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Cape officials attempt to get past UEP lawsuit controversies; Direction given to new committee

By Staff | Apr 2, 2008

Elected officials want to move beyond a pair of controversies involving lawsuits against the city over the utilities expansion project by a sitting councilman and a member of a new committee created to look at the project’s future.

At Monday’s Cape Coral City Council session, a pair of council members said they had serious misgivings about committee member John Sullivan’s appointment last week, but the majority of the council urged the board to get past the hang-ups and allow the committee to get to work.

Sparks flew in a heated discussion over comments made by Councilmember Bill Deile and Sullivan in the media and at last week’s meeting. Along with several other citizens, the pair are suing the city over the utilities expansion project. Their cases were consolidated Monday when Lee County Circuit Judge Jay Rosman determined they are closely enough related to be tried concurrently.

Councilmember Dolores Bertolini expressed grave concerns that Sullivan misled the council and was “less than truthful” last week when he said that he would be dropping his lawsuit in the near future.

“That comment was incomplete because I did not know what Judge Rosman would do,” Sullivan said Monday. “The fact is that the ruling would be the last word and what the other litigants would want to do.”

Bertolini said the fact that the lawsuit attacks the assessment methodology and that the committee will be addressing that very same issue in great depth creates the perception of a conflict of interest.

“The application process to me is really sacrosanct. When you come up here you need to tell the truth,” she said. “I do feel that the citizens and myself were snookered.”

Bertolini also expressed disappointment that the lawsuits are asking for damages and that Deile previously told the Cape Coral Daily Breeze that the city could have settled with him for far less than what it has spent on legal defense.

“I don’t care what they get on it, they are going to take my tax money,” said Bertolini.

To file a lawsuit in the circuit court, the plaintiffs must ask for a minimum of $15,000 to pass the threshold. Neither lawsuit specifies a monetary amount in its claims, though it does ask for damages.

Councilmember Eric Grill also slammed Deile for not speaking up about what would take place in court Monday.

“Mr. Deile knew what was happening. He knew what was going on with the lawsuits,” he said. “If I’m going to court, I know what the hearing is about.”

Some of Grill’s comments touched off a flash of anger from across the dais.

“He has no idea what I know and what I don’t know,” Deile said of Grill. “I thought (Sullivan) had taken leave of his senses when he said that.”

While several other members of council acknowledged a negative perception could arise, Councilmember Pete Brandt dismissed it as “manufactured” and the majority of the elected officials gave the two men a pass for their comments and actions.

“That man went through the scrutiny of an election,” Day said of Deile, pointing out that the lawsuit was public knowledge. “I give people credit who stick around and fight the fight.”

Mayor Eric Feichthaler, who did not vote for Sullivan’s appointment, has no problem with the outstanding lawsuit. He did, however, express reservations about the appointment Monday because of what Sullivan told the council last week.

“I understood him to say that unequivocally that the lawsuit would be dropped by this week,” Feichthaler said.

Five-point plan for new committee

Prior to debate over Sullivan’s appointment, the council handed down a five-point plan to the committee — naming five top issues in the utilities expansion project for it to examine.

The body agreed to Grill’s rough outline that charges the committee to look at alternative financing, assessment methodology, contracts with MWH, figuring out the best sewer system and recommending what utilities should be extended to the northern sections of the Cape.

Brandt took the discussion as an opportunity to attack the Greeley and Hansen report on the city’s sewer system, saying that the city wasted $90,000 on it.

“The results that came from there are incorrect,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that a vacuum system is a much cheaper way to go than gravity.”

Feichthaler nipped further criticism in the bud and instructed the council to raise issues that the committee could address. Grill agreed, saying that he did not want to give his opinions on the matter but wanted to point out what questions he believes need answering.

“I wanted this out there so I could give the committee some clear direction,” he said. “I guarantee that we’ll have eight different opinions.”

Several members of council also called upon the committee to examine the possibility of putting a mechanism in place to smooth out possible future price spikes, especially given the high assessments in Southwest 4.

Brandt expressed hope that the new committee would be able to come up with a comprehensive solution to all the points Grill raised.

“Put them all together and come up with your own plan,” he said.