday meeting at FSW
11/30/23 CORRECTION This story has been updated. The proposed single-member district bill is sponsored by Mike Giallombardo. Due to incorrect information provided by the delegation, WGCU initially reported the incorrect sponsor of the bill. WGCU makes every attempt to correct factual errors regardless of the source.
Members of the Florida’s Lee County Legislative Delegation meet annually to share with the public proposed, hyper-local legislation that has a direct impact on the county for the upcoming session. The meetings give the public a chance to learn about the proposed bills and for the delegation to talk it out.
A majority yes vote on these hyper-local proposed bills is needed before any bills may be introduced when the next legislative session kicks off.
Such is what happened last month when the delegation met and approved a local matter involving a modest expansion of a special district in Lehigh Acres.
At the meeting, no one spoke in favor nor against the measure, including members of the delegation.
But what’s to follow in the week and weeks ahead will be anything but as simple as the Lehigh measure.
That’s because the Southwest Florida Legislative Delegation is assembling again to discuss some thornier issues that are for sure expected to draw a divisive crowd.
The delegation will meet at 7 a.m. Thursday at Florida Southwestern State College. There are two items up for discussion and a vote with three much thornier issues up for discussion, but no vote on Thursday. If there is to be a vote, the delegation will have to figure out when between now and the start of session in early January.
Here’s what you should know about potential proposed legislation:
- Discussion and a vote by the delegation that if passed by the delegation and eventually by a majority Florida Legislature would allow for a future referendum on merging the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District with the Lee County Mosquito Control District.
The Lee County Mosquito Control District serves all Lee County and the barrier islands with the exception of Fort Myers Beach. All told, Lee’s district is responsible for 1,187 square miles, making the district the largest in the state.
The beach has had its own district since 1949 – that’s nine years before Lee’s was established. And if those that spoke at the October delegation meeting are any indication of a wider-audiences’ reaction, the beach-district would like to remain a separate entity.
State Rep. Adam Botana is sponsoring the proposed legislation. When the matter was brought up for discussion last month, the idea was to have a non-voluntary merger of the two districts. The idea was part of state-required study on the mosquito control districts. The study said the Lee County Mosquito Control District could assume Fort Myers Beach’s at a nominal cost.
It’s important to note that the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District ‘s facility and equipment was destroyed by Hurricane Ian last year. The report said it will cost about $2 million to rebuild and re-equip. Still people on Fort Myers Beach were caught off guard and told the delegation they didn’t support a merger.
- Discussion and a vote by the delegation that if passed by the delegation and later the majority of the Florida Legislature would allow for a referendum where voters could decide on merging the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department with the Bonita Spring Fire Department.
State Rep. Botana is also the sponsor behind this proposed legislation. And just like the matter about merging mosquito control district’s, this did not go over well during a discussion at the Oct. 30 Lee delegation meeting.
Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief Scott Wirth implored the legislatures to review other fire department mergers to see if they really save taxpayers money. Two Collier departments merged in 2014. Wirth told the delegation he could not find any sort of cost-savings as a result.
Initially the idea was for a non-voluntary merger of the two fire departments. That’s what was presented in October.
“The district and the community were blindsided by the idea of this merger,” John Bennett, the chairman of the Fort Myers Beach Fire District, told the delegation Oct. 30. He said that at no time did Botana communicate with the board nor the community his “ thoughts on why, what and how this would happen.”
He said it feels like Fort Myers Beach is being targeted and called for taking the matter to the voters.
“To take this to vote without asking the community what they want is a travesty,” he said.
The proposed bill is now calling for a referendum should it pass through the Florida Legislature.
- Discussion on amending Lee County’s Home Rule Charter to have five single-member districts and two at-large seats on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners as opposed to the current five county commission spots that are voted upon county-wide.
Under the proposal, beginning in the 2026, people running for one of the current five district seats, still must live in the district that they’d like to represent, but they may only be elected by voters in their particular district. Nearly one-third of Florida’s counties have single-member districts.
The proposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Giallombardo, would add two additional seats. There are currently five county commissioners. These two additional seats would be selected by the public at large.
Those in favor of single-member districts say commission races are too costly when candidates have to get their messages out to voters across the entire county. They also say the constituents in districts don’t feel as if they have much recourse to vote out a county commissioner that is supposed to be representing them because the voters are from around the county and not from a single-district.
Collier and Sarasota counties are among 20 counties that have single-member districts. According to the Florida Association of Counties, Lee County is among 40 counties with at-large elections. The remaining seven counties are a mixture of single-district and at-large, such Botana’s proposal.
An overwhelming majority of county commissions in the state have five members. Orange County has six; Palm Beach County has seven; Broward has nine, Miami-Dade has 13, according to the Florida County Government Guide. Of note, Jacksonville which has a consolidated city/county government has 19 members but calls itself a city council.
Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass is opposed to the idea of single-member districts. He said as much in an email calling for a special meeting that will be Wednesday morning, a day before the delegation meeting.
A majority of the commission has previously voted down the idea of the following proposed bill that is up for discussion Thursday.
- Reformat Lee’s form of government so that it would also have a strong mayor form of government as well as an elected county commission.
Lee County has a charter government. Its elected board members direct a county manager or administrator to act on its behalf. This manager can be hired and fired by the board. Under this proposal, Lee voters would also elect a mayor as well as the county commissioners. This type of mayor is not symbolic as mayors of some cities are, rather this would be a strong mayor that sets policies and could prohibit certain actions of the board.
The county mayor would essentially be the chief executive officer for Lee government that is not already assigned to other Constitutional offices such as the tax collector or sheriff.
Under this form of government, the mayor would not have a seat at the board of county commissioners – such as some counties in Florida that have what are called weak mayors.
The strong mayor would attempt to direct the board to approve his or her proposals. The mayor would have to approve of any ordinances by signing the local legislation or allowing it to pass on through without a signature. This form of government would also allow for veto power. Any vetoes would be subject to a board override.
A draft of this proposal by Rep Mike Giallombardo says the special election for a mayor of Lee County would be in November 2026.
Like the other proposals, this too would be subject to voter approval in 2024 should it makes its way through the Florida Legislature.
This form of government is rare in the state, existing only in Orange, Duval and Miami-Dade counties.
Lee County’s Board of County Commissioners held a special meeting to discuss this proposal on Oct 24. It did not go over well with commissioners Pendergrass, Mike Greenwell and Ray Sandelli. They voted to direct staff to draft and present a letter in opposition to the idea.
“It would be very difficult for me to deal with someone that is elected,” Greenwell said.
He said such a system of government takes the power away from the county commission and adds another layer of government.
Also not expected to sit well with members of the county commission is the fifth proposal that will be addressed by the delegation. Like the single member districts and strong-mayor proposal, this would be a discussion only and any vote by the Lee delegation and would need to be ahead of the opening of the 2024 Legislative Session on Jan. 9.
- The creation of a Captiva Island Conservation Area. This would protect the barrier island from excessive development.
There’s a saying on Captiva Island any structures are not to be taller than the trees. The height and density regulations that currently exist on Captiva are the result of strong community input and consensus on the island to not be taller.
Within the past few months some 13,600 petitioners have joined civic and community homeowners across the island in opposition to increasing Captiva’s density and height. Such was done in September when the Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to allow exemptions for South Seas Plantation.
The uproar was loud from Captiva and neighboring Sanibel Island. Islanders say increasing the density after a catastrophic hurricane puts all islanders and the wildlife in jeopardy.
On December 6, the County Commission will meet to vote on allowing for increased heights and density for the entire island.
Rep. Botana is sponsoring a bill that would make the entirety of Captiva Island a conservation area. A similar thing was done in the 1980s for Boca Grande. The bill calls for maintaining residential building heights at no more than 45 feet and keeping the density capped at no more than three units per acre.
If this matter passes through the Florida Legislature and is signed by the governor, it too would go to voters in a referendum.
The Captiva Civic Association recently sent out an email encouraging residents to attend the meeting.
“Recent efforts by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners to increase building heights and density for a single new developer on Captiva not only radically change our current regulations, they make vulnerable our fragile barrier island with its limited infrastructure, hurricane evacuation routes, water resources, wastewater systems and environmental resources – as well as the water quality of the surrounding Pine Island Sound and Gulf of Mexico.
The building height and density regulations that currently exist on Captiva today are the result of careful planning by the Captiva community and reflect a strong consensus on the island,” the association state in its email blast.
IF YOU GO:
The Lee Board of County Commissioners will hold a special meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, in Commission Chambers at the Old Courthouse, 2120 Main St., Fort Myers.
The purpose is to discuss items going before the Lee County Legislative Delegation.
The Lee County Legislative Delegation will meet at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 30. In room AA-177 (Nursing building) at Florida Southwestern State College.
WGCU will be live streaming the delegation meeting at https://www.facebook.com/wgcupublicmedia/
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