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Leon questions Szerlag about Yacht Club beach closing

By Staff | Jul 19, 2016

At Monday’s City Council meeting, Councilmember Richard Leon grilled City Manager John Szerlag over his decision to close the city beach to swimming at the Cape Coral Yacht Club over the weekend.

“I think we set an unprecedented policy by closing down the beach,” said Leon. “Looking at the history of the algae from the Florida Health Department, five times in the past the beach has been listed in the moderate range for concern and we did not close the beach.”

Szerlag said he closed the beach because of a report he received from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) saying tests (July 7) detected 1 microgram per liter of toxin present. The report also said young children and the elderly were at risk.

The Health Department tests the water for bacteria while the FDEP tests for toxins and any reading under 10 micrograms is considered low risk by the World Health Organization.

“As manager, I’m responsible for the health, safety and welfare of all citizens. If I find out that the young and elderly are at risk I would not be doing my job if I did nothing,” said Szerlag. “I acted on the side of caution. I would not allow my children or grandchildren in that water.”

Mayor Marni Retzer called Szerlag Saturday to ask if he had seen the data released by the FDEP and that started the sequence of events that led to the beach closing. Signs closing the beach were not posted until Sunday morning and the city issued no warnings to the media or general public.

Citing possible liability issues, Leon asked why council was not included in the decision to close the beach.

“My concern is that we set a policy that at just one microgram we close down the beach,” he said. “If that is the stance we take, I think it should be a decision the council makes.”

Szerlag responded, “When issues arise regarding health and safety I don’t consult the council. If I didn’t do anything and someone got sick and I was cognizant of this we would be more liable.”

Retzer said she supported Szerlag’s action while Leon respectfully disagreed with the choice.

The discussion also touched on the different criteria used to determine health risks by the State Department of Health and the FDEP, which can be confusing. Szerlag said he would work with the state to come up with one set of criteria in determining health risks associated with toxin levels.

He added the FDEP took samples from the water at the beach Monday and he expects to have results in the next few days. Meanwhile, the beach remains closed for swimming until further notice.