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Council calls meeting to dispute COTI ad

By Staff | Feb 26, 2009

A special meeting called by the City Council on Wednesday morning disputed claims made in a newspaper advertisement which claimed, among other things, that city employee pension plans are underfunded by $12 million and that Sanibel faces a potential loss of $1.2 million from its investment in a SBA Local Government Pool.

In the Feb. 20 edition of the Island Sun, on page 4B, an ad taken out by the Committee Of The Islands (COTI) was headlined “OUR FINANCIAL CRISIS.” It also asked, “Are you aware of the financial problems Sanibel is facing?”

“The purpose of this meeting is to set the record straight and turn misinformation to real information,” Mayor Mick Denham told the standing-room-only crowd.

City Manager Judie Zimomra and Finance Director Sylvia Edwards delivered a report on the status of the city’s finances, which currently stands at $12,463,890 in General Fund Budgeted Reserves. Sanibel also has an additional $1,469,170 available from reserves ($250,000) and budget changes/expenditure reductions ($1,219,170), making a total of $13,933,060 available for total city needs and emergency funds.

Council member Peter Pappas reacted to the report by pointing a finger at Denham, claiming that it was inappropriate of him to call the special session and that it was done so for political purposes.

“You have chosen to use your power of incumbency to bring what is essentially an election issue into this chamber,” said Pappas, who added that the members of COTI should be allowed an opportunity to speak in defense of it’s advertisement.

Asked whether or not the meeting was called legally, City Attorney Ken Cuyler confirmed that it was, adding, “There are numerous election issues that are city issues.”

COTI President John Harries was first to speak before council, but had his request to respond as a body – not as individuals – turned down by Denham.

“We ought to have an opportunity to respond to the charges made by council,” Harries said. “It’s just a fairness issue.”

Denham, who established at the start of the meeting that all members of the public would have an opportunity to speak with a three-minute time limit, also replied to charges that he was using this meeting not to defend claims made against city employees by the COTI advertisement, but as a campaign tactic.

“The reason we are having this meeting is not to defend me, but its to defend the city of Sanibel.”

Sam Bailey, whose family has been living on Sanibel for more than 100 years, said that he supported Denham and fellow incumbents Kevin Ruane and Marty Harrity for “working together well.” Fellow resident John Carney called for a “Point of Parliamentary Procedure” after hearing Bailey’s remarks and subsequent applause from several members of the audience.

“This just turned into a political rally!” said Carney. “Is that what this is to become?”

Several members of COTI discussed the process in how they determined the statistics provided in their ad, including the average city employee compensation figure of $86,200 and a 29 percent hike during the past four years. Zimomra stated that both figures were incorrect.

According to a handout provided during Wednesday’s meeting, the City of Sanibel’s average hourly wage is $25.91, 14 cents higher than the national average of $25.77 for state and local government workers. City employees also receive $14 per hourly cost of benefits, 59 cents higher than the national average of $13.41 per hour.

Ruane also mentioned that all of the city’s financial statistics are available on the city’s Web site – www.mysanibel.com – and are available to all citizens at City Council meetings. The public is also invited to participate in such discussions during those sessions.

Billy Kirkland, owner of Billy’s Bikes and Rentals, asked if the city would consider itself in a “financial crisis.” Zimomra again noted the numbers provided in the status report handed out at the beginning of the meeting, adding, “Sanibel is not divorced from current economic condition. We should not be painting an overly glossy picture… or under. Are we in distress? No, we’re not in distress.”

Residents Dick McNeil spoke against the claims made in COTI’s ad, saying, “The creators of this are guilty of committing a sin of advertising. That is a fact, not my opinion.”

Melissa Congress also said that the members of COTI would be spending their time better by attending City Council meetings and working in cooperation with the city staff rather than creating ads “for their own political gain.”

Fellow resident Janet McBee called the ad “disgraceful.”

Robin Humphrey, president of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Association of Realtors, stated that the current economic conditions have lowered local home prices to levels last seen in 2002. “Real estate prices are falling, and this kind of ad will make them continue to fall.”

“In my view, these actions have caused a lot of concern in this community,” said Chuck Ketteman. “I hope that in this weeks’ issue, they (COTI) take out another ad because they owe the public an apology.”

Maureen Valiquette added, “I think that this pattern of misrepresentation has really hurt the island. I would ask COTI to apologize for this ad. They owe it to the council and they owe it to our citizens.”

Denham also pointed out that he never approved the use of his name in the ad, which endorsed the current Mayor, David Berger and David Bath for election to the City Council. However, one member of the audience noted that the bottom of COTI’s ad states, “This advertisement was not approved by any candidate.”