An Open Response to Vice-Mayor Battista

by Natalie Kahler, Brooksville Main Street Executive Director

At the end of Monday night's Council meeting, Mr. Battista shared his thoughts on the Main Street District and program. He invited us to either attend a meeting to address his ideas or do it another way. I certainly hope to be able to address Council in person and would love to be put on the agenda in July or August, but didn't want to leave that big of a gap in time before answering him so decided to write this response.

This will read more personal than theoretical because my relationship with Butch is personal. We both ran for City Council and took office in 2014 and weathered many difficult decisions together. We voted the same way more often than not, and had similar goals for the city we wanted to see achieved in our term. I considered him a mentor in that role because of his legal background in government and carefully watched how he did our job. I participated with his wife for many years in a Bible study when our now adult kids were babies and our kids played HYL soccer together. Our personalities meant I was often taking the lead in controversial decisions, but I think Butch was happy for me to take the heat and I didn't mind as long as the right stuff happened in the end.

We both voted to bring the Main Street program to Brooksville and to contributing funding for its kickoff. So when I transitioned to ED of the program and he began talking about the district not being viable as a retail/restaurant corridor, I was surprised. Two years later and I still get surprised when he speaks that way so I'm grateful for the chance to address his perceptions with my own. These quotes in bold are summaries of his issues; you can see his entire speech here or watch this part where he specifically discusses Main Street:

  1. "There are no for sale or for rent signs in the Main Street district" There may not be signs, but there are vacancies and I refer people weekly to those building owners. Most of our property owners choose to get renters in other ways than "for rent" signs. Part of my job is to track those vacancies and report them to the State quarterly. Most of the current available spaces are larger ones that are not appealing to retail, but we do have several. We also have a vacant professional office currently being considered for a restaurant. We also have loads of second floor vacancies that I have been sending interested parties to view. And we have some really smart entrepreneurs who are figuring out how to use those spaces and owners willing to invest in the plan. In the future I believe those will be places our professional services will be most interested in occupying.
  2. "Brooksville Main Street doesn't want professional businesses in their commercial node...They want a different downtown than exists." We LOVE our lawyers, accountants, hair dressers and spa owners. A loss of our spa or yoga studio would be terrible. Professional service businesses greatly contribute to the viability of the restaurants and retail. They contribute financially to our events as sponsors in ways most other businesses aren't able. They provide stability to our property owners and thus incentivize them to renovate buildings. When the last consultants came in 2018 and people complained about the number of attorneys, the consultants disagreed and said they'd be key in our success. I wasn't sure I agreed at the time, but can say with certainty now that they were right.
  3. "The Main Street area is already a viable node" I agree with this. The downtown has become way more utilized in the last ten years and that is exciting. We don't want anyone who is here to leave. We want to expand what is here while making the most of some of our underutilized spaces. There are several ways we are working on this - one is that we are working with several property owners on the possibility of creating micro-retail business spaces that will create a bridge between being a vendor and having a large storefront. There are also empty lots that we are working on with developers to create more retail/restaurant spaces. And as all those spots fill, property owners will have reasons to make their second floors usable space. Yes, I keep mentioning the second floors. They are important. Take a trip to Ocala and see how vibrant their downtown is after they repurposed their previously empty upper floors. Those residential spots are the hottest ticket in town, renting per square foot for as much as our Southern Hills homes. In short, we have creative people with creative ideas that are working on ways to accommodate all the new businesses (and there are many) that are interested in planting roots in Brooksville as a result of being shown just how viable it is.
  4. "Main Street is a merchant's association" Merchants want to be downtown, especially along the Florida Mermaid Trail. That's usually the first thing they request when asking me what spaces are available. And yes, we do events to help generate traffic for them. But we aren't merchants and we aren't the boss of them. Some of them serve on our committees thankfully and we love their wisdom. But we are an economic development, beautification, and marketing nonprofit that focuses on placemaking. We develop a sense of home that makes people want to come and stay and play. We are glad to collaborate with the Chamber, but we are not just a duplication of them. We each serve our purpose and do it better when we both exist.
  5. "Artist renderings are beyond reality" I agree with Butch. I'm not a fan of artist renderings being done for people who don't own the buildings. One of the renderings put a beautiful fountain in the street in front of the Courthouse and it only makes me sad every time I think of it and the unlikelihood of getting it anytime soon. I have never brought a single random rendering to Council. Under my tenure, we have presented renderings to building owners for their own buildings. Several of them have implemented those changes. If you go throughout the district, you will find at least a dozen buildings who we have helped with design advice at their request. I'm a practical person who wants practical results and this has been our strategy.
  6. "The forty people they have on all these committees, I think they're going nowhere." This is a disturbing statement that I find needs immediate correction. Our committee members have provided free professional (architectural, legal, engineering, contracting, designing) advice to district businesses, organized the mobile mural projects, planned and hosted hundreds of free events, expanded our historical research, created popular (walking) tours to honor amazing citizens whose accomplishments had been previously overlooked, and will soon facilitate our first historic renovation. They have NOT wasted their time. They have greatly contributed to making Brooksville a better version of itself and I am immensely grateful for their trust in us and their advocacy for us. They may not be going where Butch wants them to, but I fully reject that there is not value in their contributions. The efforts of Main Street volunteers can be seen in realtors bragging about Brooksville being a Main Street community in their listings, the number of people that suggest that residents follow the Brooksville Main Street page to know what fun things are going on in social media, and the numerous businesses that contact the Main Street office wanting to know where they can find space to open, relocate, or expand their businesses in downtown Brooksville.

I think those are all the issues Butch wanted addressed. Let me know at natalie@welovebvl.org if I forgot anything and I'll happily add it.

I do want to address two items from a prior meeting that were discussed again by Councilman David Bailey and the Vice-Mayor Monday night. David asked Butch if it was true that Butch said the downtown was dead and no one wanted to walk it. Butch said that wasn't true and is reflective of the lies of social media (a reference to an old Voice blog). While Butch may not have used the exact verbiage "the city is dead" he did say at the City Council meeting on May 18, 2020:

  1. “not enough inventory [buildings] to make this thing kick off and stay going under its own steam” (starts at 2:01:20)
  2. “people see the town but I don’t think they come back” (starts at 2:02:30)
  3. “there is no draw here” (2:02:57)
  4. "we advertise more than we deliver...we're selling a product we don't really have in many cases"(2:03:12)
  5. "I don't see the draw to bring people" (2:04:51)
  6. "too many hills,” (2:04:58)
  7. “too dispersed, (2:05:01)
  8. ”an awful lot of residences intermixed,” (2:05:02)

So he didn't use the word "dead" but you can see how people made that the logical conclusion of his words. I'd just like to address two of those in particular:

"People come for these events but they don't come back" Talk to our businesses and you won't say that anymore. BMS events help get people in the door the first time, then the merchant's products create return customers. John at Country Depot and Bob at Easy Street Home Decor are masters at this data because they ask everyone who comes through their door where they came from and why. Go visit these men in their store and you'll get all the convincing you need. Visitors LOVE coming back.

"People don't want to walk the hills" The over 10,000 people that walked the Florida Mermaid Trail in 2020 would disagree with Butch. I've walked that route more times than I can count and it's always a challenge for this 49 year old body. But it is part of our charm. No one expects to come to Florida and hike up and down hills multiple times in a 2.2 mile route. Yet here we are! Now I will agree that it is challenging for those with disabilities. When I broke my hip last year and had to use a wheelchair and then a scooter, I admit I hit some stuff while gunning my scooter to get over a steep ledge. Addressing ADA walkability is still in the city's future. But the pandemic has accelerated people's yearning for outdoor activity and our arduous terrain is a perfect fit for those seekers. And it's a GREAT way to wear out your kids, something I was always searching out when my four were littles!

I am grateful for the good things Butch has done to help our city and am hopeful these answers will help him believe a little more in what we are accomplishing. Step by step. Day by day. Economic Development is a long term process and I look forward to being part of it for a long time to come. Hopefully with Butch as a partner.

Natalie

Monday night's (June 21, 2021) entire meeting can be seen here

New Tracks and a New Beginning

Yesterday was a day like all days; only we were there and watched it unfold before us. We could see the demise of the train coming. After huffing through mountains high and valleys low, straining and failing on many levels, it arrived and blew its whistle one last time still claiming all was right when it wasn’t.

Like others before, the train we had hoped would carry us forward with wisdom and purpose for our town did not. It took our little town elsewhere, where our efforts to thrive and fair well our families and businesses seemed stymied and denied for no reason.

There will be new tracks now and, once again, a new beginning, a new chance to set a more certain future for our town. This time we will take more certain care not to let the old rail bed guide our newly determined city down another path to where the word progress cannot be spoken and economic growth is not understood.


There will be new destinations and ways to get there fraught not with the unneeded and discouraging detours and delays purposely laid that we have suffered. We must be determined about this. We will maintain control of our next train. And we will do that by careful choice of our new engineer with clear and certain direction as to where we want to go and when we want to get there. 

We will not be denied ever again by misguided politics or patronage of a view of failure, or any such non-productive distractions that only serve to deny our town the more promising future it can most certainly achieve and deserves.

We were there when the train arrived and blew its last whistle. Let us move forward this day with renewed energy and be ever mindful of how far we can go working together for the same dreams and how exciting it will be.

Fluid Facts About the Water Tower Scandal

There are so many puns to be made in this water tower story, you have to forgive me for plugging one into the headline.

There is no predicting the outcome of Monday night's City Council meeting. Maybe City Manager Mark Kutney will resign. Maybe City Council will terminate him. Maybe Council will link arms with him and Kutney will still be City Manager on Tuesday.

But one thing is sure: Mr. Kutney has lost the public's trust. He has been caught in quite a few lies in the two weeks since the story on the accidental sale of the water tower broke.

  1. He told the Times reporter he dismissed an employee for the mistake. After the story ran and he realized a lawsuit was likely, he told the reporter the employee resigned.
  2. He told the Times the mistake wasn't a big deal and the public reaction was sour grapes. He also told them it was such a big mistake that he dismissed an employee for making it.
  3. He told one TV reporter the former employee was to blame. He told another reporter it was the Community Development Department's fault. He told another it was the Title Company's fault.
  4. The Times was told the employee left on June 7 because of the water tower debacle, but in a Hernando Sun article, the city says they didn't even know about the water tower sale until June 11.
  5. The Voice blog exposing the story came out on June 8. Hundreds read it, dozens posted about it, and constituents called their council members to complain about it, but the city staff didn't know until three days later when the Times picked up the story? That seems unlikely.
  6. Council was told when they asked how much parking was being sold that it wasn't much. Turned out that wasn't true. It was most of the spots. So then Mr. Kutney told a reporter it didn't matter because he was negotiating with the county for parking at the Health Department (which incidentally is not anywhere near the tower).
  7. We still don't know the truth about the City Attorney's role in the sale. We've been told she signed off on it, then told she wasn't even at the closing when the mistake was made.

Are all these contradictory stories evidence of serial dishonesty or gross incompetence? And does that matter? So far City Manager Kutney has blamed just about everyone else (even the public) for this debacle. We are not fooled and we are offended by the arrogance of the attempt. A Google search will tell you he lost his last management job for being dishonest. I guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks. He has spread lies, division, and suspicion long enough and we now see it for what it is, an attempt to create fighting amongst ourselves so we forget about the man causing it.

Those of us who take pride in our connection to Brooksville and long for its success are united in one desire, a City government we can trust. Here's to believing the next 24 hours will bring it.

Maybe It Is Our Fault

Victim-blaming is a diversionary tactic used by those unwilling to take ownership of their behavior. So when I saw that in the Tampa Bay Times article on the accidental sale of the city's water supply, Brooksville City Manager Mark Kutney said the community uproar on the issue was just "sour grapes," I wasn't surprised. It's not the first time Mr. Kutney has been willing to blame innocent staff, residents, business owners, or community partners for his bad behavior.

But I've been thinking.

Maybe Mr. Kutney is right.

I mean, not about the water tower. We have a right to be mad that our government is taking so casually the fact they put in private hands a utility that protects public safety. Any community who wouldn't be mad about that probably doesn't deserve to be a representative republic. But isn't that the point?

We are a representative republic. And we put this city government in place. We elected a City Council that has supported Mr. Kutney's brand of "leadership." We had other options. In 2018, Mayor Brayton defeated former Mayor Frankie Burnett by a narrow margin (1478-1258). That's a 220 vote that completely transformed our city. Councilmembers Erhard and Battista were backing Brayton, so it wasn't like we didn't know what that meant. And Mayor Burnett had already proven himself to be a level-headed council member who governed with informed decisions and grace. As 2015 Mayor, he had mentored four brand new Council members (Butch Battista, Betty Erhard, Natalie Kahler, and Bill Kemerer). Instead of mocking them from the Dias for not knowing the ins and outs of the job (like Mayor Brayton has been doing to Bell and Bailey), Mayor Burnett instructed, encouraged, guided, and made everyone feel a part of the team. He didn't allow Council to be ugly towards each other or the public (and would sometimes put on his preacher hat on the subject of respect for others when he thought Council needed it). Battista and Erhard didn't like him because he submitted a Sunshine Law violation form against them (and Kahler and Joe Bernardini) for accusations later disproven. But I think that only showed how committed Burnett was to preserving the integrity of the Council position. It was Erhard and Battista's choice to take it personally and hold a grudge.

But we picked Brayton over Burnett. Let's be adults and own our crap. We did it. And we let Erhard and Battista get back into office that year unopposed. And here we are. Elections have consequences. The 2018 election consequences put the Brayton-Erhard-Battista block in power, resulting in:

The good news is there are quite a few people planning to run for City Council in 2022 and none that I've spoken to want Mr. Kutney's bureaucratic red tape, high tax kind of leadership. And City voters are paying attention and realize to a new level how important local elections are. This is a big improvement from a couple years ago when the Supervisor of Elections office accidentally gave City voters the wrong ballots and over 25 people voted before someone realized City Council candidates weren't on the ballot. There's no way that could ever happen in 2022.

So maybe Mr. Kutney is right and the people are somewhat to blame. For our past. Now we're responsible for our future and we know it. And from what I've seen the last few months; we're totally up to the task. We city voters seem to universally know what we want.

What do we want?

We want responsive, transparent, competent government that likes citizen involvement. And we'll get it. Hopefully on Monday, June 21 at the next City Council meeting. Surely all five Council members see a change is needed towards competent leadership. But if not, change will definitely come after the last ballot has been cast in 2022.

Here's hoping we don't have to wait that long.

P.S. Although the City Manager and Mayor keep downplaying the accidental sale of the water tower, they appear to be the only ones. The story has been picked up by AP News, USA Today, NPR, The Hill, The New York Daily News, Babylon Bee's real news division Not the Bee, Not the Onion "For true stories that are so mind-blowingly ridiculous that you could have sworn they were from The Onion," and all the local TV stations. New stories continue to run even today. Why? Because contrary to Brayton and Kutney's opinion, this was an epic failure by local government. And it's super funny for anyone who doesn't have to admit this is their actual government.

There Are A Lot Worse Things than Selling a Water Tower

"You don't know what you don't know. So never stop educating yourself," my grandpa used to opine during my childhood. I can still hear his Southern drawl as it dragged out the words.

That was never more true than yesterday when I got an education from the Tampa Bay Times.  https://www.tampabay.com/news/florida/2021/06/11/city-of-brooksville-accidentally-sells-its-water-tower/

So what did I learn?

1.  Bad government is offended at being exposed

Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the green curtain to reveal the all-powerful wizard is in reality a little man pulling the levers?  Once caught, the little man says "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." That's a great paraphrase for both Mayor Brayton and City Manager Kutney's comments to the Times.

The community uproar is simply "a lot of sour grapes" - City Manager Kutney

"We're all good." - Mayor Brayton

I guess Brooksvillians are unusually sensitive about their government making tiny mistakes like selling water towers. 

And Mayor Brayton said they "just need to be darn sure that it doesn't happen again." What more can people want?  Why all the fuss?  Put the curtain back please and move along.

2.  Bad leadership is dangerous when exposed

Mr. Kutney apparently doesn't subscribe to "the buck stops here."  Instead of owning his responsibility for selling a public utility and putting an entire city at serious risk, he blamed a staff member.  I know a lot of city employees.  They're good people.  They love their city and work hard at their jobs despite being way underpaid.  So it saddens me to think of them reading the Times article and realizing their boss is willing to throw them under the bus to save his own ego.  Chris Anderson wasn't "dismissed" by Mr. Kutney.  He resigned.  And not because of the water tower debacle.  Mr. Anderson was well known to be Mr. Kutney's golden boy. So if Kutney will flip on him, the staff has to know he'll flip on any of them.  No one is safe.

Mayor Brayton's position is more confusing. I've known him more than half my life and have paid mild attention to his career since he started in government 40 or so years ago.  Until recently, I certainly believed he always wanted to do the right thing.  He's a veteran and a family man who is lucky to have grandkids and great grandkids around.  If you see him in public, it's usually with a grandkid in tow. So why is he willing to risk his entire career in government to protect bad governance?  Why ruin your reputation for a City Manager who isn't invested in the community and whose days are obviously numbered?

3. Bad mistakes are not as dangerous as bad coverup attempts

The accidental sale of the water tower reads like a story from the Onion. But this Times article is anything but funny.  By downplaying what happened and lying about a staff member, our city leadership has proven a willingness to risk lawsuits and worse to preserve their power. People this obsessed with power cannot be trusted and anyone who cares about our city should be deeply concerned. It's not just City employees that need to worry.

4.  Good people will win in the end

I've spoken to dozens of people about the water tower sale this week, and none of them would have given back the tower the way the Reads did.  Some people said they'd have demanded marketing rights to the tower, others said they'd have sold it back for a hearty profit, and some said they'd have kept it.  Pretty much everyone said their negotiations would have included a demand for Kutney's dismissal.

The Reads are the heroes of this story and everyone owes them an immense debt of gratitude. Maybe they should be awarded Great Brooksvillian for 2022.  A case can darn sure be made.

In the meantime, City taxpayers continue to foot the bill for these mistakes and most likely, the lawsuits to come as a result of them.  Here's hoping the good people winning happens sooner than later.

A City of Brooksville voter created this countdown that's been circulating for a few weeks:

It shows the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the new City Council takes office in December 2022.

Here's hoping it doesn't take that long.

The City that Sold Itself

You probably grew up on Aesop's Fables like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing.  But have you heard of The City That Sold Itself?  It's a lesser known tale with a too familiar moral.

There once was a beautiful city on a hill.  The air was scented with jasmine and tangerines and its people came up with many ways to gather together in celebration.  They were a creative people and loved making things, and soon the streets were lined with shops of their handiwork.  It was not a prosperous land but the people loved and took care of each other. They built a towering well at the top of the hill to guide people there and as a sign of their city pride.  People would gather at the tower for weddings and birthday parties and to share their dreams and their tangerines.

As time went on and the city got older, it began to show its age and repairs were needed.  At first the people ignored the problem because they still didn't have much money and they figured it could be solved later.  They continued to ignore it until the beautiful city they'd once been so proud of was rundown and the towering well was rusty and dingy.  People still gathered at the well to talk, but not for weddings or parties because they were ashamed of how badly it looked.

One day the city counselors held a meeting to discuss the condition and decided to raise taxes.  The people, though not wealthy, did not object because they loved their city and wanted to see it restored to its former glory.  So the taxes were collected and the city counselors worked hard to decide how to best spend the taxes.  In one meeting, as one counselor made his case for spending the money to repair the park playground and another argued for using it to fill holes in the road, a third spoke up, "Let's do both! We can just collect more taxes!"  So they voted for another tax.  This time the people grumbled and some moved away from the city, but both counselors had money for their projects so they were happy.

The city counselors began meeting every week, and every week they voted to collect more and new taxes.  "Why didn't we think of this before?  It's so easy!" they exclaimed. When they ran out of the usual taxes, they got creative, "Let's tax them for their parties!  Let's tax them when they open a new shop!  Let's tax them for fixing their house!"  The people were no longer grumbling.  They were angry and told the counselors so, but the counselors didn't listen.  All they could think about were the taxes and how much more they could collect. They wanted the pile of treasure to be bigger every day and so stopped doing projects to clean the city because the projects made the treasure pile smaller.

The people couldn't afford the taxes so they closed their stops and stopped having parties at the towering well.  Some people had secret parties to avoid the taxes and some stopped gathering altogether.  The once bustling streets were still dingy and overgrown with weeds.  But they were also empty.

There was a storeroom in city hall where all the taxes were stored and the city counselors began to hold their meetings in it so they could enjoy the sight and smell of all their treasure.  One day, when no suggestions had been offered for new taxes, a counselor suddenly had an idea.  "Let's sell the land by the towering well!  No one gathers there anymore.  We can use the money from the sale to repair the towering well!"  All the counselors thought it was a good idea and put up the land for sale.  

There was a young man who still went to towering well every day to eat his tangerine and dream.  He would dream about how he would clean the city if he had the chance and bring the towering well back to its glory.  When he heard the land was for sale he gathered all he had and presented it to the city counselors to pay for the land by the towering well.  The counselors were in such a hurry to get the money that they didn't read their bill of sale. Days later, the young man realized the city counselors had not just sold him the land, they'd also accidentally sold him the towering well.

The young man, who loved his city deeply and didn't want the people to be without a source of water, went to the city counselors and offered it back in exchange for all the treasure in city hall.  The counselors had to accept his deal, and soon after, all had left the city in shame.  The young man used some of the money to repair the city and gave the rest back to the people.  The parties and shops returned, now on clean, gleaming streets, and the city on the hill was freed from greed.

Greed is a hungry beast who only gets hungrier the more it eats.

Truth versus fiction: The City of Brooksville did accidentally sell the water tower. The young man they sold it to graciously gave it back once he realized their mistake. Two of the five City Council members have been voting against all the new taxes.

Open Minds

Have you watched the latest Brooksville City Council meeting online? The most amazing and rare thing happened: an elected official gathered information and changed his mind after listening to the people of the community! It was so wonderful and refreshing to see City Council Member David Bailey explain how he filled out the annual review for City Manager Mark Kutney based on his personal experience, which had personally been good. However, after filing out the review, he talked to local businesses and residents around town and got a very different picture of how the City is being run. And he heard enough negatives all around that he went so far as to recommend termination of the City Manager’s contract during the meeting. Mr. Bailey is truly someone who understands what his role is as a city council member and takes it seriously. We find it quite refreshing to have a council member with a conscience and the willingness to back up his constituents.

Likewise, after seconding the motion to not renew the City Manager’s contract, Council Member Blake Bell talked about how many negative stories he heard regarding the management of the City, including from someone who wanted to open a business in Brooksville, but refused to open it within the City limits due to hearing how difficult the City is to work with. He also said he had spoken to people with businesses in multiple towns, and all expressed their frustration with Brooksville’s lack of support and help compared to other communities. As he talked, Council Member Bell demonstrated that he put the work into making his conclusions and not just went through the motions and made decisions from his own personal bubble. We definitely need more proactive council members in Brooksville, but it looks like we are on our way to a better future with Council Members Bailey and Bell. 

In a more perfect world, this would be a teaching moment for some of our other city council members who appeared to have made their decisions not based on community input, since they are so rarely seen at local events and meeting local business people, but on their own decades of serving on Council. (Yes, we have been recycling many of the same council members for decades, during a time Brooksville failed to thrive, so it’s no surprise that there are so few new ideas, nor even support for new ideas.) Council Member Battista went so far as to chastise Council Members Bailey and Bell as newbies who didn’t understand that there could, and have been, worse, and even corrupt, City Managers, which is apparently how he sets his standards for the job. And he claimed that the naysayers were just upset that they didn’t have “side door” access to the City Manager as they had in the past. Had he talked to local residents and business people, he might find that the actual complaint is that many don’t even have front door access, requiring multiple attempts to even get an appointment or phone call with the City Manager. Heck, even getting an acknowledgement response to an email is next to impossible from the City Manager for those who are not council members. And if they finally do get to speak to Mr. Kutney, they often leave feeling unheard and unsatisfied.

We urge the three other city council members to try to think back to when they were first elected and eager to support the community they live in. Get out, talk to residents and business owners and get an outside of City Hall perspective on how the City is responding to its citizen’s needs. Perhaps we are wrong and they will only hear happy stories of people content with the state of the community. Or perhaps they will hear the tales of frustration that both Council Members Bailey and Bell heard and remember to have an open mind about what is needed. Either way, they will have a better feel for the pulse of the city that they claim to care about. 

The Meeting can be seen at: Feb 01, 2021 City Council Regular Meeting - Brooksville, FL (swagit.com) and the discussion about renewing the City Manager’s contract starts around 3:17

Council Member Erhard: “Boycott every establishment that has anything to do with Brooksville Main Street”

City of Brooksville City Council member, Betty Erhard, in a now-removed Facebook message, has called to her Facebook “friends” for a boycott of Brooksville businesses that have shown support for revitalizing and growing their city. She is targeting some 109 or so businesses that have expressed support for Brooksville Main Street, the only existing organized effort to revitalize the city’s economic vitality and protect its historical charm. 

Here’s the full text of her note:

“Boycott every establishment that has anything to do with BMS. Only way is to deprive them of money. Greedy, selfish, self centered people.”

There’s only one way to interpret this action. She has stepped out of her role and responsibility to publicly support the wellbeing of her constituents by taking a personal action, clearly stated, with the intention of destroying their livelihoods.

This act is beyond disconcerting. There is concern for those who could be impacted by this clearly irrational attempt to affect the ability of those who support their families through these businesses, but also for her personally.

What could cause a sitting City Council member, a person elected to represent the interests of the businesses and residents of her city, to take such a reckless position against them?

What an awful message it sends to our many businesses which are already suffering from the devastation caused by Covid-19. Businesses which are struggling to stay alive and doing everything they can to keep patrons coming into their shops and restaurants.

And what a terrible message it sends to anyone thinking about relocating a business or family here to learn that a city council member is trying to derail her own community’s attempts to bring about sustainable economic success and growth. Whether you are a potential new business or new resident considering an investment here, how would hearing that make you think about continuing to be so? 

Clearly this is not good. But assuming she’s not going to stop these careless statements and frontal assaults on the community’s attempts to come together in its quest for an economically successful and sustainable future, what can we do?

One thing is this: Start questioning the baseless allegations of dishonesty that a handful of people seem obsessed with and who suggest the BMS program has not been effective. It has been, is, and will continue to be with the community’s involvement and support. Have the same folks who suggest those involved with BMS are less than honest and have nefarious intentions, be specific. Any suggestions of inappropriate or illegal activities should be supported by proof, not unsubstantiated inuendo that could be considered slanderous. There have never been any valid indications of impropriety or dishonesty among the members of Brooksville Main Street or the Brooksville Vision Foundation. With the exception of two professional employees, those involved with these organizations are unpaid and have only the best interests of the City in their hearts, as do the dozens of volunteers who spend hundreds of unpaid hours on behalf of their city. 

Yes, the naysayers must have their say. It is their constitutional right. But they have, through their repetitive baseless attacks, taken control of the City Council’s agenda and thus its ability to carry out an efficient meeting and accomplish the city’s business in an efficient and cost-effective manner. 

(Update: Kudos for Mayor Bernardini! At last night’s City Council meeting, he let it be known at the outset that baseless personal attacks against Council members or other individuals would not be tolerated. That’s good leadership and a good start at returning civility and respect to City Council meetings.)

Another thing that can be done is this: Let’s not forget that Betty Erhard is not the majority. The City Council is comprised of five people each with the same responsibility to do what’s best for the city. For the most part, there have been the beginnings of stability and positive support for the business community from at least three members: Mayor Joe Bernardini, Vice Mayor Pat Brayton and Former Mayor, Bill Kemerer. To a lesser degree, but still with hope, we should include Council Member Robert Battista who, I believe, appreciates the city’s need for economic sustainability and growth but just has different thoughts about what that means and how to get there.

It would be a very good thing at this particular time, therefore, for this majority to ask City Manager Mark Kutney and City Attorney Becky Vos to draft a resolution that expresses the City’s continuing commitment to support all efforts, both public and private, to bring economic growth and sustainability to the city by any means the City Council finds appropriate, meaningful, and cost-effective. It is critically important that the City Council as a body not be colored by the thoughtless action of one of its members. And it would be a simple but extremely significant message that would let anyone concerned know clearly where the Council stands regarding the City’s future.

Stay tuned …

The Voice of Main Street

If the city doesn’t support its community the community will not survive

Try as we might, it’s taking some effort to get used to “attending” City Council’s virtual “Zoom” meetings, right? While I was uncomfortable at first, I’m beginning to discover some advantages. For one, you can really see facial expressions. From disdain, disagreement, and discomfort to occasional relaxed smiles, which unfortunately are few, Council meetings have become a study in human expression. Much is communicated when they’re so up close.

It seems the topic most uncomfortable for them is Brooksville Main Street, mostly when Ms. Erhard brings it up, which manages to happen even when BMS is not on the City Council agenda. Whether it’s about dollars, certain individuals, events, economic development, banners, tip jars, bank accounts, road closures, insurance, etc., etc., she brings up Brooksville Main Street.

Meanwhile, the other members, in varying degrees, seem to appreciate that BMS is becoming a force for positive change in the city. They might be having pertinent and appropriate discussions about city concerns including about BMS, but always, no matter how appropriate and reasoned the discussion may be, it invariably gets muddled when Ms. Erhard’s predictably sarcastic voice breaks in to say something completely out of context about BMS.

Again, we ask, why is she so completely focused on destroying the best thing that’s come along for the city’s business and residential communities in years? At a recent Council meeting, dozens of letters supporting BMS were read into the record. Ms. Erhard’s reaction was to “blame” it on BMS rather than recognize that the Community wants to be heard. You’ll see BMS smiling every time it happens. (Thanks, by the way, to those who voiced their thoughts so strongly and clearly. Hopefully, Council Members are listening.)

One thought she keeps harping on which may be incorrectly resonating a bit among the other members is this: to her, funding grants to BMS are some sort of charitable largesse which should end at some point when BMS becomes “self-sustaining.” Let’s be clear about this, Brooksville Main Street is not a business looking for a profit to sustain itself. It is a NON-PROFIT organization run by Executive Director Natalie Kahler, Marketing and Events Coordinator Tina Marie Polson, and a large group of volunteers who receive neither pay nor profit from their involvement. Their clearly defined program is to do all they can to help the Brooksville downtown become a viable and thriving economic center while preserving and enhancing its unique natural and historical charm. To do this, they follow a national blueprint successfully implemented by hundreds of cities nationwide.

Based on the concept that buy-in breeds success, that blueprint urges local programs to seek funding from local governments, the private sector, and from the organization’s own efforts at fundraising events and activities, each contributing about a third of the cost of the program. It is not designed to be self-sustaining. The city’s contributions to Main Street are to help the community. If the city doesn’t support its community, the community will not survive economically. And it’s not all about financial backing. What Brooksville Main Street is trying so hard to do is to PARTNER with the City. The financial aspect, while important for reasons discussed in past posts, is only one part of what Main Street is asking for from the City. What It really wants is to move forward with projects in cooperation with the City to everyone’s benefit, whether it be events, supporting redevelopment efforts, or downtown improvements, small and large. What Brooksville Main Street really needs from the City is a “we like your ideas and enthusiasm and want to help” attitude rather than the antagonistic relationship that Ms. Erhard seems intent on fostering.

And this needs to be said: The things that Main Street does are done for the community, not city government. But since many of its activities are those the city perhaps would like to be doing but aren’t able to for various reasons, when BMS does them, it’s a favor to the City as much as it is to the community. Things like promoting the city’s businesses and building a sense of community among the businesses and residents lifts everyone up and should be welcomed by the city rather than questioned at every turn. Buy-in gives everyone ownership in the hard work of success, livability, economic viability, and just plain joy of being a part of it all.

And here’s a very pertinent point: when BMS is out there getting it done, it’s doing it for a lot less money than what it would cost the city. The success of Main Street is measured by the hard work of two paid employees and 189 unpaid volunteers who contribute thousands of hours of personal time freely given. These are volunteers who offer an amazing variety of professional skills including architects, engineers, accountants, attorneys, artists, musicians, marketing personnel and more. This is what the city gets for the $45,000 of support funding BMS has requested. Compare this amount to the cost they’re estimating to get their own economic development program up and running now at a minimum of $131,000 and the questions regarding the value of funding for BMS becomes even more confusing.  Imagine how much further a city economic development arm could go with BMS by its side rather than starting from scratch. And you can't tell me that those volunteers who so regularly support BMS would be eager to volunteer for a city run economic development program. It’s just not how government programs work. But it is how public/ private partnerships work and how it should work between the City and BMS.

But wait, last week City Council voted to cut the amount it will budget for Main Street next year to half the amount requested to $22,500. What does that mean? It means, Brooksville Main Street will have to decide what it can still afford to do, and not do, on behalf of the community.

But you know what? The money’s important, of course. Critical, in fact. The really unfortunate thing, however, is that it seems to keep the city and BMS from forming an alliance that will truly benefit the community. It appears that some just cannot grasp what BMS is all about and the important role it can play for the city as a whole. It isn’t a pipedream. It’s a proven program. But maybe that tunnel has a light. All the candidates running in the coming election for City Council have indicated their support for Brooksville Main Street. So, will the city’s reluctance to join BMS in its work for the community be changing in a few months?  Let’s keep our hopes up.

In any scenario that may be coming forward, be assured, BMS looks forward to partnering with the City to help keep its costs as low as possible. As willing and supportive partners, so much more that needs to be done, can be done, and will be done for the great community of Brooksville.

Stay tuned …

The Voice of Brooksville Main Street

City Council Dumps Funding Support for Brooksville Main Street

The members of the Brooksville City Council are not all that different from most other small towns the size of Brooksville, one would think. But after watching how some council members continue to disparage what Brooksville Main Street has done for the city and what the city itself has not is … the word escapes me … “baffling” will have to do. It is clear, as a body they are out to destroy the only good thing the city has had going for it in terms of Economic Development in decades. City Council has now voted to remove all funding for Main Street Brooksville from the city’s 2021 proposed budget.

But as individual members, this position, thank goodness, was not unanimous. Members positions were as follows:

The Forced Vote

When city staff accidentally left Brooksville Main Street’s Executive Director’s report they'd requested off the agenda and a motion with a second was on the table, the discussion that took place was on the motion and not about the agenda item. Erhard had made the motion before any discussion had begun then

Later, before the discussion was complete, Battista “called the question.” This forced a vote before further in formation Main Street might have offered as well as any Florida Main Street’s State Coordinator, Katherine Beck, who was available by telephone from Tallahassee, may have offered. Even the Mayor was prevented from sharing his opinion before the vote. Thus, despite anything the Mayor might have done, the discussion was then limited to the motion and not the overall information about operating the Main Street program that could and should have been available to the Council members before the vote. Had there been further debate, the information that would have been forthcoming might have resulted in a different outcome. Hopefully, what happened can be changed as discussed below.

The Nonsense of it All

Those who want to get rid of Brooksville Main Street seem to have no idea that abandoning the program is clearly not in the city’s best interests. I believe they know all the good things people are saying about what Main Street has accomplished. Yet some council members cannot stop their personal knowledge deficits and biases from blinding them to what the city needs and the opportunity that stands in front of them. They either cannot see or consciously choose to deny that Main Street is building real community belief in the city, hope for its future and, most importantly, that it’s achievable. What they seemingly pay attention to instead are continuous, unfounded, sometimes unrelated, rumors and incorrect or insignificant negative things about the program. This information is apparently provided to them by only a handful of individuals whose legacy has been negativity and destruction of plans to help Brooksville and who have never presented an alternate plan but simply been against anyone else’s.

The Message it Sends

The question you likely have is, why does it have to be this way? And so do I. But that’s perhaps for a future post. Just know that, as a body, they have bugled to all current and even prospective city businesses, property owners and residents, that they do not give a flip about what Brooksville Main Street is trying to do for the city and will not support it in the city’s 2021 budget in any form, period.

So, what’s going to happen to Brooksville Main Street? What’s the city going to do about Economic Development if Main Street can’t survive without the requested $45,000? Will the momentum Main Street has built - vis a vis the hard work and growing support from city businesses, property owners, and residents, and the increasing number of visitors to the city - be lost? As a start, know this: We’re not going away. I refer you to an insightful and thoughtfully written letter by Brooksville Main Street’s Executive Director, Natalie Kahler, the morning after the city washed its hands of the program. Read it at this link: http://www.voiceofbrooksville.org/blog/2020/07/30/response-to-monday-nights-city-council-vote/

The City’s Short Term (?) Plan

Earlier in the meeting, City Manager, Mark Kutney had presented the Council a “strategic plan” for an Economic Development Office for the city which included the potential for two new staff positions and a sweeping set of new responsibilities for them and the rest of the city’s existing staff. A careful read indicates it’s simply an attempt to duplicate much of what Main Street is already doing. The Council told him to consider only one of the positions and charged him with adding further details including a better handle on what it all would cost.

Incredibly, Council Member Erhard said she supports the plan and is ready to implement it even before knowing the estimated final costs or how long it would take. Based on what was presented, even a very conservative guess might put the cost well over $150,000 and well over what the Main Street is already doing it for. As for how long it would take, my guess is several years just to get it semi-functional, assuming they can get in place all the complex coordination with the many other players involved and the volunteer support that will be required for it to work. City Manager Kutney also stated, but I don’t think it registered, that his plan, as presented, was only about one third (!) of what it would actually take to accomplish its stated goals. So, if the estimate for the effort described is roughly $150,000, is the total cost going to be three times that amount? It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with.

So, is all lost?

Hopefully not. The city’s budget isn't finalized until September and even if it is, City Council can amend it later, but if it’s after September 30 the process becomes more complicated. Once Manager Kutney puts the cost together for his new Economic Development Office, working with Brooksville Main Street instead should become a more acceptable option. If there’s a chance to change at least one vote before then, we need to try, and there may be such a chance this coming Monday, August 3. See “Alert” Below.

Alert

If you’re one of Brooksville’s growing number of concerned businesses, residents, or property owners who believe and love our city and want your voice to be heard and have an impact, now is the time to let City Council know your feelings. You can do so by writing to each of the City Council members at the email addresses shown below, but you need to do it today (7/31). Natalie Kahler, Brooksville Main Street’s Executive Director, will be making its quarterly report to the Council this Monday, Aug 3. You can request your email to the Council to be verbally read into the record. Having your email read into the record by the City Clerk would be a great way have your voice heard, guaranteed! Just make sure it can be read in less than three minutes. Those of you who are in other parts of the county but love the city and many of the Main Street events it has held hopefully will write in as well.

Finally

Let there be no mistake. For the City of Brooksville to truly become the best city it can be and achieve what is clearly possible, there needs to be a strong interaction of sincere belief, appreciation, and support for the mutual roles that city government and the city’s community each must successfully carry out in unison. The Brooksville Vision Foundation and Brooksville Main Street believes it will happen and looks forward to having a strong and effective partnership with the city one day soon.

Council member email addresses:

jbernardini@cityofbrooksville.us

pbrayton@cityofbrooksville.us

rbattista@cityofbrooksville.us

wkemerer@cityofbrooksville.us

berhard@cityofbrooksville.us

mkutney@cityofbrooksville.us

jbattista@cityofbrooksville.us

Stay tuned …

The Voice of Brooksville Main Street