- Adam Botana
- Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue District
- Cecil Pendergrass
- elected mayor
- Fort Myers Beach Fire District
- Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District
- Fort Myers Beach Mosquito District
- Iona Fire and Rescue District
- Jonathan Martin
- Lee County Mosquito Control District
- Mike Giallombardo
- Mike Greenwell
- Ray Dandelli
Lee County lawmakers advanced a bill that could lead to merging local mosquito districts. But controversial topics like combining fire districts and moving to an elected county Mayor were put off for another day.
Rep. Mike Giallombardo, a Cape Coral Republican pushing for referenda on single-member voting and a strong Mayor, agreed to scheduling workshops with county officials. He wants to meet with the Lee County Charter Review Commission, which shot down proposals on both issues before, but acknowledged time constraints won’t allow local bills to advance quickly.
“This bill won’t be going through this Session,” he said at a Lee County Legislative Delegation meeting early Thursday.
But he stressed a desire to put the matter on the ballot in the near future. “It‘s our duty to put this in front of them,” he said.
Additionally, Rep. Adam Botana, a Bonita Springs Republican, pulled a local bill on merging the Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach fire and rescue districts. That bill would also have put the matter to a ballot referendum, but Botana said conversations are underway between the Fort Myers Beach district and a similar one in Iona to study potential consolidation.
Botana maintained a need to reduce government and cut down the number of independent districts in Lee County.
“This needs to happen,” he said. “Just for instance, Broward County has just under 1.9 million constituents. We have just under 900,000. We have the same number of fire districts.”
But the delegation did advance another bill, one calling for a referendum to merge the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District into the Lee County Mosquito Control District.
That drew objection from leaders of the Fort Myers Beach agency, who said a merger would result in higher taxes and poorer service for residents of that community.
“Our taxes are less than one half of what Lee County Mosquito Control charges,” said JoAnn Semmer, chair of the Fort Myers Beach district. “We have the lowest mosquito control tax district millage in the entire state of Florida.”
Critics also argued if a referendum is held, it should be only for those voting in the smaller district, not the entire county.
The most contentious discussion surrounded Giallombardo’s proposals to remake county government.
He drafted a bill that would convert the electoral make-up of the County Commission from five commissioners elected countywide to a board with five district-elected commissioners and two at-large members.
A separate bill would shift from having a County Administrator reporting to the Commission to a strong Mayor elected countywide. Like the change to an elected superintendent approved by Lee County last year, Giallombardo said his proposal would provide checks and balances, but would also allow an executive who can act swiftly in cases of emergency.
The need for an elected executive struck him during Hurricane Ian last fall, when County Commissioners working hard at recovery could not make any promises to constituents on assistance, nor could the administrator, until the board could come together and collaborate.
“They didn’t have enough power to produce,” he said.
Both bills called for county referenda to be put before voters next year for approval.
But the issues drew strong objections from sitting Lee County Commissioners Mike Greenwell, Cecil Pendergrass and Ray Sandelli, who all spoke against the measures.
Pendergrass said there are three ways the charter can be changed, and a legislative bill isn’t one of them. He said if Giallombardo wants to see the changes, he should present a proposal to the County Commission, bring the issue to the Charter Review Commission or lead a citizen petition to put the matter on the ballot.
Of note, the Charter Review Commission heard both issues this year and voted down proposals 11-2.
At one point, there was a tense exchange between Pendergrass and Giallombardo, with the lawmaker questioning why commissioners appointed Charter Review Commissioners who did not live in the districts they represent.
The Lee County Commission approved a resolution ahead of the delegation meeting opposing both bills. Giallombardo pressed on why the board would be opposed to a vote taking place.
“You don’t want the people to decide how their government is structured,” Giallombardo said.
“Well, they did that in 1996 when they approved our current charter form of government,” Pendergrass responded.
Pendergrass said a switch to a Mayor and an expanded commission would result in a $3 million added county expense.
Sen. Jonathan Martin, a Fort Myers Republican, asked if that could be offset by reducing County Commissioner salaries to the same as state lawmakers; Martin earns under $30,000 as a state Senator while Pendergrass earns $104,000 as a County Commissioner. Pendergrass said salaries are set by the Legislature but he’d be fine with any decision made.