Well known city resident and attorney William Morris was the moderator on October 7 for the Marco Island City Council Candidates Forum. Sponsored by the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce, Marco Island Civic Association and Marco Island Board of Realtors, the forum was accomplished utilizing the city’s website, broadcast courtesy of Comcast, Summit Broadcasting and Century Link, and made available via the internet using ZOOM technology. This format was adopted out of an abundance of caution due to lingering concerns regarding the COVID-19.
All five candidates were in attendance, including Richard Blonna, Jared Grifoni, Phares Heindl, Becky Irwin, and Joseph Rola. Four seats are available during this election cycle, and the winners will serve for 4 years. The forum began with an opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves.
Questions for the forum, which were very generic in content, were compiled by the three sponsoring organizations, and each of the candidates was given an opportunity to respond.
There were no surprises with the exception of some terse exchanges between Phares Heindl and Jared Grifoni. Grifoni is the only incumbent seeking re-election for a second 4-year term, and Heindl questioned some of the incumbent’s claims regarding various issues.
One of the first questions addressed went to Richard Blonna. When asked what he would do about the problems with short term rentals on the island, Blonna mistakenly reported that a vacation rental ordinance had been passed at the last council meeting. At that meeting, a report with some suggestions to consider moving forward was presented, but no ordinance was passed. Blonna went on to say he didn’t feel that there was a problem with short term rentals, and that present regulations need enforcement.
In response to a question regarding whether he would support an Assisted Living Facility (ALF) on the island, Grifoni stated, “I was the only person on our city council that had the unique opportunity to get into this issue over the last year.” That response raised some eyebrows, as there were six other members of the council that had dealt with the issue. In addition to those six other councilors, Joseph Rola, another candidate for the city council, was deeply involved as a member of the Marco Island Planning Board when the issue came before them. Although Grifoni had initially voted to deny the ALF request, at the following meeting of the council, he made a motion to “reconsider” his vote and reopen the debate. His motion was seconded by Councilor Larry Honig. Ultimately, that parliamentary maneuver failed, and the developer was barred by local ordinance from bringing the issue back for at least 12 months. At the present time, the same developer is presenting a much-reduced proposal that will come before the planning board in November for an initial hearing.
A question presented by the moderator regarding Amendment 2 on this November’s ballot resulted in Phares Heindl’s questioning its relevance to local issues such as water quality and short-term rentals. “This is a panel discussion regarding local issues and I’m not sure why you gave me this question about minimum wage. I want to talk about short-term rentals and water quality. I want to talk about real fiscal responsibility and whether we are spending money appropriately,” said Heindl, as he challenged the moderator.
The moderator asked candidate Becky Irwin whether she thought the fines structure was high enough to discourage offenders from destroying sensitive habitats, as many see the initial $150 fine as the equivalent of “a cost of doing business.” Irwin never really responded to the question. She did speak of her love of nature, that she thought habitat destruction was terrible, but would concentrate more emphasis on education.
Heindl and Grifoni continued to clash during the forum, as both challenged each other’s contributions to work on water quality issues, with Heindl quoting from an email from former Councilor Sam Young critical of Grifoni’s support regarding water issues. Heindl did not, however, make that email available.
No candidate supported increase in the minimum wage as found in Amendment 2 on the ballot. Heindl and Grifoni supported increased penalties for destruction of habitats. Irwin thought the revisions to the noise ordinance would help the situation regarding short-term rentals, and Rola felt that Chief Frazzano was committed to increasing code enforcement effectiveness.
Unfortunately for Marco Island citizens viewing the forum, many of the specific questions were never answered during the forum. The entire forum can be viewed on the internet by simply going to YouTube.com and searching for Marco Island Candidate Forum.