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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Welch quits in Bradenton Beach amidst controversy

The latest casualty in the "no-growth" crusade in Bradenton Beach has been incurred - Building Official Bob Welch tendered his resignation Friday, effective Jan. 2.

Actions by public officials have made it impossible for me to continue working for the city," Welch wrote in a letter to Mayor John Chappie.

"Recent actions by various commissioners are obviously in retaliation against me," Welch continued in his Dec. 11 letter. A recent letter from [City Commissioner Lisa Marie] Phillips to the various members of the commission which contained significant and material inaccuracies about me is only the tip of the iceberg. Now, Vice Mayor [Anna] O'Brien is making the witch hunt official by demanding my presence at the Dec. 18 meeting of the commission.

The agenda for the Dec. 18 meeting makes it clear that retribution, not good government, is the primary goal," Welch continued. Matters are to be reviewed on that day that cannot even legally be heard by the commission. Such considerations seem to be of no moment to those involved. These actions and the obvious goal of those in charge to discredit me render my continued employment with the city impossible."

When asked about his letter and comments, Welch told The Islander, My resignation letter pretty much says it all. Outrageous actions don't surprise me anymore. It's probably too much to expect that I be allowed to leave in a normal fashion with dignity."

Welch began his tenure with the city in June 2002. He is the fourth building official the city has had in the past eight years.

A barrage of letters have been pouring into city hall from Welch, Phillips, Welch's attorney David Wilcox, and Holmes Beach Mayor Carol Whitmore regarding the Bradenton Beach building department.

Commissioner Phillips' Dec. 5 memo to Mayor Chappie outlined what she called concerns about Building Official Bob Welch."

I was alarmed and dismayed to hear citizens relating possible abuse of power and harassment on the part of our building official," she wrote. I was particularly mortified to find that Mr. Welch was leveling absurd charges against Mr. Ernest Clay, an esteemed citizen and volunteer member of our planning and zoning committee. Mr. Welch chose to spin a year-old issue into a public attack on Mr. Clay's credibility. This in inexcusable. For what reason could he possibly be trying to discredit this board member? With Mr. Welch's workload, I find it suspicious that his time is not better spent. As I stated in the meeting, his actions reek of a 'witch hunt.'"

At the Dec. 4 city commission meeting, Clay said that he was a certified architect in Illinois. He said a three-line memo" he wrote a year ago indicated that he was a registered architect in Florida. It was a technical violation regarding addresses," Clay said, and I paid a fine for it."

Phillips continued by stating that a very small amount of research would have revealed Mr. Clay's credentials, were there reason for questioning them, and the information was at city hall. This is embarrassing to the city.

I once witnessed an especially nasty verbal diatribe by Bob Welch conducted in a public meeting addressed to Mr. Clay. It was, in my opinion, a childish and insulting way to behave. I would like to see a written reprimand for these actions in Mr. Welch's employment file, and I think that Mr. Welch should personally be more professional when dealing with the public. As an employee of the city, he should be counseled to do so."

Welch's response
Attorney David Wilcox has been retained by Welch to represent him during the controversy.

I have reviewed a variety of materials and discussed the actions of many public officials in Bradenton Beach at length with Bob Welch," Wilcox wrote in a letter to Mayor Chappie dated Dec. 12.

It seems clear that the kangaroo court is in session on Bradenton Beach. Some have even described it as a war against Mr. Welch. I can assure you that retaliation against Mr. Welch by any or all of the commissioners for his exercise of his lawful duties and rights will be met with a vigorous response."

Regarding Thursday's city commission meeting, Wilcox said I have no intention of having it turn into a witch hunt or opportunity to retaliate against him. I will be there and a court reporter will also be present to ensure that each individual gets to live with what they choose to say at the meeting."

Wilcox also had comments to make regarding Phillips letter. In a letter to her, also dated Dec. 12, he said I must admit that I was alarmed and dismayed at your total disregard for the impact your spurious allegations have on a career professional that works for your city.

I do know that the State of Florida has found probable cause that [Clay] is in violation of the state' license laws for architects," Wilcox continued. Mr. Clay has repeatedly taken the position that he has special expertise in planning and zoning matters because he is a licensed architect in Florida. He's not. Mr. Welch's comments about Mr. Clay's reputed professional credentials were accurate. It seems clear that your demands for a written reprimand are based solely on your unsubstantiated 'suspicious' and incorrect information or assumptions on your part. Such hardly justifies the harsh treatment you demand.

"Personally, I can't help but be suspicious of your motives," Wilcox concluded. I am suspicious that you may be attempting to hide or cover up questionable activities or actions by commissioners. Your letter-memo appears to be an excuse for the commission to do to Mr. Welch in one manner what it otherwise is prevented from doing because the law gets in the way. I do not doubt that you have the ability to use the city's resources to trump up allegations against Mr. Welch. However, you can be assured that each and every such allegation will be thoroughly investigated for accuracy and truthfulness and the results of the actions will be publicly disclosed."

Holmes Beach mayor enters the fray
All three Island cities have interlocal agreements to aid one another in building official matters. Holmes Beach building officials handled development issues in Anna Maria City for 14 months while that city struggled with hiring a building official. Now it appears that Holmes Beach will offer a similar service to Bradenton Beach.

Holmes Beach Mayor Whitmore in yet another letter to Mayor Chappie said that Holmes Beach will be glad to assist you until your hire a replacement" for Welch.

"I have been fortunate to keep my staff for many years," Whitmore said. I have three employees that can do inspections and two that are building officials. I will ask the City of Bradenton Beach to pay for our services until you find a replacement.

My only other stipulation is that these three employees are the City of Holmes Beach's and will report to me. If staff is working on issues for your city, they will report to you only. They will not be reprimanded by anyone but me after conferring with you."

Whitmore suggested that a backup liaison in Bradenton Beach be City Commissioner Peter Barreda.

My only other issue is someone, possibly a developer, may pull a fast one and we may need to seek legal opinion regarding your land development code with your legal counsel. Is that person Chuck Webb? [Webb, a former Anna Maria city commissioner, has been retained by Bradenton Beach in a transitional mode after the city fired longtime city attorney Alan Prather Nov. 21.] It is very important to have an attorney to confer with to make sure things are done right. As in Anna Maria, we would never call any of your consultants without your permission."

Next job for Welch?
Although Welch's name has been mentioned as an applicant for the top building official spot in Naples, Welch told The Islander he would never take that job."

According to the Dec. 14 edition of the Naples Daily News, The building official spot became vacant after former Building Official Bill Overstreet resigned. Overstreet was suspended with pay from his $80,000-a-year job after a city investigation into the building department revealed several allegations against Overstreet, including violating flood rules established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, accepting fishing trips on company time from Boran Craig Barber Engel Construction Co. Inc. and instructing building department employees to give favors to builders."

Who's next?
At the first meeting of the newly elected city commission in Bradenton Beach Nov. 21, commissioners agreed to terminate the employment of City Attorney Prather and city planning consultant Bill Brisson. The commission also relieved Pete Milazzo and Susan Kehne from their duties on the city's planning and zoning board and placed all four city department heads - Police Chief Sam Speciale, Public Works Director Dottie Poindexter, Welch, and City Clerk Pat Grizzle - on a 90-day probation pending performance evaluations.

Commissioners have retained Webb to handle transfer of records from Prather's office to city hall at $125 per hour. Interviews with attorney applicants were held last week, with no decisions reached for new legal counsel for the city, although some commissioners have indicated that a team" approach may be best, with separate attorneys handling municipal law, labor matters, growth management issues and other legal issues as they arise.

What's next?
Thursday's Bradenton Beach commission meeting should be an interesting one. Mayor Chappie will not be in attendence; he underwent surgery Tuesday, and Vice Mayor O'Brien will chair the meeting.

The agenda items that Welch, O'Brien and Phillips are apparently at odds over include several status reports" on developments or projects currently either under construction or nearly completed: the Capri and Sandcastle condominium projects just south of Bridge Street west of Gulf Drive, and the Hibiscus condo at Bay Drive South. There is also a status report due on the agenda for Milazzo's property at Third Street South and Gulf Drive.