By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 representative Here are several items from the June 21 Mount Dora City Council Meeting that you might be interested in hearing about. You probably are already aware that what follows comes from me and not on behalf of City Council as a whole.
We heard an interesting presentation on a new business called Olde Mount Dora Carriage Company. Two Mount Dora residents are planning to offer electric carriage tours and carriage ride dinners throughout downtown. Their vehicles have all the charm of a traditional carriage but without the horse. Instead they are electric powered. They plan to begin testing their concept in the next few months. It sounds like fun to me.
If you are looking for a convenient place to park for FREE just a few blocks from downtown, use the parking lot across the street from the First United Methodist Church on 5th Ave. We renewed our 10 year lease with the church. Feel free to park there anytime except for major festival weekends.
We took the first step in the process of setting the Fire Services Special Assessment for the upcoming budget year. We will discuss the proposed amount of that fee which is currently pegged at $209 for homes. This fee can only be used to pay for fire related capital items such as fire trucks and our new fire stations.
The cost of everything seems to be going up these days. We authorized the purchase of up to 600 new water meters before a July 1 price increase. They are getting hard to find with a lead time of 4-20 weeks. If we decide to buy all 600, we will save about $45,000.
We approved the final reading to annex 154 acres of property owned by the Lake County Water Authority into the City. We want to help ensure that this ecologically fragile land is protected from future development.
If you didn't have a chance to experience the Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday you missed out. Fun, food and fellowship were all there in abundance. It was a hot day and wet for a few minutes but plan on attending next year.
While this next item wasn't a part of the City Council meeting, it was included in the City Manager's Report. Close to 300 Lakes of Mount Dora residents met Tuesday 6/21 to hear an update on the proposed traffic light at the intersection of Lakes of Mount Dora Blvd. and SR 44. The project has been approved and design work is now underway. FDOT is streamlining what is normally a 3 year long process into 6-8 months because of significant safety concerns. Design should be completed by early fall and they hope that the traffic signal will be installed shortly after the new signal going in at 44 and Britt Rd. With supply concerns, FDOT is doing "early ordering" of items with long lead times. Our meeting was encouraging to say the least!
Our quote of the day comes by way of Father Nathan Monk of Welsh Church. "At the end of the day, I'd rather be excluded for those I include, than be included for those I exclude!"
Thanks to the opportunity you have provide me to serve as your District 4 Council Rep. and Vice-Mayor.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 representative
By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor I've selected some action items from the meeting agenda to tell you about and I'll also talk about several discussion items and presentations that were also significant. Let's begin with the action items. Please keep in mind that I'm reporting as an individual, not on behalf of City Council in any official capacity.
The Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization is responsible for creating a list of urgently needed road related projects each year. The MPO is made up of representatives from the cities and county governments. We approved our support of their 2022 List of Priority Projects last night. Two of the top seven will be very impactful to Mount Dora residents. This list will be sent along to the State for consideration. Priority Project #3 is the road widening of SR 44 B between 441 (Publix store) and the Circle K gas station on the corner of SR 44 and 44 B. This project is projected to cost about $24 M.
The second project has a price tag of more than $22 M. It is widening US Rt 441 between the Publix plaza (Donnelly St.) to just north of SR 46 where the new flyover is located.
Please keep in mind that various funding sources come into play and even these top priorities may not be funded for a few years.
By a 5-2 vote (Rolfson & Gunther voted no) Council approved the final reading of an Ordinance pertaining to placing the contentious downtown building heights Charter Amendment on the November ballot. I voted to put it on the ballot although I adamantly believe that this isn't something that should be in the City's Charter. Please educate yourself on the cons and pros of this ballot issue.
We approved a preliminary plat for a 125 unit townhome development called Villages of Loch Leven. These will be homes, not apartments to be located off SR 44 and Meadenhall Blvd.
We approved the first reading of a request from the Lake County Water Authority to have their 153.79 acre preserve called Wolf Branch Sink located off of Robie Ave. annexed into Mount Dora. This property will be protected from future development by a conservation easement and unified under one title if it is finally approved at our next meeting.
In addition to the agenda items above, we heard two proclamations involving Juneteenth holiday marking the end of slavery and LGBTQIA+ Pride Month. I'm proud that Mount Dora is in the forefront of celebrating and including all of our citizens.
Several residents spoke about the positive contributions of Police Chief Brett Meade who resigned last week. He hasn't yet publicly spoken about his reason(s) for resigning.
Former Mount Dora Mayor, Nick Girone and County Commissioner, Leslie Campione have teamed up to try to convince FDOT to reduce the speed limit on SR 44 between Rt 439 and the Circle K station at the intersection of 44 and 44 B from the current 55 mph to 45 mph until the proposed traffic lights at Britt Rd. and Lakes of Mount Dora Blvd. are completed. City Council agreed to write a letter of support for that speed limit reduction.
Speaking of traffic lights, Lakes of Mount Dora residents are encouraged to attend a meeting with FDOT officials on Tuesday June 21 at 3:00 p.m. in the LoMD social hall. We held a similar meeting with FDOT about three months ago. There have been some recent developments that will be announced. Please plan to attend!
My quote for today comes from "Skopelosnews". I think it sounds as if it could have been written about those of us who live, work and play in Mount Dora. We are very fortunate indeed.
"We live in paradise and we fight over unimportant matters. We live in paradise and we are impatient. We live in paradise and are in a hurry. We live in paradise and we don't realize it half the time. This is paradise!
By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor
On June 1, Mount Dora Police Chief Brett Meade abruptly quit, leaving residents and city leaders stunned and saddened. Last month, the City’s police department received media scrutiny due to a use-of-force incident that occurred in September 2021 and was captured on an officer’s body camera footage. The incident received no internal investigation last year and the Department took no disciplinary actions, according to the City.
Due to a Channel 9 television reporter’s request for the body camera footage on May 9, the City Manager, Mayor and council members became aware of the seven-month-old incident. According to documents, City Manager Patrick Comiskey, who was hired in October 2021 as the City’s top administrator who supervises the Chief of Police and other City departments, wanted an independent third-party investigation. Independent reviews can be done when there is conflict of interest if the investigation is done internally, according the Florida statute. In this case, a perceived conflict of interest could derive from the lack of an internal investigation over the six months preceding the media exposing the incident. City documents show Meade repeatedly sought for the belated investigation to be handled internally.
Here is a brief timeline of events that preceded Meade's resignation on June 1. The timeline is taken from public records.
SEPTEMBER 21, 2021: Mount Dora Police body camera captured a use-of-force incident that appears to show an officer forcefully ram a non-violent man’s head into a police car. The incident happened in the Dollar Store parking lot on U.S. 441.
MAY 9, 2022: A reporter from Channel 9 News made a public record request for the body camera footage of the incident. That request is how the Mount Dora City Manager, Mayor and City Council became aware of the incident that occurred over six months prior. (see body cam video and news story here) MAY 9, 2022, evening: According to an email, Comiskey spoke with Deputy Chief Mike Gibson to advise that an outside agency should review the use-of-force incident, as well as perform any resulting internal investigations their review might deem necessary.
MAY 11, 9:53 a.m.: Comiskey, who was hired by Mount Dora's previous Mayor and City Council, instructed Meade to seek an outside review of the case from State law enforcement and expressed it was imperative this case be reviewed by an outside agency. The email also directed Meade to set up a training class on the use of force and de-escalation and have each officer participate in it over the next 90 days, as well as set up a multi-day use-of-force and de-escalation training program for each officer to go through on an annual basis beginning next fiscal year. Gibson had advised Comiskey that other law enforcement agencies do this, according to the email. Comiskey also sought cost estimates from Meade for that training and the cost for officers to undertake the annual State-required training for annual certification.
MAY 11, 9:38pm: Mount Dora City Attorney Sherry Sutphen advised Comiskey that she reviewed new 2020 legislation regarding Florida Statutes, Section 112.533(1)(b) and provided her legal interpretation.
MAY 12: An internal investigation was opened and pending a request for an independent external review.
In a memo, Sutphen advised Comiskey that he had the legal authority to authorize the outside investigation pursuant to City of Mount Dora City Charter, Article V, Section 19. which states "the City Manager is the Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Mount Dora and shall be responsible to the City Council for the administration of all City affairs placed in his charge."
Sutphen wrote, "The City of Mount Dora Police Department is a department within the City which has been placed under the charge of the City Manager. The position of Police Chief is not a separate Charter office within the City. As such, the City Manager is considered the head of the agency for purposes of Florida Statutes, Section 112.533, as well as for any and all other matters related to the Police Department."
MAY 16 morning: Sutphen spoke to the City of Kissimmee City Attorney and later reported to Comiskey via email that they were interested in entering into an agreement with the City of Mount Dora to conduct reciprocal internal investigations under Florida statute in the event of conflict of interest. She advised the City Manager that he had signature authority under Resolution 2017-150.
MAY 18: In a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Comiskey sought their assistance to determine if the use-of-force incident should involve an internal affairs investigation on the officer; and if so, requested their investigator perform the investigation and provide the City with findings. “It is my opinion the content of the video should be reviewed from an outside party trained in police investigations and level of conduct. I also want the investigator to review the action or inaction of Corporal (name withheld by Mount Dora Buzz), who was also on the scene; and if he/she deem warranted, perform an internal investigation on him. It may appear the city has a conflict in reviewing the case since it was aired on the regional news and warrants the review of an outside agency,” Comiskey also stated in the letter.
MAY 19, 5:39 p.m.: Comiskey advised Meade that he was working on securing an outside agency to perform a review of the September 21 event which was aired on Channel 9 in May.
MAY 19, 6:06 p.m.: In an email to Comiskey, Meade re-stated his opinion that an external administrative investigation was not a legal option and asked for a meeting with Comiskey and whomever was advising him.
The City Manager, Mayor, City Council members, and members of City staff rely on the City Attorney Sutphen for legal opinions who is the person hired to provide them.
MAY 25, 6:22 p.m. Sutphen advised Comiskey that the City of Kissimmee Police Chief had no concerns with the concept of an agreement to conduct an independent investigation in conflict situations.
MAY 26, 3:11 p.m.: In an email, Comiskey reiterated to Meade that the City Manager was working on securing an outside agency to review the use of force in two cases.
MAY 27: In a memo to Comiskey, Meade provided his interpretation of the Florida statute relevant to the matter. Meade stated that the investigation would be conducted internally, rather than the independent investigation sought by Comiskey.
MAY 31, 8:45 a.m.: Via email, Meade sent his position statement and opinion regarding the investigation to Comiskey. Meade interpreted the Florida statute and a 1997 Attorney General Opinion (AGO) to mean that the investigation must be done internally under him. Meade stated he was proceeding with the internal probe and would inform the City Manager of its findings.
The AGO supplied was written prior to a 2020 change in the statute and Mount Dora City Attorney’s legal opinion differed from Meade’s. Comiskey, the Chief's superior, relies on the legal opinions and interpretations of the City Attorney, who is hired to provide them.
MAY 31, 7:45 p.m.: In a response email, Comiskey stated. "I appreciate the attached information you provided. If you have any additional support documentation for your position, please bring it by and I will review it. However, under no circumstances are you to begin an IA investigation regarding Officers (names withheld by Mount Dora Buzz). I am working on securing an outside investigator to review the events of the night in question and to determine if an IA is needed; and if so, to conduct it. The outside agency will also review the results of the other IA’s your staff is currently conducting. As I have advised you, this is being done for the good of the agency, yourself, and the officers in question." Comiskey also informs Meade that if he disregards that directive, he will be subject to termination.
JUNE 1, morning: Four individuals (two residents and two City employees) informed Comiskey that Meade was discussing internal personnel matters of Mount Dora Police Department and City government with residents and business operators, according to the City's Public Information Officer.
JUNE 1, 11:10 a.m.: Comiskey emailed Meade to cease and desist the behavior or face disciplinary action, including possible termination.
Mount Dora Buzz asked the City to provide the specific policy that Meade’s behavior violated, but that information was never provided.
JUNE 1, 11:31 a.m.: In an email, Meade responded that he was writing his letter of resignation and would have it to Comiskey by that afternoon, which he did.
JUNE 2: In an email to Sutphen and members of City staff, Comiskey advised of the acceptance of Meade’s resignation and expressed appreciation for his service. He also stated, “We are in the process of trying to secure an outside agency to review the events from the Dollar Store parking lot of last September and advise what, if any, actions should occur and if any internal affairs investigations are recommended. We are also asking the same agency to review the results of a case currently in process and advise if they concur with the findings and the way in which it was conducted. Said reviews and possible investigations may present information, findings, or recommendations that make us uncomfortable; however, we have to do what is best for the community, as well as fair to city workers.”
JUNE 3: A reciprocal internal investigation agreement was formed between the City of Mount Dora and the City of Kissimmee.
Mount Dora Buzz requested additional public records, but they were not provided. Mount Dora Buzz opted to withhold the names of the Mount Dora Police Officer and Corporal from the September 21, 2022 incident pending the outcome of the outside investigation. However, that information is public record.
It was a big and controversial undertaking. Less than a decade ago, Mount Dora taxpayers invested in their downtown sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian-friendly while upgrading its underground infrastructure. The 2014 phase of the massive project widened the downtown sidewalks along Donnelly Street by removing angled or “head-in” parking spaces and replacing them with fewer parallel spaces, as well as removing the brick flower planters, considered by City staff to be hazardous obstacles for pedestrians at the time.
Fast forward to today -- downtown Mount Dora’s sidewalks are anything but pedestrian-friendly due to lax code enforcement and inadequate ordinances. The City’s code prohibits obstructing public sidewalks, yet not long after the widening project was completed, the proliferation of retailers’ sales tables, clothing racks and merchandise carts conspicuously obstructing the public sidewalks began.
This daily practice, along with the growing number of t-shirts and dish towels hanging outside shops, has transformed some previously charming blocks of downtown into a sprawling sidewalk sale subsidized by the City's taxpayers.
One stretch of sidewalk on Donnelly between Fourth Avenue and Third Avenue is frequently littered with large retail tables, garden stakes, and other items for sale forcing pedestrians to walk single-file on a sidewalk intended for at least two pedestrians to be able to walk abreast. Additionally, large cement blocks a retailer uses to hold merchandise by day are left out overnight, creating potential tripping hazards that have existed for several months.
Code enforcement has also been lax in handling the groupings of bulky sandwich boards crowding the sidewalks in front of buildings that have multiple tenants. The City’s code allows for those buildings to have only one sandwich board that lists all of its tenants, but due to lack of enforcement for years, groups of pedestrians are impeded until others walk past.
Ironically, the 2014 streetscape project also installed new downtown wayfinding signs on street corners that were intended to help visitors locate downtown businesses and allow for the sandwich boards to be phased out. The City never followed through with phasing out the duplicate signage, but rather increased the number of sandwich boards and wayfinding signs allowed on the poles. These actions, combined with other signage codes that aren't enforced, resulted in the current proliferation of advertising signage downtown as well as the crowded sidewalks. Interestingly, it was only about a decade ago when sandwich boards weren't permitted at all in downtown Mount Dora.
At a time when the effect of increasing downtown building heights has been debated at City Hall, leaders and staff have turned a blind eye to an issue already negatively impacting downtown’s character. Although codes are intended to protect the aesthetics and safety of an area, Mount Dora’s clearly visible exterior code violations are only enforced when a complaint occurs, according to the City. This reactive policy, coupled with City staff’s practice of informing violators of the identity of the complainer, discouraged people from reporting hazards and caused obvious violations to snowball over several years.
Code enforcement policies don't need to be heavy-handed in order to be effective. Mount Dora could opt for a steady, proactive approach, in which business owners are first educated about the codes and then given ample time to correct any violations before they are cited. This approach could produce a safer and more charming environment, as well as promote goodwill among the downtown business community and provide the pedestrian- friendly sidewalks that taxpayers were sold eight years ago.