Tonight the City of Cocoa Beach will host a regular City Commission meeting starting at 7:00 AM. The agenda and supporting documentation can be found here. The meeting can be seen online at the City website or on Spectrum Channel 497.
Before we discuss tonight’s meeting, we want to jump back to last meeting, specifically to item item J(2) which was described as:
Review the City Attorney’s firm performance, and determine whether to continue or terminate services per the existing contract.
Representative: Commissioner Williams
Recommendation: Determine whether to accept resignation and solicit replacement, terminate services and solicit replacement, or continue services until further action
We wrote about the genesis of this item prior to the March 2, 2017 meeting. Never could we have guessed what came out of the meeting that night.
First, when the item came up, we were stunned that City Attorney Fowler was not present. He simply wasn’t there. No reason was given for his absence, but we have to say that if one’s job, credibility and reputation is on the line and is going to be discussed, one would think you’d show up at that meeting. Not attending the meeting or having another person say why you weren’t attending is, in our opinion, a slap in the face to the Commission and the people of Cocoa Beach. In Mr. Fowler doesn’t care about his contract, we see no reason as to why anyone else should.
It is our belief that Fowler’s actions which came to light during the February 16, 2017 Commission meeting were illegal and contrary to the City Charter. Four of the Commissioners – Commissioner / Mayor Malik. Vice Mayor / Commissioner Woulas, Commissioner Martinez, and Commissioner Miller were accomplices to those illegal actions.
It is also our belief that this was the final straw to Commissioner Skip Williams, who was not part of the activities and who had not even been asked about what direction the City Attorney should take when it came to the Ocean Dunes lawsuit. Williams seems to have the moral decency and ethics to know that if you can’t trust your lawyer to do the right and legal thing, you don’t need that lawyer. That is why he brought forth the agenda item to have the contract of Fowler terminated and a search for new representation for the City initiated.
(NOTE: It certainly caught our ear that the amount of the base contract for the City Attorney was $140,000 and last year the City had also contracted for $100,000 more work above the contract. That number stayed with us because of this:
The Brevard County School Board is moving forward with plans to hire a new in-house attorney for the first time in 22 years.
Next week, the district will interview seven potential candidates who, if selected, would replace the board’s longtime attorney Harold Bistline. The decision to move from an outside firm to a new in-house position was approved a few months back.
In the position, an employee would make between $145,000 and $160,000 — on par with larger districts that use in-house counsel — and work off a 12-month contract to be reviewed every year.
The School Board Attorney had a similar contract to that of Fowler – “contract plus.” Over the past five years, the School Board’s Attorney was paid “$260,850 and $320,418 in legal and retainer fees” the low end of which is close to what Cocoa Beach paid Fowler last year.
If the School Board, representing many more people and concerns than are in Cocoa Beach is hiring an in house attorney for $140,000 – $160,000, maybe the City Commission should look at that option as well. It would certainly seem to cut down on legal costs.)
The minutes of the meeting tell what happened on the night of March 2nd as the agenda item was discussed:
At inquiry by Vice-Mayor Woulas, Commissioner Williams explained that what was being considered was to terminate the current contract in 90 days, while issuing a request for proposal for legal services in parallel. Vice-Mayor Woulas pointed out that the current legal services contract expired on September 30 2018. She suggested retaining the services till the end of the contract. She also suggested meeting with the City Attorney’s firm to discuss issues. She stated that she did not have any issues with the City Attorney.
Commissioner Williams noted that he did not wish to go into the detail of services. He explained that personally, he found that the services were not financially performing efficiently, in time and dollars, and that he had lost confidence in the employer-client relationship with respect to basic communications.
Vice-Mayor Woulas suggested offering a remedial period in performance. She suggested that the current contract could be altered to fix problems. She noted that she would not support the motion.
Where to begin?
First, Woulas’ suggestion to have a remedial period is not within the contract. She mentioned that night that in her job contracts often have remediation clauses in them and we agree. Those types of clauses are often found in government contracts.
But a remedial clause is not within the contract the City has with its Attorney.
We would also ask whether a City Commission or Commissioner have to sit down with a law firm and say “don’t break the law or the City Charter?”
Is that where Woulas really wanted to go?
It somewhat shows the mentality of Woulas who believes the City should continue with less than excellent representation over the next 18 months.
Woulas also suggested that each Commissioner meet with the City Attorney to give input.
In other words, she wanted off the record conversations with the City Attorney. Not only that, but what would have happened if Commissioner “Jones” had said they were disappointed in the lack of work done in area “A,” and Commissioner Smith told the Attorney they wanted the Attorney to do less work in area “A” but focus more on another topic? You would have two Commissioners giving different advice and direction to the Attorney, and all of it in some back room and off the record.
It almost seems that Woulas doesn’t understand the Sunshine Laws or thinks that those laws don’t apply to her.
There are two sides to this issue. First, pets are almost always considered “members of the family.” Who would want to leave a family member at home if they were going to walk, run or play along the beach? To many, this is a quality of life issue.
We understand that point of view.
We also understand the point of view that you don’t want to come over the dunes and step into some dog feces. You don’t want to lay your beach towel out only to find it gets wet because some dog has urinated on that spot.
Martinez awaits “lessons learned” feedback from the Walton County Commission about its dog beach regulations. The Panhandle county just west of Panama City charges $40 for annual dog beach permits, and applicants must show proof of rabies vaccination and either proof of residency or proof of property ownership.
He supports a similar Cocoa Beach dog registration system. He does not support designating a dog beach near tourist-heavy areas, such as Minutemen Causeway or Cocoa Beach’s busy beach parks.
“When the beach rangers go up and down the beach, they’re asking people to leave the beach if they have their dog. But now, if they have a city tag, they’d know that the dog’s met a certain criteria, and they can allow that person to continue walking along with their dog. I think that’s a responsible way to do it,” Martinez said.
“I fully understand that there’s a side that’s worried about the abuse of it, and people not picking up after their dogs. But I think the dog owners that will go to City Hall and pay for a tag are responsible dog owners. They care about the process. They’ve gone through the process,” he said.
It is here that we disagree with Martinez. In essence, he is saying “responsible dog owners have to prove they are responsible by giving the City money. All the rest, well, they aren’t responsible.”
The question would be “what does the fee get the owner of the dog?”
The answer: Nothing. Not one doggone thing. (Pun intended.)
The reason is simple: it is the leaving of feces on the beach that is the issue. That is what the City is trying to prevent. As that is the issue, whether a dog has a tag or their owner has paid a fee cannot be examined by the police of Beach Rangers until they see the dog do something that the owner doesn’t pick up. It’s like driving down the road. The police cannot stop you and ask for your license until you have done something. The same thing is true on the beach. You can’t be stopped until you and your dog have done something wrong.
Walk you dog and clean up its mess? You’re good to go with or without a tag or fee paid to the City.
We don’t know where we come down on this issue, but we know that penalizing responsible pet owners by charging them a fee doesn’t seem to be the right way to go.
The final items we want to look at is this resolution on Florida Senate and House Bills that would limit counties and municipalities from demanding more taxes and professional licenses unless approved by the state.
The hyperbole attached to this is amazing.
Senate Bill (SB) 330 and House Bill (HB) 487
– seek to significantly restrict the City’s ability to levy new business tax receipts, and to limit the amount of each business tax receipt to $25 per taxpayer
– would reduce revenue needed to pay for services such as roads, sidewalks, police, fire, emergency services, code enforcement, zoning and permitting that are required for the continued operation of businesses within the City as well as for the health, safety and welfare of Cocoa Beach’s residents
– would reduce the general funds that can be pledged by the City to pay for general obligation bonds to provide future infrastructure
– effect will reduce the amount of funds collected to serve businesses within the City from $174,729 received in 2016, to $34,025, a loss of approximately $140,704 in 2016, thus requiring the City to increase taxes, fees and millage or cut services to compensate for this financial loss
– are inconsistent with the concept of home rule in that each municipality determines the levels of service to support businesses, as well as the appropriate level of local taxes, utilized to provide these services
The 2017 / 2018 budget for the City of Cocoa Beach is $ 45,068,392.00.
The “loss” of $140,704.00 is 0.03% of the entire budget. For that 0.03%, the City claims it won’t be able to do anything with roads, sidewalks, police, fire emergency services as well as zoning and permitting.
That’s a heck of a lot of things for just a measly $140 thousand bucks. It also leads to the question, “what the heck is the City doing with the other $44 million dollars?
The bottom line is that this is not about services or anything other than the City wanting more money. That’s it. More money. To get that money, they are willing to soak it to anyone who has a business or who does business within the City of Cocoa Beach.
The people who sponsored the bills realized that business licenses were getting out of hand. For example, assume for a moment that you are a carpenter that lives in Cocoa Beach and who does business in Cocoa Beach. You have to pay for a Cocoa Beach business license. Go a couple miles north to build a house in Cape Canaveral, and you have to pay for another business license. Go a few miles south, and you have to pay for a business license from Brevard County. A few miles more and you have to pay for a license in Satellite Beach. A few miles south of that, and you have to pay for another license in Indian Harbor. In 17 miles, or roughly 30 minutes of driving time, you’ll have to pay for five licenses in order to work and feed your family.
And what do you get for these multiple licenses?
One of the people we know tells the story of going to a local City Hall to pay for his business license. After someone opened up the building (the city employee arrived late) and starting to fill out the forms, the guy asked the clerk “what do I get for this money and this license?”
“The privilege of working here in the City.”
To be clear, in legal terms, the word “privilege” in this context is a “regulated activity,” as opposed to a “right.” The answer is not a snooty as it sounds.
He got to work in the city and make money. Funny how the clerk wasn’t paying the same fee for them making money in the city.
After getting his business license, the person walked back to their car and reflected on the fact that in that all the years he had gotten a business license, no one from the state, the county, the city or anywhere he had to obtain a license had ever inspected his business. Not once. Not ever.
That means the money he was forced to hand over to the various governments had nothing to do with making anyone safer. It is nothing to do with his qualifications. It had nothing to do with anything other than grabbing money from a person trying to feed their family. It is a tax on work.
Back on February 16, 2017, Mayor Malick called these bills “unfunded mandates,” saying:
We attended the League of Cities meeting. There is a lot of things that the State is working on that we need to keep an eye on – one of them being Senate Bill 330 which precludes our ability to charge a business tax receipt in excess of $25.00. While that sounds great, the cost to our City is about $140,000 unfunded mandate that the State would dictate to us. So I really hope we can work with the league on this to insure that we have home rule over this item.
Of course, this is not an “unfunded mandate” anymore than $140 thousand pays for all of the services the City says the money pays for. One has to wonder why the need for elected officials and City Staff to lie to the public.
Frankly, if you think having people pay for multiple licenses that don’t benefit them, we suggest that you head to the Brevard County Commission and put in a suggestion that each time someone crosses a boundary between city lands, county lands, state lands, etc, they have to pay a fee. Want to cross over the river to do some shopping on Merritt Island?
BAM! Pay a fee.
Wanna come back? BAM! Pay a fee.
Wanna go watch the Tico Airshow? BAM! Pay a fee.
Think of the boom it would be to collect a fee from every tourist that comes into the City of Cocoa Beach! We’d be rolling in the money!
No one would ever suggest that and we would not either. The reason would be that people don’t want pay more fees and tolls that come out of their pockets. We understand and agree with that. What we don’t understand is why people who hate having the government take money from their pockets think the government should take money from the pockets of others.
Notice that the City is even pitting people against each other by essentially saying “if this goes through and we can’t take more money from businesses, you are going to have to pay more in taxes.” They would rather tick off the relative few business owners in the City rather than tick off every tax payer.
To summarize this post, City Attorney Skip Fowler didn’t care to show up at the last meeting and fight or at least make a case for his job. Woulas continued to advocate for breaking the law and the City Charter. Commissioner Martinez wants people to pay cash money in order to prove they are responsible. And finally, the City Commission wants you to believe that $140K of fees accomplishes so much more than the rest of the world knows it can.
In other words, just another day in paradise.