Council member calls for probe into Golf Club talks
A Cape Coral city councilman said Friday he will call for an internal investigation next week into the actions of the city manager regarding discussions over the city’s interest in purchasing a privately owned golf course.
City Councilman Jim Jeffers said he will request that City Auditor Dona Newman look into what staff, specifically City Manager Terry Stewart, knew about the proposed purchase by the Lee County School District of The Golf Club, a 175-acre property that the district wanted to use for up to five schools.
Following public outcry, Superintendent James Browder withdrew the a letter of intent he signed for the $26 million deal June 28.
Jeffers wants to know when Stewart and city staff knew that the owners of The Golf Club were looking to sell their holding and how they came to know of it; when he found out about the district’s pending purchase and what details, such as price and interested parties, Stewart was aware of; the nature of the discussions between Stewart and his staff regarding the property owners’ desire to sell and the district’s desire to buy; and any analysis that may have been done to determine whether it would be feasible for the city to purchase the property.
Newman’s probe would be conducted with the support of the City Attorney’s office, Jeffers said. And it would mirror the activities of the city’s Human Resources department when they evaluate the job performance of city employees.
Jeffers, who has placed the matter on Monday’s council agenda as a discussion item, said he brought it forward because Stewart revealed last month that he met in March with a development group representing the district.
At issue is why Stewart didn’t inform council about the discussions.
“It’s been reported that an offer was made and the city manager declined any interest on the part of the city,” Jeffers said. “If it did occur, that certainly is a usurpation of authority.”
Jeffers said he was concerned about Stewart not informing council about the discussions and that he wants to make sure the body is informed in the future.
“This is intended to get at the facts and to determine what action needs to be taken,” he said.
Councilmember Day said he fully supports Jeffers, and would like Newman to interview each councilmember individually to find out what, if anything, they knew about the discussions. Transcripts of the interviews would then be compiled into a package and distributed to everyone on the board.
"I don't want (the auditor) to do a finding and then tell us what we should do," Day said.
Day said the timing of Monday's discussion is critical to put Stewart on notice that council might not want to renew his contract, due discussion next spring. Council is obligated to inform him six months prior or his contract will automatically roll-over.
"Council needs to take a good , hard look at the golf course and any other issues pertinent to the city manager's job to decide whether or not you extend the contract," he said.
Stewart, Day continued, should welcome an investigation.
"He should welcome it with open arms because he gets a chance to clear the air and explain what went on," he said. "Investigations don't necessarily mean criminal activity, or even wrongdoing."
Mayor Eric Feichthaler said that "might have been a good idea" for Stewart to have informed council of the discussions since there was the potential that the city might have wanted to purchase the land. Feichthaler said it was his understanding that the purpose of the meeting was to determine whether the city would be willing to purchase a portion of the land for city needs such as police or fire stations if the sale with the school district went through.
Feichthaler said Stewart simply honored a request for confidentiality.
"In light of what's happened, Mr. Stewart should have told them he's obligated to report major events to the council," he said.
Councilmember Dolores Bertolini said she met in private with Stewart shortly after the meeting became public knowledge. Many things were explained, she said.
"I'm comfortable with his explaination, it may have been an error in judgement," she said. "that's a determination that eight people will have to make Monday."
For more on this local story by Kevin Duffy, see the July 16 issue of The Breeze.