By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative and Vice-mayor For only the second time during my time on Mount Dora City Council, we participated in a "Shade Meeting" on August 31st. Florida law allows for "Shade Meetings" which may be held in private only under certain unique circumstances. I can't divulge the contents of the meeting but I want to let you know that it took place and why. Normally, City Council meetings are held in public, with interested community on hand.
This meeting involved a dispute with AMCO, the developer of the potential Wolf Branch Innovation District project that has been under consideration for the past year or more. Several months ago a majority of City Council members declined to vote in favor of the AMCO Planned Unit Development proposal because of the heights of the buildings and certain other aspects of the proposed mixed use development.
Recently a team of City officials; our Mayor, our City Manager, our Planning Director and our City Attorney met with their AMCO counterparts along with a mediator for an eight hour mediation session designed to reach a compromise. AMCO has threatened legal action against the City claiming that Council's vote wasn't rational or fair. During the Shade Meeting, our City team shared the specifics of what was tentatively agreed to during that day long session. This tentative agreement must be voted on by Council at a future public meeting. FYI, a court reporter was present during the Shade Meeting to record the entire meeting. Her transcript will be made public after the issue has been settled.
I can't go into the specifics of the "Shade Meeting" at this time but I wanted you to be aware of it.
Changing topics completely, I'd like for you to know that a group of dedicated City employees staffed our Emergency Operations Center during the recent hurricane. We were fortunate to avoid serious storm damage this time but these folks worked through the storm in case of catastrophic damage. We did have about 1,000 Mount Dora Electric customers who lost power but only for about 30 minutes. The City's staff deserve our recognition for going above and beyond.
Our quote for today is from Albert Einstein. "Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born."
By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative and Vice-mayor
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice-mayor and District 4 Representative
This special meeting was originally slated to have a couple of items on its agenda but in the end there were more items added, partially because of the approaching hurricane. I've chosen to feature some items that I think you might be interested in hearing about. What follows comes from me alone. I'm not speaking for City Council as a whole.
You'll recall that for the past year and a half, the subject of the Simpson Groves development to be located on both sides of US Route 441 between Loch Leven (Publix) Plaza and the entrance to the Country Club of Mount Dora has been the talk of the town. All told it covers about 224 acres. The developer had first asked to voluntarily annex that property into Mount Dora but later decided to go through Lake County before eventually electing to hammer out an agreement with Mount Dora. It is important to understand that this development was always going to be built. The question was, would the taxes and fees involved flow to the City or the County. Now they will.
We gave first reading approval to The Groves developer by a 6-0 vote. Final approval will come at a later date. There were three different actions, the first was for a "Pre-Annexation Agreement" and the other two were First Readings of Annexation Agreements, one for the north side and one for the south side properties. Final readings are yet to come.
It seems to me that although the City won't ultimately get everything we would have liked, we will get most of items on our wish list. That's how negotiations work. Since there is no way to prohibit property owners from developing land that they own, City Council and staff must do our best to make those developments as palatable as possible.
With Hurricane Idalia approaching Florida, we took actions related to dealing with potential damage including debris collection, hauling and disposal.
Following the Special Meeting, we held another in a series of Budget Workshops. We continue making progress to the eventual adoption of a balanced budget for FY23-24. With the inflation we have all dealt with over the past year, everything we buy costs more and the wages of our excellent staff must be increased accordingly. Even with these inflationary pressures I am confident that we will be able to build a budget that will suffice without raising our millage rate. Let's hope that Idalia or another hurricane doesn't cause massive damage that would wreck our projections.
Our quote of the day comes from Christine Dern who said; "Thank you Lord. As the world gets crazier, the nuts get easier to find."
Thanks for your interest in our city. I appreciate the opportunity to represent District 4.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice-mayor and District 4 Representative
By Marc Crail District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor
Your Mount Dora City Council met for its Regular meeting on Tuesday, August 15th. I've selected a few items of interest to feature in this report. Please keep in mind that this report comes from me as an individual council member, not on behalf of City Council as a whole.
We discussed our desire to consider planting varieties of trees that provide shade as we move forward with upcoming Fifth Avenue ADA sidewalk improvements. We all would like to have more shade trees downtown. The trick will be to identify species of trees that provide much needed shade but can be planted in relatively small areas so that they don't hump up the sidewalks as they mature.
Food insecurity is a reality for thousands of Lake County residents. Lake Cares Food Pantry located right here in Mount Dora has a long history of helping to provide for residents, many of them children, who would otherwise go hungry. We approved a Resolution to provide $15,000 to support their efforts.
We had a constructive discussion before adopting a Resolution 7-0 to move forward with "Safe Place Initiative". This is a request from Police Chief, Mike Gibson to join a fast growing initiative that began in Seattle in 2015 and now includes hundreds of cities and counties. Chief Gibson made it clear that he wants to improve the poor perceptions that many LGBTQ people have about their local police departments. I applaud that effort.
The Safe Place program is currently designed to have businesses that volunteer to participate offer safe places for LGBTQ people who might encounter threats. Thankfully, this is not a common problem in Mount Dora but in this era of political divisions we don't want anyone to feel unwelcome in Mount Dora. Other nearby police and sheriff departments including Orlando and Orange County are participating.
Several very valid comments from citizens and council members raised recommendations to include other ethnic, religious or racial groups in this effort. I think expanding the program to include any individual or group who feel threatened or unwelcome would be a plus. This is a work in progress. Equal rights and safe places for all is the goal.
Our quote for today comes from Maya Angelou. "I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights."
I think I'm guilty on all three accounts!
Thanks for your interest in our wonderful city. By Marc Crail District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor
By Marc Crail Vice-mayor and District 4 Representative I suspect that your are already well aware that the 224 acres of orange groves located on either side of US Rt 441, between ABC Liquor and The Country Club of Mount Dora are going to be sold and developed into housing and commercial uses. This has been the talk of the town for about eighteen months. Please keep in mind that this acreage is NOT currently in the Mount Dora city limits but it is surrounded by the City. It is important to know that it has already been approved for development by Lake County so discussions now are centered on if the property will continue to be in unincorporated Lake County or in the City and the timing of potential annexation. Like it or not, the property owner has the right to develop her/his land and while many of us would prefer that this prime property on the highway remain orange groves, that isn't going to happen. City Council and City staff are tasked with making the future development as palatable as possible and to maximize the impact fees, TIF and other tax benefits to the City of Mount Dora.
Your City Council, City staff and representatives of the developer of the Mount Dora Groves project met to discuss a pre-annexation and utility agreement for the 224 acre site. Good faith negotiations have been going on between the developer for months and the city and we are hopeful that the remaining handful of sticking points can be resolved so that City Council can consider approving the pre-annexation agreement at a special meeting to be scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Monday, August 28th. This will be a public meeting at City Hall. We had thought that it could be on the regular meeting agenda for August 15 but due to the complexities of the project and scheduling difficulties, that seems unlikely.
We have asked the developer and our staff to work hard to reach agreement on the remaining issues that center upon the annexation process, water and wastewater utilities, development fees, a golf cart path on the south side, drainage, paving and grading issues.
I'm reporting to you as an individual and not on behalf of City Council in any official capacity. I remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached so that this project, that is going to happen, can move forward maximizing its economic benefits to our city.
Instead of a quote today, what follows is a Kenyan proverb. "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable."
Thanks for continued interest in our wonderful city.
By Marc Crail District 4 Representative and Vice Mayor There were plenty of fireworks during our August 1, 2023 City Council meeting. As usual, I'm reporting to you as an individual council member and not in any official capacity. I've chosen several items of particular interest to feature in this report.
Our new Public Works complex will be built on Limit Ave. near the intersection of Donnelly St. on a 17.65 acre parcel. The estimated cost is $21,232,950. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in January and take about 13 months. This project is sorely needed and has been in the works for years. I'm glad to hear that it is finally coming to fruition. We approved purchasing some necessary construction materials early so that the construction process won't be held up later by supply chain procurement delays.
For the third time in the past few months I was taken by surprise, this time by the strenuous objections of some of my colleagues when our City Manager requested that we hire an interim City Attorney. Here's some background. Last month our City Attorney, Sherry Sutphen tendered her resignation stating that she could no longer work with City Manager, Patrick Comiskey due to poor communications. I think she has done a good job for the City over the past 5 years and was disappointed by her decision to resign. In her resignation letter, she offered to stay on the job until a replacement could be found but she asked that finding a suitable replacement should be done quickly.
The City Manager contacted several qualified law firms in the area to find out if they would be willing to take over the role of City Attorney on and interim basis until a permanent law firm could be hired. He recommended a law firm that provides City Attorney similar services to Clermont and St. Cloud.
It's important to know that City Council only has 2 employees who report directly to us, the City Manager and the City Attorney. All other City employees are supervised by the City Manager. When our only 2 employees are at odds, the efficiency of our operations is impaired. In this case, each of them has gripes with the other and their relationship is badly damaged. It's a bad situation and it's hard to ascertain where the truth lies.
After a long and sometimes passionate discussion, we tabled the Manager's recommendation to hire an interim City Attorney and our outgoing City Attorney. Ms Sutphen agreed to stay on until a search for a new permanent City Attorney can be conducted. Some members did not think that the City Manager should have taken it upon himself to solicit possible interim attorney firms to be approved by City Council. I did not. I worry about the Manager and Attorney's ability to function cooperatively but I hope they can.
In another surprise to me, Council member Rolfson, joined by Mayor Stile and Councilman Walker voted for a motion to suspend our City Manager with full pay and benefits until an investigation is concluded. This investigation is about to begin and it concerns allegations by one of our (interim) Directors concerning the City Manager. Council members Bryant, Cataldo, Dawson and I voted no. A neutral, third party investigator was approved and will begin her work immediately. If the investigator we selected recommends suspending the City Manager pending the outcome of her investigation, I will vote "yes" but I felt it was premature to take that action at this point, pending the investigator's recommendation.
Contentious meetings like this one concern me. When City Council is divided, we are not operating at our best which is particularly important at this time when many big decisions need to be made in the upcoming months. The serious disagreements that I have described over the past several months have arisen over legitimate concerns and issues. I believe that each City Council member is trying to do her/his best for Mount Dora. Our disagreements reflect the passion and concerns that each individual has for our city and its citizens. I do worry that if we can't find a way forward, long lasting damage will result. In my opinion, we are duty bound to work the plan that we all agreed to, as quickly as possible, and hopefully we can find an acceptable resolution. Easier said than done.
Our quote for today is from Eleanor Roosevelt. "Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway."
Thanks for your interest in Mount Dora's government. Let's hope for clarity and progress.
By Marc Crail District 4 Representative and Vice Mayor