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Center debt prompts board conflict, leadership turmoil

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Zaccagnino
Mcbean

The Center of Anna Maria Island saw within the past two weeks two board officers resign, unresign and a board vote via email to replace its chair.

On June 9, board chair Bill Shuman emailed vice chair Patty McBean announcing he wanted to step down.

McBean, who joined the board in October 2015, became interim chair upon Shuman’s resignation and called an emergency meeting June 12, seeking a vote of confidence. However, at the meeting, Shuman expressed a desire to retain his chair seat.

According to McBean’s notes from the meeting, Shuman was allowed to stay on as a board member.

Jim Froeschle also announced his resignation as treasurer at the meeting. But by June 14, Froeschle had requested to be reinstated on the condition that the board vote to remove McBean as chair and replace her with former Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino, who had been added as a board member April 26.

Froeschle circulated the email calling for the vote to remove McBean as chair.

June 12 was Zaccagnino’s first meeting since joining the board.

But first on the agenda June 12, McBean outlined a short-term plan to improve the center’s financial situation, according to her notes.

By May, the center’s deficit had reached more than $250,000, a pattern Froeschle claimed in previous meetings would continue without additional government funding.

McBean and others were critical about the continued spending in view of past months’ losses and, subsequently, the department heads offered to substantially cut their budgets.

McBean said her short-term plan included placing endowment funds that were already withdrawn in escrow, implementing an immediate hiring freeze, a requirement that purchases and employee terminations be approved by board members, and a request for executive director Kristen Lessig to cut the future budget by $20,000 monthly.

It also included a request for copies of all center bank and credit card statements within 48 hours, a request to review credit card statements regularly in the future and a request that the board review employee benefit packages.

And although the board affirmed her plan, it was not fulfilled, McBean said. She had not received records or passwords for access to financial accounts by June 19.

At the June 12 meeting, the board also developed a budget committee and an audit committee to pursue improving the center’s financial records.

Zaccagnino said the meeting became contentious and that board members did not necessarily understand the plan being proposed, adding most members later disagreed that McBean’s plan was approved.

He said no votes were taken at the meeting.

Lessig said the contents of the minutes were in dispute because several board members walked out of the meeting.

Within a day of the meeting, McBean reported to the board in an email that former board member Mike Coleman — who attended and took part in the discussion at the June 12 meeting — requested a private meeting with her.

According to McBean’s account, Coleman asked her to resign as chair, claiming it would provide more stability and that she would put the center at “extreme risk” by staying. Coleman also offered to provide  $10,000 to the center on the condition that she step down, according to McBean.

Coleman declined June 18 to comment on the record.

On June 16, an email vote distributed by Froeschle resulted in a 10-4 vote to remove McBean from the role of chair. She remains on the board.

The center’s bylaws state that a board vote can be taken electronically, but must be approved at the next board meeting.

Zaccagnino, who issued a disclaimer that he’s only attended one board meeting thus far, said he believes there’s a lot of confusion regarding the board’s future but “everyone wants the same thing.”

“I think everyone wants to focus on the financials, liability and strength of the center. It’s just how to get there,” he said, that people are disagreeing on.

“I was put on the board to try to help with the government and use my knowledge that way,” Zaccagnino said.

If everyone agrees on my stepping up as chair, “I’ll do that,” he said. “The most important thing is the center. I think it’s on the right path right now. This is just one of those board things that happened where there’s differences of opinion, but everyone wants the same thing.”

After the meeting, The Islander joined McBean in requesting financial records June 14 from Lessig based on numerous claims that center credit cards were being misused. The newspaper received no response regarding the record request from Lessig as of June 19.

Furthermore, Froeschele indicated to the board that, as treasurer, he did not scrutinize spending.

Estimates are the center will be more than $300,000 in the red by the end of June and some board members and Lessig are proposing taking a substantial amount of money — $200,000-$250,000 — from the endowment fund to make up the deficit and for operations.

Zaccagnino said he expected access to the center’s online accounts and signing authority over the weekend — June 17-18.

When asked about newspaper access to the center’s financial records, Zaccagnino said he spoke to Bradenton attorney Scott Rudacille, who said the center’s financial records are not covered under Florida’s Sunshine Law.

But the newspaper and the city of Anna Maria have received legal advice that contradicts Rudacille’s opinion.

Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said June 16 his city attorney differs with Zaccagnino’s opinion. Murphy said the center’s financial records, including spending and expenses, are public record.

The open meeting laws require discussion of financial matters be open to the public.

Murphy said a February 2016 letter was provided to Lessig asserting the center records are public and, while he did not receive a response acknowledging the letter, records were provided.

Zaccagnino said the center would be prepared to discuss its financial status in more detail after the board completes the 2017-18 fiscal budget, which he said will scale the center budget back to “live within its means.”

McBean’s short-term plan included the same request for scaling back expenses.

The next center meeting will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, at the center, 407 Magnolia Ave. Budget discussions are planned at that meeting and June 28. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Lessig said the June 28 meeting may or may not be public, depending on where the board is in the budget process. She also said that McBean and Shuman were to be granted access to the credit card accounts by Monday, June 19.

Island altruist, legend Hagen, 89, dies

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Sean Murphy, left, and Rex Hagen in January 2016 at the Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

Just days from his 90th birthday and a celebration planned by friends to toast Rex Hagen’s many years of friendship and generosity, Hagen died June 17.

Hagen and his late wife Helen were major contributors on Anna Maria Island, having funded tennis courts at the then-Anna Maria Island Community Center in the 1970s, and again funding a rehab of the courts at the Center of Anna Maria Island in 2016.

Rex and Helen helped fund the skate park in Holmes Beach and, more recently, he donated money for improvements at City Pier Park in Anna Maria, although, due to controversy over city funding restrictions, the money was returned.

He and Helen were annual donors for many years to the city of Holmes Beach, with funding earmarked for recreation.

In recent years, he served on the center board of directors and gave generously.

More recently, he signed on as Sean Murphy’s first partner in the Doctor’s Office — a craft bar in Holmes Beach.

 

Bernard “Rex” Hagen, 89, died June 17 at his home on Anna Maria Island.

He was born June 28, 1927, in Morocco, Indiana, to Ross and Elizabeth Hagen.

There he married Helen Stone on May 13, 1951.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

A self-made business owner, he started Superior Sample Company in 1957 in Ligonier, Indiana.

He enjoyed traveling the world, playing and watching tennis, golf, motorcycles and fast cars. A remembrance for Mr. Hagen included this quote from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

He was a graduate and life-long supporter of Purdue University and a member of many fraternal organizations, including the Moose, Elks, Shriners, VFW and American Legion.

A graveside service will be held in Indiana at a date yet to be determined. Memorial donations may be made to the Center of Anna Maria Island, P.O. Box 253, Anna Maria FL 34216.

He is survived by daughter Nancy and husband Rich Stage of Big Sky, Montana, and son Mark and wife Jeanna of Cromwell, Indiana, along with five grandchildren, and many, many friends.

Local restaurateur farms medicinal ‘greens’

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3 Boys Farm in Ruskin logo and website project a hippie vibe. Islander Courtesy Graphic

All three cities on Anna Maria Island said no to medical marijuana dispensaries.

But Anna Maria’s largest restaurant operator has quite another take on the matter.

Ed Chiles, owner of a trio of restaurants — Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria, Beach House in Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub on Longboat Key — will soon hold a share in one of a handful of marijuana cultivation licenses issued by the Florida Department of Health.

All he lacks is the governor’s signature on the bill.

Chiles has partnered with 3 Boys Farms of Ruskin and, after an almost 18-monthlong legal ordeal to name five growers in all of Florida, 3 Boys emerged victorious in a May ruling by Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham.

Laningham ruled Alpha Foliage, known as Surterra Therapeutics, should have been ineligible to receive an initial operator license in 2015, due to a change of ownership.

On May 23, Laningham recommended the Florida Department of Health award a license to 3 Boys Farm and Plants of Ruskin.

3 Boys Farms, a competitor in the initial medical marijuana license selection, was virtually tied in the scoring used to determine the awards, but lost to Alpha for the rights to the Southwest Florida region, which includes Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Chiles, along with Ted LaRoche, who holds other investment interests with Chiles, bought into the Ruskin farm in 2013 as non-majority partners. The organic growing operation has been awarded the Governor’s Environmental Leadership Award and is the first nutrient-film technique hydroponic operation in the United States to be USDA-certified organic.

Also in 2013, Chiles signed a long-term lease on the Gamble Creek Farm in Parish, where they grow vegetables, fruits and herbs for use in his restaurants. Chiles stated he has no current plans to grow cannabis at Gamble Creek and that he will continue with his “farm-to-fork” mission, providing fresh, local ingredients to consumers.

In 2014, the state propagated the rules for cannabis operations and decided to issue five licenses  — one for each of five state regions. Requirements are far from easy — or affordable.

Nurseries must have been in continuous operation for 30 years with a minimum of 400,000 plants. Applicants must be able to prove they can manage “huge” startup expenses, without the risk of bankruptcy within the first two years.

Estimated bills for startups are usually around $2 million, with an initial $63,000 non-refundable deposit fee. In addition, bonds must be renewed yearly.

The grow licenses are significant assets, as they are tied to the dispensaries for cannabis distribution. Each grower may open 25 dispensaries in their area, and more, if they work collectively with other growers.

In November 2016, a Florida constitutional amendment legalized medical marijuana for a broad vista of patients with debilitating diseases, enabling current grow license holders to automatically be eligible to grow and dispense pot products for a much larger base.

Robert and Deborah Tornello of 3 Boys posted June 13 on the business Facebook page that “in the months ahead, we’ll begin posting pics of what we’ve all been waiting for — Florida’s first all-organically grown medical cannabis crop from an all-Floridian operated grow.”

When asked in a phone interview June l6 about his involvement in the venture, Chiles said he felt it would not have a negative effect on his restaurants or his image.

“The people of Florida have spoken very loudly. A resounding majority voted to support medical marijuana. Attitudes have changed,” Chiles said.

“This has been interesting to say the least,” he said of the past three years in the grow process. “But I don’t have a crystal ball” for what the future holds.

Chiles also reiterated his feelings on medical marijuana becoming available in Florida.

“I am glad to see that folks who can benefit from cannabis can now get it. We know in certain conditions it helps, but this will also aid in research and we will be able to conduct studies.”

Chiles said Tornello will be in charge of dispensaries when the crop eventually becomes available. The 3 Boys Farm plans to begin production of medical marijuana within 30 days of the governor’s signature hitting the bill.

But for now, Chiles will have to be content with restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Tornello will have to put those dispensaries somewhere other than Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach.

To which Chiles simply replied, “No comment. I’m not concerned with that.”

AM commissioner stands firm against Bert Harris settlements

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Nancy Yetter stands June 8 outside Anna Maria City Call, 10005 Gulf Drive, before a city commission meeting. Islander Photo: Bianca Benedí

Nancy Yetter almost always the lone “no” vote against Anna Maria’s Bert Harris settlements, and she’s fine with it. It’s about the message.

To date, 84 of 112 Bert Harris claims made against the city of Anna Maria have been settled or are waiting for a final signature, while 28 are in negotiation.

So far, virtually all of the claimants have been granted a higher occupancy rate.

And almost every time the city attorney has presented the settlement offers to the commission, Yetter has voted “no.” Only once, in January, did she approve a settlement.

She wasn’t always the only one — former Commissioner Chuck Webb joined her until he left office, and Commissioner Carol Carter has joined her on three votes. But their votes failed to halt approval of the settlements.

Rejecting Bert Harris settlements, Yetter says, was a campaign promise. She was re-elected in November 2016, garnering the most votes of the three candidates competing for two seats on the commission.

“To me, it feels like we gave up without a fight,” Yetter said. “And that’s not my personality. I’m kind of like the junkyard dog. Until you show me exactly why something can’t be done, I’ll keep fighting until somebody proves me wrong.”

In addition, Yetter said, a home rental generally includes a total cost for the rental for a specified period with a maximum occupancy, rather than a per-head payment.

“And here it’s the total opposite, the more people the more money. I think it’s wrong,” she said.

Yetter said the commission should have more aggressively pursued seeking a declaratory judgment, as Webb suggested.

“According to our comprehensive plan and land-use regulations, commercial businesses in residential zones are illegal,” she said. “(Webb) thought we should go to court to get a judgment.… The commission voted 4-1 against it.” At that time, Yetter was in the majority vote, but she’s since changed her mind.

“I think we’ve done a disservice to the residents and to the city,” she said. “To me, you don’t give up before you really know if you have a chance to win the battle.”

Plus, Yetter said, some of the claims have been dubious. “When people can file a Bert Harris claim on a vacant piece of property … I’m suspicious.”

 

Understanding Bert Harris in Anna Maria

In April 2016, the city of Anna Maria’s new vacation rental ordinance went into effect. The ordinance limits short-term vacation rental owners to eight occupants and requires owners to pay an annual vacation license fee.

Soon after adoption, the Bert Harris claims began flooding the city.

To date, 112 claims have been filed.

The Bert Harris Jr. Private Property Protection Act of 1995 provides property owners relief if they can prove a government action lowered the value of a property.

Claimants must provide appraisals to establish value and the settlement amount and, in lieu of a cash payments, can either fully or partly restore the rights that existed before the prohibitions.

Property owners in Anna Maria filed claims on the basis that the occupancy restriction limited their income.

The city responded on an individual basis with offers to partially restore property owners’ rights.

Becky Vose, city attorney, has been drafting settlement agreements that offer those who filed Bert Harris claims occupancies of eight to 16 people.

The city also made and rescinded one purchase offer, while another purchase offer is in negotiations.

Blue Marlin burglary case transferred to drug court

The case of the man accused of breaking into the Blue Marlin Seafood Restaurant in Bradenton Beach is now in drug court.

Judge Andrew D. Owens Jr. ordered William Garringer, 52, of the Bradenton Beach anchorage, released on his own recognizance June 8 and transferred the case from the criminal division to the drug court program.

Bradenton Beach police arrested Garringer in March on a burglary charge after officers viewed a video of the break-in that allegedly showed the man on the restaurant’s back porch trying to open a lock with a blow torch.

Owens ordered Garringer to begin the court intervention program the week of June 12.

Under the 12th Circuit program, the court aims to reduce crime related to drug use. The program, in its 20th year, includes judicial monitoring with tools such as praise, sanctions, arrest warrants and jail time.

Under the program, Garringer is required to waive his speedy trial right, appear for an intake assessment, attend mandatory court dates and enter a plea.

Parrish man sentenced to probation for DUI

A Parrish man arrested in Holmes Beach in March pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol and was sentenced to 12 months probation.

Joseph Perusek II, 25, was clocked by police at 64 mph in a 35-mph zone in the 12000 block of Manatee Avenue.

Twelfth Circuit Judge Doug Henderson found Perusek guilty May 9 and ordered the probation, including a DUI course, a victim-impact panel, 50 hours of public service work and a $1,841 fine convertible to public service.

The judge also suspended Perusek’s driver’s license for six months and ordered a 10-day vehicle impoundment.

Perusek also was fined $304 for speeding.

DOT Cortez Bridge study ends, opposition stirs

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The Cortez Bridge closed for repairs in late May, when valve and electrical problems prevented the bascule from fully closing, creating gridlock on Cortez Road. Islander File Photo: Kathy Prucnell

Five years and $1.5 million later, the outcome of the Cortez Bridge study is taking shape — prompting a new wave of opposition.

The Florida Department of Transportation District 1 is planning a late August or September public hearing “that wraps it up,” said Zac Burch, DOT government affairs and communication manager.

At the hearing, officials will present the district’s choice between a narrowed list of two designs — a 35-foot bascule and 65-foot vertical clearance fixed-span — to replace the Cortez Bridge on State Road 684, which connects Cortez and Bradenton Beach. Public comment will be taken and the study results will go to Tallahassee for consideration.

A no-build recommendation also will be included, according to Burch.

Under the no-build alternative, the DOT anticipates the Cortez Bridge would last 10 years without renovation. Under the build options, a 75-year life span is predicted.

If the state approves a new bridge, a $7.25 million design phase will start in 2017, followed by right-of-way acquisition and construction phases, Burch said, adding the DOT has selected H.W. Lochner as its design consultant.

“If a no-build alternative is selected, we will cancel the contract and reassign those funds to another project,” he said.

The existing bridge has a 17.6-foot clearance and stretches almost a mile between 123rd Street West on the mainland and Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach.

The final public hearing comes after studying engineering, environmental and societal aspects, including public meetings and surveys to arrive at the “best solution,” Burch said.

If the fixed span is the DOT’s bridge-of-choice, it’ll be no surprise to Nancy Deal, the secretary/treasurer of Save Anna Maria Inc.

SAM is a nonprofit that formed in the 1990s to fight the mega-bridge proposals to replace the mainland links to Anna Maria Island.

That fight began with then-Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola railing against a 65-foot bridge and the swath of properties it would destroy on both ends of the Cortez Bridge. The DOT backed off and agreed to rehab the bridge, but turned its focus to a replacement bridge on Manatee Avenue.

Then came SAM and the fight against the DOT.

“They don’t like those bascule bridges. They don’t like them, SAM I am,” said Deal, adding that the DOT fails to consider hurricane evacuation issues in the event the megabridges close due to high winds.

Members of SAM and Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage Inc., including Linda Molto, Plum Taylor and Mary Fulford Green, are planning a public awareness campaign.

At a FISH meeting June 12, Molto told the board about SAM’s interest in joining forces to prepare a handout aimed at stopping a high bridge replacement for Cortez Road.

FISH is a nonprofit representing a 180-person membership with a mission to preserve the commercial fishing industry and traditional maritime history in Cortez.

FISH vice president Jane von Hahmann recommended “getting a few people together from our group and theirs” and “to decide what needs to get printed.”

Molto agreed, volunteering to get the handout “to every house in the village.”

“Most people just don’t realize what the bridge could do to Cortez,” Taylor said.

After the FISH meeting, Green, who helped propel Cortez in 1995 to the list of National Register of Historic Places, spoke against a new DOT bridge.

The district — bounded by Cortez Road to the north, Sarasota Bay on the south, 119th Street to the east to the South 124th Street Court to the west — should prevent negative impacts to those areas, according to Green.

“The people who live to the north have to get concerned,” Green said.

“I’m for the “no-bridge option now,” she added.

The proposed 65-foot-clearance Cortez Bridge would close four streets in Cortez and “we’d lose the Seafood Shack,” Green said.

Holmes Beach holds firm against further giving to center

The hot discussion item at the Holmes Beach City Commission meeting June 13 was on the cutting-room floor when all was said and done in the chamber at city hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

Funding for the Center of Anna Maria Island was listed for discussion under new business until Commissioner Jean Peelen questioned it.

“I don’t understand why it’s back on the agenda when it’s already been decided,” Peelen said.

Peelen’s motion to remove the topic from the agenda carried by a 4-1 vote, with only Commission Chair Judy Titsworth objecting.

The commission voted in April to give $10,000 to the center despite having budgeted $45,000.

“Our $10,000 allocation so far this year should at least be topped up to the budgeted amount,” Mayor Bob Johnson wrote in a report to the commission before the meeting. “The city has an obligation to meet our parks and recreation facilities and services obligations of our comprehensive plan.”

It’s the lowest funding allocation from the city for the center since it began supporting the nonprofit operation in fiscal year 1998-99. In the past eight years, commissioners allocated $22,500-$22,542 for the center.

Titsworth said she placed center funding back on the agenda because questions were raised and more information became available.

The other commissioners disagreed and refused to again discuss center funding.

After the topic was removed from the agenda, center executive director Kristen Lessig and treasurer Jim Froeschle left the meeting, which was attended by about a dozen people. They said they had hoped to speak on behalf of increased funding.

“I’m really disappointed by the hate I see up here,” Froeschle said, while staring at the commissioners before exiting city hall.

“I am ashamed,” Titsworth said. “They deserved to be heard.”

The center offers an array of services for Anna Maria Island and funding provided by Holmes Beach is minuscule, said Lessig.

“They sent a message,” she said. “They aren’t supporting the community center.”

Froeschle said the fact most commissioners weren’t willing to again discuss funding for the center is “despicable.”

“They can’t afford to provide the services we do,” he said in an interview outside city hall. “This will blow back on them.”

The center, 407 Magnolia Ave., Anna Maria, offers fitness, education and cultural programs.

Center fundraising, however, has fallen critically short for the past eight years. The deficit for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which ends June 30, had grown to $240,000 at the end of March.

It is likely the center will lose more than $200,000 when the fiscal year ends June 30, according to Froeschle. The center has lost more than $200,000 annually since the new building opened in 2009, he said.

“I thought the commission was supposed to make decisions for the good of the community,” Froeschle said. “What they just did is kill funding for a major attraction for residents.”