Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Council decides against inquiry into Stewart's Actions. CAPE CORAL BREEZE

His knowledge of proposed Golf Club sale, meetings questioned.

There will be no investigation into what Terry Stewart knew about the aborted sale of The Golf Club to the Lee County School District, or when he knew it. And that decision sent several residents and a few city council members home unhappy from Cape Coral City Hall Monday.

Cape Coral’s city manager, on the hot seat since late June when it was revealed he had been approached months before about a possible sale of the historic site to the district but didn’t inform council, was afforded a degree of relief when only Jim Jeffers, Tim Day and Mickey Rosado voted in favor of a proposed investigation by City Auditor Dona Newman. The time line of events brought forward by Stewart — which he provided to council and later read into the record before a packed house at city hall — served to allay the concerns of the majority.

“To me, the facts are all here,” Mayor Eric Feichthaler said. “I don’t think it warrants an investigation.”

Monty Sink, a resident of Bikini Court, disagreed.

“I’m concerned over the actions of the city manager,” he said. “If his meeting was not illegal, it was in very poor taste.”

Last mont, Stewart revealed that he had been approached by an investment group inquiring about the city's interest in becoming involved in a pending sale of the failing golf course to the district. Stewart said at the time that he honored a request for confidentiality in not reporting back to council about the discussions. Council members were then blindsided by inquiries by both their constituents and the media, and since the issue came forward while they were on summer break, some were out of town and all said they knew nothing about the discussions.

"I knew nothing about discussions which, apparently, had taken place five months previously," Jeffers said.
"I was surprised," Councilmember Dick Stevens said. "I said I have no comment because I didn't know anything about it.
Jeffers,who placed the item on Monday's agenda as a discussion item, said hearing about it first from a reporter disturbed him. He then ran down a list of department heads who knew about the meetings, including Public Works Director Chuck Pavlos, Economic Development Director Mike Jackson and Fire Chief Bill Van Heldon, and shook his head.
He was confidential with that group, but not willing to share it with the elected representitives of Cape Coral," he said.
Stewart said Monday that he received a phone call in January to meet with Janet Watermeier, former executive director of the Lee Economic Development Office, and Jim Moore, a former scholl district official, who were both working for the Gulf Coast Group. The subject of the meeting that followed on Jan. 27th was to inform Stewart that the district was considering purchasing the course for five school sites and to gauge whether the city would be interested in piggy-backing on the the purchase to meet city needs.
"I strongly advised them that it may cause a negative reaction from the neighbors," Stewart said. "I informed them it was a matter for the mayor and coucil to decide."
When Stewart met with the group again March 3, School Superintendent James Browder asked him if the city would be interested in partnering on the purchase. Stewart told council Monday that he reiterated his previous statement that the mayor and council, ultimately, would decide. On April 25, Stewart met with Bob D'Andrea and Gary Fluharty of Banyan Trace, who informed him they wanted to acquire the course for residential development.
"I strongly suggested they meet with the mayor and council," Stewart said.
Stewart then said that, by June, he believed that a meeting between the investment group, Feichthaler and council "was imminent," and that the land use change required to develop the 170-acre property as anything but a golf course would trigger public hearings that would make the public aware.
"At no time were there discussions about price," he said. "we made it crystal clear it was a matter for council's consideration and judgement-no deals were ever made."
To Patricia Ferrara, Stewart's explanation didn't cut it.
"It's ridiculous," the 17-year resident said. "He and his department heads kept a decision secret that involved hundreds of people. I think he should have informed the mayor and council."
Her neighbor, Gina Greco-Fitzgerald, agreed. "It's obvious that the people did want an investigation to clear the air," she said, "It's obvious the council didn't."
Councilmember A.J. Boyd said he voted against the idea because he saw no value in it.
"What am I gonna get out of it rather than hearsay?" he asked after the meeting. "Just people's opinions of what they may or may not have said."
Jeffer said afterward that Stewart's allegiance should have been with City Council and the residents, and not with an investment group.
"You saw a roomful of citizens outraged tonight, not over what occurred over several months, but what their elected officials did to allay their concerns," he said.

For more on this local story by Kevin Duffy, see the July 19 issue of The Breeze.