ABOVE: Mount Dora City Hall (Mount Dora Buzz file photo)
By Dr. Marc Crail Vice-mayor and District 4 Representative
I've selected some discussion and action items from our June 6 meeting to share with you. As always, please keep in mind that I'm not reporting to you on behalf of City Council, I'm just one member and speak only for myself.
Mayor Stile added an agenda item that I didn't have any prior knowledge of, making a motion to fire City Manager Patrick Comiskey. She presented a list of her concerns, similar to the issues she brought up during our last May City Council meeting. She stressed that in her opinion, many hard working city employees are having issues with the Manager's leadership style.
When her presentation concluded, other City Council members spoke. The theme of their responses to the Mayor's concerns was that we are moving forward with our plan to ask department heads and other direct reports to the City Manager to anonymously relate their experiences (good or bad) working under the leadership of Mr. Comiskey. That process is underway and the results should be compiled and available to City Council members within a month. Most members said that they are in favor of allowing that plan to move forward. I heard the words "due process" mentioned a few times. When we voted on the Mayor's motion, it was defeated 6-1.
By another 6-1 vote (Cataldo voting No) we approved an amendment to the proposed Mount Dora and Lake County Joint Planning Area Agreement.
After a related discussion, our City Manager recommended getting a "second opinion" as to whether the City can deny water or sewer service to new developments in our JPA. We voted to seek the opinion of a specialized attorney who would meet with our City Attorney and staff to investigate if that is legal under Florida law.
We voted to approve a "Second-First reading" that could ultimately allow properly equipped golf carts to use certain city streets. There were several changes from the original proposal including reducing the golf cart registration fees to $25 for the first year and $10 in subsequent years. I asked that whatever rules we end up with, we make a one year trial run so that we can make revisions that might be needed regarding parking, etc. There's a second reading and possibly some more adjustments before this becomes law.
Our incoming Fire Chief, Joe Hightower was introduced. Chief Hightower will begin his new job soon.
The quote of the day is actually an ancient Turkish proverb. "When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn't become a king, the palace becomes a circus."
Thanks to everyone who loves our city and cares enough to spend their valuable time to voice their opinions.
By Dr. Marc Crail Vice-mayor and District 4 Representative
The Florida League of Cities (FLC), the united voice for Florida’s municipal governments, recently recognized Mount Dora Councilmember Doug Bryant with a 2023 Home Rule Hero Award for his hard work and advocacy efforts during the 2023 Legislative Session. Bryant worked tirelessly throughout session to promote local voices making local choices, protect the Home Rule powers of Florida’s municipalities and advance the League’s legislative agenda.
Home Rule is the ability for a city to address local problems with local solutions with minimal state interference. Home Rule Hero Award recipients are local government officials, both elected and nonelected, who consistently responded to the League’s request to reach out to members of the Legislature and help give a local perspective on an issue.
“It has been said that the best form of government is that which is closest to the people. This is not an infallible rule, as history has taught us, but, generally, local officials know their neighbors, their communities and their problems better than anyone else,” said Bryant.
Bryant is serving his second term as an At-Large member of the Council. He has served on the Mount Dora Planning and Zoning Commission, the City Charter Review Commission and the Lake County Water Authority board. His previous local government experience includes city and county planning director positions, city and county prosecutor offices, and state legislator (Wyoming). He also had a stint as a coastal planner in Hawaii. Doug has a Bachelor’s degree in political science, Master’s degree in community planning and a Law degree.
Bryant and his wife, Chris, moved to Mount Dora in 2013 after five years of frequent visits. He worked as a historic tour guide with Mount Dora Segway and has taken classes to become a Florida Master Naturalist. Doug enjoys traveling, reading, tennis, pickleball, running, obstacle courses and nearly any outdoor activity.
After nearly two years, the City of Mount Dora announced its new fire chief on May 22. In an email to Mount Dora CIty Council, the city’s top executive, City Manager Patrick Comiskey, named Joseph Hightower as the new leader of the esteemed Mount Dora Fire Department. His anticipated start date in Mount Dora is June 19, 2023.
Hightower has three decades of experience in fire protection, emergency preparedness, and paramedic services that he brings to the City. This includes 20 years of experience at the Federal level where he worked with the Anniston Army Depot Fire & Emergency Services in Anniston, Alabama. Over the last four years, Hightower performed as a Lead National Instructor for the Center for Domestic Preparedness.
The new Chief’s experience also includes 12 years with the Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield Fire & Emergency Services in Fort Stewart, Georgia. Hightower served in various roles during his Federal tenure including: Firefighter/Paramedic, Fire Protection Specialist, Assistant Chief of Operations, as well as Assistant Chief of Training and Deputy Fire Chief. “I’m very excited to be the new Fire Chief of Mount Dora and for my wife and I to move here. I’m looking forward to meeting our firefighters, that I have heard so many wonderful things about, and being a part of what all they do to serve the community,” said Chief Hightower.
Mount Dora Interim Fire Chief Rich Loewer, who served in that position for nearly two years and proved himself as an impressive and knowledgeable leader, will stay on as Deputy Chief. Chief Hightower attended the American Military University in Charles Town, WV where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science Management and has been a nationally registered paramedic for 32 years. Chief Hightower will relocate to Mount Dora with his wife, Janet and four children, Beau, Austin, Noah, and Allison.
For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, this month, click here. Discover the area's online entertainment calendar here. Also download the area's free mobile app.
Last night’s regular Mount Dora City Council meeting was anything but regular. Nearing the end of the agenda, Mayor Crissy Stile abruptly and without context asked City Manager Patrick Comiskey if he wished to resign. Comiskey declined, so Stile sought to fire him, but lacked the support of the rest of the Council.
A lengthy, calm, and at times awkward discussion ensued about Comiskey’s performance and the list of alleged grievances from Stile. Rather than immediate termination, the remaining six members of the City Council instead sought a tempered, fact-finding approach to vet the list of grievances and allow the City Manager to express his version of events.
Comiskey, who was hired in November, 2021, has been a controversial manager since last summer, when some employees and members of the public voiced specific concerns to the mayor and some members of the council about Comiskey’s fitness for the City’s top job. Despite the shared information, the elected officials unanimously gave Comiskey high praise and a raise which frustrated some long-time employees. Last night, almost a year after their concerns were expressed to elected officials, their sentiments were echoed for the first time in the council chamber.
After the lengthy discussion by all council members, a motion passed (7-0) to appoint Councilmember Dennis Dawson to work with the City’s Human Resources Department to create a confidential survey for employees that report directly to the City Manager. The goal of the survey is to provide input on Comiskey’s actions and performance, identify areas for growth and improvement, as well as help determine if the Mayor’s allegations are valid. The City Council’s motion also approved getting assistance from The Florida League of Cities to assist in properly addressing performance-related issues and developing a reasonable "growth plan."
Over the last two years, the City has also been criticized for decreased transparency. As a result it can be challenging for the public to gain timely access to information. By contrast, the mayor stated at last night’s meeting that she was able to get public records within a week, yet members of the public can wait over a month while the timeliness of the requested information passes during the delay.
An agreement between the City Manager and City Council may not be reached, and if that happens, the City Council can fire Comiskey or he may opt to resign. If he is terminated, his contract will determine if there is a severance package.
The situation is similar to what transpired with former Mount Dora City Manager Robin Hayes. Members of the public and employees sounded alarm bells concerning Hayes’ performance, while she continued to garner strong support from the council for several months. In 2021, the City and Hayes parted ways.
After a downtown parking study was updated last year (downloadable study is below), the City of Mount Dora is looking into the strategies it suggested to improve parking. The City's purchasing manager is currently creating the documents for companies to bid on a mobile app technology to help ensure convenient short-term parking in the downtown core and encourage longer parking in the fringe area. There are currently 211 parking spaces in the core and 591 in the fringe area. The downtown core is defined as the area bounded by 5th Avenue on the north, 3rd Avenue on the south, Baker Street on the east, and Alexander Street on the west.
I've chosen some items from our City Council meeting agenda to comment on today. As you know, I'm only reporting for myself and not on behalf of City Council in any official capacity.
Let's start with some good news. Mount Dora is one of only four Florida cities to be recognized this week as a "Trail Town" meaning that we have been vetted as a recreation destination and bike/hike trail friendly. Also, the Wekiva Trail network has been designated a top priority by the state. We're more hopeful than ever before about the likelihood of getting grants to move ahead with our proposed rail/trail project.
Probably the item drawing the most interest today was approving an agreement with the Lake County Sheriff's Office to assume responsibility for our police dispatch services. This passed on a 6-1 vote Mr. Walker voted "No". My takeaway is that there won't be any denigration of our police dispatch services and we will benefit by saving our tax payers about $400,000 a year. I wouldn't have voted for this if I wasn't convinced that our law enforcement officers will be every bit as well served by getting dispatches from the County as they have been with our City dispatch services. I believe that any and all of our wonderful dispatchers who want to transfer to work at Lake County will be able to do so and will improve their wages, health insurance and retirement benefits.
A new 266 townhome residential development got final approval. It's called Juniper Multifamily Townhouses and will be located on 30 acres near the Northeast corner of the intersection of US 441 and SR 46. The streets will be privately maintained which will save the City money and over 2,000 buffer trees will be planted to replace trees that will be uprooted during construction. These townhomes may be rentals or owner occupied.
There have been ongoing discussions about our capacity as a city to continue to grow. Everyone is concerned, not only that Mount Dora must have the capacity to provide drinking water, sanitary sewers, fire and police services, etc. but also that current homeowners and residents won't be stuck footing the bill for future developments. We need to make sure that our development fee schedules cover the costs of future developments. It sounds like making sure that this happens will be a priority moving forward. I'm in favor of making sure that we have solid plans in place.
Our quote for the day is from Anne Frank, the young Dutch girl who's diary continues to inspire us decades after her murder. "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart." Her optimism was incredible and should serve as an example to each of us.
Thanks for allowing me to represent District 4 and serve as your Vice-Mayor.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 Representative
Your Mount Dora City Council held a 3-hour public work session on April 10th to discuss the proposed transfer of our Police dispatch services to the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Work Sessions are public meetings where agenda items are discussed but not voted upon.
Like any idea, many people have many differing ideas and concerns. I'm choosing not to voice my opinion today because it won't be voted upon until our April 18th. regular Council Meeting. I think it's safe to say that the conversation led me to believe that Council members want our 9 Police dispatchers to be treated fairly and that their financial security is important. We heard a presentation from our Police Chief recommending transferring our Police dispatch to the County Sheriff's Office as 10 other Lake County cities already do. You may know that for the past 15 or so years, Mount Dora's EMS and Fire Department dispatch has been handled by Lake County. When asked, our acting fire chief said clearly that he thinks Lake County has done an excellent job.
In my estimation, we need to make sure that our residents and our police officers don't experience any downsides while also making a decision that will allow us to operate our police dispatch as efficiently as possible. I'll keep you posted on this important decision.
I've got a quote for you from comedian and author, Paula Poundstone. "It's funny that we think of libraries as quiet, demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is that libraries are raucous club- houses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never he shushed."
I certainly appreciated the animated discussion this evening and I'm always encouraged when I hear people respectfully debate what they think is in the best interest of our community. Thanks for allowing me to represent District 4 and serve as your Vice Mayor.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 representative
In March the developer which sought to exceed the 100-foot building height limit in the Wolf Branch Innovation District (WBID) filed legal action against the City of Mount Dora. AMCO Development and MK & AD Land Investments (collectively, “AMCO”) requested a magistrate to review Mount Dora City Council’s rejection of its 36-acre proposed development located on the south side of State Road 46 inside the 850-acre WBID. Read more
On April 10 the Mount Dora City Council will discuss entering into a contract with Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) to provide dispatching services on the City's behalf. Citizens will have the opportunity to comment or ask questions regarding any of the recommendations made by the Mount Dora Police Department (MDPD).
According to the City, MDPD recommended contracting dispatch services with LCSO and believes it will lead to improved officer safety, as well as better response times and continuity of services between neighboring law enforcement agencies. The substantiating statistics may be provided at the work session, as well as any specific cost-savings.
After the public work session on April 14, the matter is scheduled to come before the City Council for a vote at its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 18, at 6:00 p.m. at City Hall. If approved, Mount Dora Police dispatching will begin out of the LCSO dispatch facility on May 1. During the transition period, current MDPD dispatchers can apply for employment with LCSO. The work session on April 10 is open to the public and begins at 6:00 p.m. at City Hall.
By Marc Crail Vice-Mayor and District 4 Representative
The majority of the February 7 Mount Dora City Council meeting involved public comments from upwards of two dozen citizens mostly opposing the proposed "mixed use" PUD development proposal in the Wolf Branch Innovation District on SR 46 near the entrance to the expressway. Please keep in mind that what follows comes from me, one individual council member, not from City Council as a whole.
Just to review, at our January 17th City Council meeting we discussed the proposal for a "mixed use" PUD (Planned Unit Development). During that council discussion, several members, including me, said that there are elements of the proposal that we liked and conversely, several members, including me, voiced serious concerns about the proposed height of some of the buildings (some over 300 feet tall), as well as other concerns.
After that lengthy exchange of views we essentially had two choices. We could vote "No" on the first reading of the PUD proposal which would kill future negotiations and preclude the possibility of coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion before the second or "final" vote on this large and complex proposal or we could vote "Yes" on the first reading in order to give our City staff and the Developer the opportunity to address our concerns (mostly building heights but seven other issues as well).
I felt that, with the benefit of good faith negotiations and creativity/compromise on both sides, it might be possible to reach a successful resolution so I made a motion to vote "Yes" on that first reading, asking our staff and the developer to sit down and hammer out a plan that would alleviate our concerns and at the same time, meet the developer's needs. I figured that these complicated negotiations might well take some time so my motion also provided for as much time as necessary to come up with a compromise plan. Whatever revised plan the negotiators come up with will need to be discussed and approved by a majority of City Council members. My motion passed 6-1.
Those negotiations are currently underway. Obviously, each council member has his/her own opinion and "gotta haves". Those negotiations might or might not be acceptable to individual council members and those results will determine how he/she will ultimately vote. That final vote is scheduled for February 21st during our 6:00 p.m. meeting. All City Council meetings are open to the public.
I can only speak for myself, but at this time I am waiting and listening. I have shared my height concerns and other concerns with City staff and with the developer. The bottom line is that a "Yes" vote on January 17 was to keep the talks alive and provide adequate time for tough, ongoing nitty-gritty negotiations. The vote scheduled for February 21 will be the decider.
The comments of community members at our February 7 Council meeting, your emails and phone conversations are important and appreciated. This is a big decision and is by no means, a done deal. Thanks for weighing in and allowing the process to go on. It's messy but it's how government works.
Our quote for the day comes from Sam Rayburn, former Speaker of the House of Representatives who once said: "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."
By Marc Crail Vice-Mayor and District 4 Representative