Special council meeting sees compromise, tension

MATT ALGARIN 315-4462 | @DestinlogMatt malgarin@thedestinlog.com
Log Cartoonist Dill Beaty shares his take on the tension from Wednesday night's special city council meeting.

Wednesday night's special city council meeting saw a bit of everything — from typical government proceedings and debate to compromise, accusations and a heated face-to-face conversation.

City leaders gathered to work through proposed changes to Chapter 1 and 13 of the 2020 Comprehensive plan, which has been a hotly contest topic for the better part of the year.

Actual discussions about the comprehensive plan talks were mostly straight forward, as a compromise was reached with various stakeholders prior to Wednesday. And while not everyone got what they wanted, the overarching theme was that it was time to move forward.

"We have worked diligently through this comprehensive plan," said William Hagerman, who is part of The Henderson project in Crystal Beach. "I do not like a lot of things in the comp plan, but I think this may be one of the best resolves the city has to resolve the comp plan updates."

"Given the spirit of compromise and what's best for the city, I think it's a good plan," said Mary Anne Windes, who has proposed a development on the Fishing Fleet parcel along the harbor. "Stick with it and stay the course."

It wasn't until city leaders began to talk about Parcel B and C and whether or not these two particular areas along Holiday Isle could be developed or not that the discussions intensified.

Diane Lynn, a Holiday Isle resident, told the council that maps from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed these particular parcels of land were conservation lands, which also had spoils easement.

"It's a spoils easement to the Corp (Army Corps of Engineers), not the city," City Manager Greg Kisela said. "B and C, right now, are encumbered by that spoils easement. Unless the Corp releases that spoils easement, those properties cannot be developed."

City leaders agreed to further explore the easement issue through an outside counsel, who is also going to explore the easement issue along the city's Capt. Royal Melvin Heritage Park property.

Specifically referring to the Envision Destin process through Canin Associates, Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell presented her colleagues with an eight-page packet of paper containing various email communications and meeting minutes from Kisela, Windes, attorney Dana Matthews and other city staff.

"The whole purpose of hiring a planning and visualization company was to get the public's input — that was our goal from the very beginning," Ramswell said. "And that was being done through the various Envision meetings around town."

"Taxpayers spent $200,000 on this effort," she continued. "We were all clearly behind this, we want a clear path forward to unify a position. Unfortunately, I believe that's not the case."

Ramswell said, based on the information she passed out, the process has been "tainted" from the beginning.

"This process was supposed to be community based with public input," she said, adding the process "was not fair and objective."

"The public input was not valued above private interest," Ramswell said.

Referring to Matthews, Ramswell said she found it "very curious" that Matthews wrote an Aug. 14 email to the city requesting to be copied on all emails and correspondence between city staff, attorneys and third parties as it relates to future land use elements.

"So obviously Mr. Matthews has some sort of directive where he has to be informed of every single item, email or correspondence, regarding what we are doing," she said.

Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley was quick to respond.

"Let me clarify, Mr. Matthews can ask for whatever he wants to, but he gets the same treatment as everybody else does," he said. "As soon as this process started, I have talked to Dana Matthews one time."

"This is taken out of context," Kisela added, saying that he hasn't had any conversations with Matthews since the Envision Destin process began.

Kisela told Ramswell she was making some serious allegations related to the documents she was presenting. Mayor Mel Ponder told Ramswell she was more than welcome to talk about items, but not to make accusations unless she had "facts to back them up."

"You are making serious allegations about the integrity of the process," Kisela said.

Ramswell went on to describe an August 2015 email written to Kisela from Windes, which detailed the impact of the proposed changes on the Fishing Fleet project. The email was forwarded to Canin Associates.

"Were other developers impacts and financials forwarded and considered?" Ramswell said. "All of this was supposed to be open and transparent. I don't think that's transparent."

Kisela said comments from stakeholders were forwarded to Canin, but that doesn't mean they were worked into the proposed comprehensive plan changes. He said the recommendations from Canin were put forth in July and haven't changed since.

"I found this concerning enough to bring it forward for the council to hear," Ramswell said of her documents. "That's what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to sit up here, were supposed to listen to all the facts, all the arguments, then deliberate and contemplate and that's what I'm trying to do here."

"There is a lot of the word 'we,' used in this," she said, referring to the email. "It seems like this is a collaborative effort, and I don't know that others were allowed the same input."

For her part, Windes said when she "speaks of we," she is referring to the city of Destin as a whole.

"I have for 30 years tried everything in my power to do everything I can for the betterment of Destin," Windes said, adding that she doesn't appreciate having her "reputation put on a website (referring to The Destin Clothesline on Facebook)."

Windes specifically asked the council for Ramswell, who said it was not a personal attack, to be removed from her position.

After the meeting had adjourned, Windes and Ramswell had a face-to-face discussion and ultimately had to be separated.

The proposed comprehensive plan was approved 5-2 on its first reading. Councilors Ramswell and Rodney Braden voted against the measure.

The documents were sent to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for review Thursday morning. The review period has a 60-day window. After that, the comprehensive plan will come before city leaders for second reading.