City’s Character, Future Debated at Council Meeting

Updated 4/20, 4:45 p.m.: Councilmembers approved a five-percent pay raise for City Manager O’Reilly and City Clerk Lesley DeMuth. The vote was 4-1, with Councilmember Roman opposed. An earlier version of this article stated that Councilmember Brown had been the sole opposing vote. 

The Gulfport City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 18, saw the return of Justin Bloom, an attorney and member of Suncoast Waterkeeper, an environmental group that’s involved in a lawsuit against the city related to multiple sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) incidents in the past two years.

Bloom was ejected from the April 4 city council meeting when he attempted to address councilmembers during public comment time. Mayor Sam Henderson said it was “inappropriate” for Bloom, as legal counsel for Suncoast Waterkeeper, to address the body in a public forum. Bloom refused to stand down, saying he was there to speak as a private citizen and member of Suncoast Waterkeeper, but Henderson called for the police chief to escort him out of the building.

On Tuesday, Bloom was allowed to speak during the resolutions portion of the agenda, when councilmembers considered the adoption of Resolution 2017-45, which would authorize City Manager Jim O’Reilly to sign a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), establish a pollution prevention project, provide for the payment of civil penalties related to SSO incidents, and repeal Resolution No. 2017-36, which had been adopted at the April 4 city council meeting.

Before calling for councilmembers to rethink their decision to enter into a consent agreement with the Florida DEP – “we’ve seen consent orders fail in Pinellas County, throughout Florida, and across the United States,” he said – Bloom addressed the elephant in the room, so to speak: his treatment at the April 4 meeting.

“What happened was shocking to me,” he said. “It was a violation of the Sunshine Law and my First Amendment rights. It was humiliating and I demand an apology.”

Henderson and the other councilmembers declined to apologize; however, during a 15-minute intermission in the lengthy meeting, city attorney Andrew Salzman engaged Bloom in a discussion in the hallway outside the council chamber.

When asked by the Gabber to explain why Bloom was allowed to comment on Tuesday and not at the April 4 meeting, Ward 3 Councilmember Yolanda Roman said, “He got the permitted, allowable three minutes during the open public comment period. It was a decision made by city attorney Salzman. I think it’s a good thing. It’s done; he got his comments made. Now let’s move on.”

The Gabber reached out to Salzman for comment but did not receive a response by press time on Wednesday.

Hot Topic: City’s Future Look, ‘Character’ 

The bulk of Tuesday’s evening, however, consisted of council discussion and public comment about Gulfport’s “zoning characteristics and design.” Community development director Fred Metcalf prefaced the discussion with a lengthy presentation about Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations that affect the height of commercial and residential buildings in flood zones. Rising sea levels could cause FEMA to mandate that new construction in flood zones, such as Gulfport’s waterfront district, be elevated to a certain height.

Metcalf also addressed parking, or lack thereof, in the waterfront district.

“Parking has been an issue for years,” he said. “The perception is always likely to be that there’s not enough parking.” Metcalf said the city could look into acquiring several parcels of land to redevelop into a parking garage, “but it would be difficult to charge for parking in a structure when you’re not charging for on-street parking.”

O’Reilly urged patience and caution when considering changes to zoning characteristics and design.

“Anything that you change, there are going to be collateral issues,” he said. “Height and FEMA tie together a lot, and that’s going to affect what you look at as you walk down the street.”

Henderson said that councilmembers shouldn’t wait around for Mother Nature to force their hand. “We are one storm away from the face of our downtown being entirely changed,” he said.

Gulfport, said resident Wesley Whitaker during public comment time, “is old Florida. It’s unique. One of the most precious commodities we have here is the city’s character. We don’t want to sacrifice what makes us different from everyone else.”

The term “character” came up time and time again during the discussion, but no one seemed to agree on a single defining characteristic for the city. There were several calls for public workshops to be held so citizens can offer input about the direction they’d like the city to take. Ward 4 Councilmember Michael Fridovich said Gulfport’s eclectic nature is what makes it unique, and he agreed with Vice Mayor and Ward 1 Councilmember Daniel Liedtke’s view that an online survey should be commissioned and distributed to residents in order for councilmembers to get a better idea of what parameters should guide any future discussions of the city’s zoning characteristics and design.

“To jump right into a series of workshops is going to be a waste of time without more guidelines,” Liedtke said.

The topic of chain stores and franchises also surfaced during the discussion. “We can’t just say, ‘Chain stores aren’t allowed’,” Henderson said.

“Not without encountering some interesting lawsuits,” Salzman replied.

“People say, ‘We don’t want that and we don’t want this,’ … well, there’s a chain reaction to everything,” Fridovich said in a follow-up interview with the Gabber. “You’ve got to look at the ramifications all the way down the road. There are vast repercussions; it’s going to be a long process.”

O’Reilly said he and his staff will get to work on an action plan outlining next steps for the council as it seeks to address the city’s zoning characteristics and design.

“This is not a one-workshop decision,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Christine Brown. “It could be a year, and year and a half. But we are not here to make Gulfport static. Visionary people 30, 40, 50 years ago are responsible for making Gulfport what it is today. We are a coastal community, so sea level rise is very real for us. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What are we preserving? How do we verbalize our character and then protect it?’”

Council Talks Pay Raises

Councilmembers approved a five-percent pay raise for O’Reilly and City Clerk Lesley DeMuth. The vote was 4-1, with Councilmember Roman opposed; however, she offered effusive praise for both O’Reilly and DeMuth, explaining that her “no” vote was based solely on the lack of performance reviews linked to the raises.

During council discussion near the end of the meeting, Henderson floated the idea of a pay raise for councilmembers. He suggested a $2,500 monthly stipend for the mayor and $2,000 for councilmembers (currently, the mayor receives $1,000 per month and councilmembers $750). He also called for the mayor and councilmembers and their family members to be eligible for the city’s health care benefits, and for the mayor and councilmembers to be eligible for the pension program.

“We’ve only had one raise in the past eight years,” the mayor said. “And the expectations of this job have greatly changed. In any one month, you’ll be invited to attend 25 or more events.” Henderson also cited the rise of social media as a factor, saying that Gulfport is an “activist community” that constantly engages city leadership via various online platforms, thereby adding further time commitments and pressures. Henderson revealed that he has had to make economic sacrifices by turning down shifts at his other job in order to attend events in his capacity as mayor.

Liedtke dismissed the idea, saying, “I would vote no on it. If we do this, we are going to have a lot of people running against us in the next election.”

Roman also said she would oppose the matter if it came up for a vote. Fridovich agreed in principle with the mayor that pay raises should be implemented, but said councilmembers’ increases should be $1,800 per month as opposed to $2,000. Eventually, a compromise was reached that, if carried to passage, would see the mayor receive a stipend of $2,000 per month and councilmembers $1,500. Liedtke and Roman said they would still vote “no,” if the ordinance makes it past its first reading at the May 2 council meeting.

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