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OPINION: Be careful what you wish for: A peek behind the scenes in Bonita [Naples Daily News, Fla. :: ]
[January 26, 2014]

OPINION: Be careful what you wish for: A peek behind the scenes in Bonita [Naples Daily News, Fla. :: ]

(Naples Daily News (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 26--Last week's column wondered aloud about when our area will start taking local elections more seriously.

I noted that there are only five candidates of varied qualifications airing some odd issues for two open Bonita Springs City Council seats, with another seat remaining with an uncontested incumbent, and a three-seat Naples City Council ballot fizzling out altogether.

Then came the press release from the high-powered public relations firm for Bonita Springs Utilities, headlined: "Dozen candidates throw hat in ring for BSU board seats." Twice as many candidates than the field for the same number of City Council seats? Why? What makes the BSU jobs so much more enticing? It's not the pay, which is about $11,000 for BSU and $16,500 for council.

It might be the filing fees, which range from $164 to $657 for council, depending on how many public signatures you gather, being zero for BSU.

From there the reasons, as offered by candidates themselves in a flood of response to an email query from me, are a mashup about workload, public scrutiny, spite and civic honor.

As you consider the highlights to come, remember these are the views of citizens seeking public favor to run an annual $35.5 million enterprise with 46,000 water and sewer customers, compared to the Naples operation only one-third that size.

Members use BSU as a stepping-stone to City Council, and a few jump back and forth.

Imagine if Naples or Collier County had independently elected utilities boards.

The Bonita picture is part grass roots, part Mayberry and part crazy.

Kathy Walters, who also is running for City Council, said: "No financial disclosure forms ... Less work ... two meetings per month lasting about 1.5 hours or less ... Low-profile campaign. No yard signs, few ads, no debates, no newspaper interviews. Low-profile service. Emails not published, no public records, no Sunshine Law." Scott Vail said candidates, who are elected by BSU customers on mail-in ballots, with single-metered condos getting a single vote, "are hardly vetted or afforded contact with the community via a public forum, which is attractive to those who may not be comfortable in that setting (not me).

"I want to show that you can work and raise a family while still making an impact in your community," he said adding: "City Council will remain on my radar as a future goal ... ." Frank W. Liles Jr., a Bonita native and incumbent since 1986 who has run for City Council, said of the crowded field: "Some of them, especially those who have never attended a board meeting, don't realize what the job entails and how complicated some of the issues are.

"I volunteer because I love this town." John Mathes, a 24-year BSU board member, said: "My motivation is to continue to provide our members with the best quality water and to offer reliable sewer service ... BSU has become regarded as one of the best utilities in the state, and my plan is to do everything I can to keep it that way." Pat McCourt, a former City Council member, has this email slogan: "It's not about how smart you are, how right you are or how moral you are; it's about winning elections!" He said he is driven by growth. BSU plans to sell land for development in the middle of the density reduction/groundwater recharge area, he said, which would compromise water supply and quality.

"Most residents came to Bonita Springs because we longed for the small-town charm offered here," said McCourt. "We specifically avoided the east coast of Florida because of its high density." How does the political veteran plan to get out his message? "I'd rather not let my competition know what I am doing," he said.

Richard Ferreira, another former member of City Council, which "requires a hard skin and constant attention," said all of the above -- less expense, financial disclosure, media scrutiny -- are true for BSU.

For Richard Lundberg, with a Naples firm, Forge Engineering, it's like this: "Third time running, never elected." "Personally I have thought about council a few times, but wasn't quite sure I was ready to commit," he said. "I thought maybe getting my feet wet a bit would finally help me decide." Costs? "The act of asking for money from strangers has never felt 'normal.'" Financial disclosure? "I am somewhat private and don't particularly care to discuss my finances with the masses." Bonita Mayor Ben Nelson, who followed in his late father's footsteps on BSU, said public expectation of performance and public scrutiny are low to nonexistent.

The BSU workload, he said, is "way less," and "once you are an incumbent it is hard to be defeated.

"Wait a minute -- why did I give up that job to be a councilperson/mayor?" On the other hand, civic interest runs so high that once my email query got beyond the candidates, Ron Pure of the Bonita Taxpayers Action Group weighed in: "BSU regular public meetings are a joke and a half. At end of the agenda the president announces the peanut gallery must leave the premises so BSU board of directors can hold their 'round-table' discussion of company matters ... ." Pure said most members are "on the cusp of being comatose." Ed FitzGerald, a candidate who also serves on the Bonita fire district board, said: "BSU director is the best-paying sinecure that one might ever find. Nine directors and no duty or responsibility; they sit at twice-a-month meetings without ever saying a word. If it were not for (executive director) Fred Partin providing them with scripted materials, you might think they had died in their seats.

"No duties, no public awareness, anonymity, no public scrutiny. Just think about directors sitting on the board for 25 years and making no contribution other than maintaining silence." Then again we have Paul J. Attwood, on the BSU board since 2001: "I ran for the board because of my geological expertise as an environmental consultant and oil and gas development geologist in Louisiana.

"I hope the reason we have so many candidates is that they all feel they have something to offer, which is how I felt." His hope seems thicker than water? n n n Is it a defection from the U.S. Rep. Trey Radel camp? Peter Simmons, a Bonita Springs City Council member who backed Radel two years ago, is helping distribute emails about a new GOP candidate in the U.S. House District 19 race, Curt Clawson.

So what's up? "Curt has tremendous experience as a CEO, college basketball standout and leader on clean water issues in Bonita Springs," Simmons said. "I think having a congressman from Bonita Springs would be great for the community.

"I have not yet issued a formal endorsement but I am helping to make some introductions for people who don't yet know him." ___ (c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.) Visit the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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