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A welcome to our new City Council

By Staff | Nov 17, 2022

Cape Coral residents will see four of our neighbors sworn in to serve on the city’s elected board today at 4 p.m.

Two, Mayor John Gunter and District 6 Councilmember Keith Long, are returning to their respective seats.

Two, Bill Steinke and Patty Cummings, are newcomers but have business and community involvement in the Cape, good things to bring to the seats to which they were elected on Nov. 8.

Added to the current Council makeup — council members Dan Sheppard, Tom Hayden, Robert Welsh and Jessica Cosden — the returning and incoming reps will be part of a new board with great challenges ahead — the multi-step, multi-level, multi-million dollar recovery from Hurricane Ian.

For newcomer and tenured vet alike, we wager the issues to be resolved in the immediate future and longterm are far greater than they envisioned when they decided to run.

It’s likely to be a hard entry but we believe this board collectively has the skill set to lead our city through these tough times and beyond.

Here we usually offer some general advice to those new to elective office, some reminders to those who have a term under their belts.

We’ll skip “council is not intended to be a full-time job and resist the urge to make it so” bullet point this go-around. With the tasks at hand, it may be that and more for the next few months — at the least.

Instead, let us stress our reasons behind it:

As most learned, first from COVID restrictions, or from Hurricane Ian — whose damage not only cancelled traditional debates and forums but one-upped the pandemic by forcing a consolidation of polling sites — there are numerous ways to solicit and gather public input.

The key is not encampment in a city hall office or any office, for that matter.

It is being available and staying connected.

Bring the same dedication to reviewing the issues each of you demonstrated during this storm-impacted election cycle and carve out time to listen to input from supporters and critics alike and you will have a foundation for serving our city well.

Two, if you have committed to a “full-time” presence at City Hall, we will not criticize either the choice or the dedication.

We will, however, re-offer one key caution that is bedrock: Resist the temptation to become enmeshed in the city’s “corporate culture.” Incoming council members, all of whom have business backgrounds, no doubt know exactly what we mean. Still, let us stress this because we firmly believe it is a trap that, while easy to see, is also oh-so-easy to fall into anyway.

A council member’s role is not that of administrative supporter or staff advocate. Those who work for the city have, in fact, appropriately adequate advocacy. This includes the unions to which they pay dues, their supervisory personnel, the city’s own employment policies and practices and, if all that fails, the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission.

City Council is not part of that process, at least not in the “team” or “corporate family” sense.

According to the city’s own organizational chart, “the people” are at the top of its structural hierarchy. Below that is the mayor and the other seven members of the Cape Coral City Council, followed by the top tiers of the city administration, including the city attorney, the city auditor, the city manager, and the various appointed advisory boards. Next are all of the city departments, which report directly to the city manager.

The city manger reports to Council and Council reports and is answerable to “the people” — the stakeholders who elected them, the stakeholders who work or have businesses here, the stakeholders who own property and pay taxes in the Cape, the stakeholders who now have a vested interest in how our city will rebuild.

This council will decide how the 50 percent rule will impact those whose properties were severely damaged by Hurricane Ian.

This council will decide how public facilities, notably the historic Yacht Club, will — or will not be — rebuilt.

This council will decide how to pay for not only repairs and rebuilds for which reimbursement may fall short, but how to move forward on projects pending — and which ones — with property valuations impacted by the storm.

Put another way, City Council is a board of directors that reports and is responsible to the stock holders in the billion dollar “business” they oversee in terms of policies, planning, expenditure and revenue decisions.

That means hard questions, strict scrutiny and measured decisions to benefit our entire community — not because “there are problems with staff,” or because staff or the city manager’s recommendations are to be doubted, but because that is Council’s job.

Council’s only job.

We’ll add one more cautionary admonition again this year as transparency, and its lack, is an issue we add to the queue.

While Council may be likened to a board of directors, there are two key things that differentiate elected boards here in Florida. One, City Council is a public board whose business — virtually all of its business — must be conducted publicly, i.e. “in the Sunshine.” This can be a hard concept, especially for those with private-sector honed consensus-building skills. But like it or not, deem it an ethical obligation or an impediment to “getting things done,” Government-in-the-Sunshine is a mandate, not an option. We urge both new and seated members of Council to take their Sunshine training to heart and err, if they err at all, on the side of both caution and those who trusted you with their vote.

Summed up succinctly, the public is not just entitled to be part of policy and expenditure discussions throughout; they are legally entitled. We suggest the members of our newly configured elected board embrace that concept and keep it in mind if a “one-on-one” administrative briefing takes on the hue of a sales pitch best not made during public discussion and debate.

We will spare you examples that have appeared on these pages previously as past practices, like bad habits, may so easily be replaced by those with a strong will for the better.

To those who have served and are leaving City Council, special thanks — our deep gratitude to Councilmember Gloria Tate, who once again stepped into the breach and agreed to serve as the District 1 council member when Council appointed John Gunter to fill the mayor’s seat; our thanks to District 4 Councilmember Jennifer Nelson, who lost her bid for re-election to Ms. Cummings. Your service is much appreciated.

Our welcome again to our new and returning board members.

May your tenure be as successful as your campaigns, may your service for the next four years be as happy for you as hearing the election results come in Tuesday night — as unique an election night as our city has ever seen — and may our community come together in support of the voter mandates you all have received.

–Breeze editorial