Friday, May 25, 2007

Port LaBelle District Meeting Attracts Crowd

LABELLE, FL. -- After many years of non-attendance at Port LaBelle Community Development District meetings, the residents came out in standing room only numbers to the district office's small meeting room on Dellwood Terrace Thursday evening. On the agenda were controversial items including what to do after longtime office manager Ralph Nicholson retires in September and details on a long standing chemical spill investigated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Hendry Building and Zoning.

District Chairperson Bill Dunbar was a no-show at the meeting, leaving inexperienced Vice-Chair and new board member Suzanne Gee in charge of the meeting. As this was her virgin attempt chairing a meeting, Gee floundered not knowing the procedures to be followed calling motions, discussions and votes. The board's attorney interrupted, calling many procedural shots and dominated discussion of many issues. Unfortunately the board's attorney, $190 an hour Robert Pritt from Naples, is also a newcomer serving the board, and although prepared for the meeting with documents given him, did not have knowledge of the history of most issues and not having read prior attorney's opinions expressed in years past on some issues presented at the meeting.

Ralph Nicholson, probably the best authority on Port LaBelle issues in the county, has worked for the Development District for 17 years, and in the county for 25, and will be retiring at the end of September. Nicholson also manages the Barron Water Control District which owns the offices and actually pays Nicholson's salary. The Development District pays $50,000 a year to Barron Water Control for Nicholson's part-time management duties for the Development District. He splits his time between the two entities. And there lies the rub according to new elected member of the board Sue Reese. Reese read a prepared statement advocating not renewing the interlocal agreement between Barron Water Control and the Development District that calls for the sharing of one manager between the two boards, and the inferred control that Barron Water Control has by hiring and paying the salary of the manager while "lending" him out to the Development District and collecting a large yearly fee and office rent from them.

Long time treasurer board member Scott Wegschied stood up for keeping the current management arrangement for practical reasons, saying it's worked for many years and there's not much time left to be searching for an independent manager for the PLCDD, and such a move would surely be more expensive in salaries and costs for the district. Port LaBelle resident and CPA Andy Higginbotham spoke from the audience and confirmed the costs that may be involved.

Near the end of the four-hour rambling public meeting, Wegscheid moved to continue the management arrangement with Barron Water District, with Pat Whidden voting yes, Sue Reese against, and Suzanne Gee "abstaining" from voting for unknown reasons. With Gee's abstention, the motion passed.

It seemed clear to some observers that the new board members are going to have to "get up to speed" quickly to get future business done for the Development District expeditiously and efficiently. The board's 2007-2008 budget process is beginning and must be completed in July.

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