Two of the five Islamorada Village Council seats are in play this November, and only one council member is defending her seat.
Three incumbents are running unopposed, and longtime councilman and current mayor, Chris Sante, is not seeking re-election, and is instead endorsing retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent Ken Davis to replace him.
Councilwoman Cheryl Meads is running for a second two-year term in Seat 2 against former two-term councilman Dave Purdo, a retired police officer and charter boat captain, and Peter Bacheler, a local photographer who owns a business focusing on helping people with the building and permitting process.
Meads, 59, is a chemist and a former GlaxoSmithKline quality control expert who made international headlines after she exposed fraud at her company’s Cidra, Puerto Rico, pharmaceutical plant in 2004, resulting in a federal court awarding her $96 million in 2010 for her testimony against her former employer.
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She moved to the Keys around seven years ago and runs a company that buys and renovates rundown properties.
So, she said she knows first-hand the complexities of the village’s building and permitting process and thinks it should be simpler.
“If you want to upgrade electrical services on a building, a village permit, associated village fees and village inspections are required. An upgrade already requires the use of a licensed electrical contractor and Florida Keys Electric Cooperative approvals,” Meads said. “In the case of electrical services upgrades, is the village permit process truly value added? I don’t think so. Certainly, these are interesting discussions which might lead to reduced costs, time and complexity for everyone without the addition of measurable risk.”
Another challenge facing the village is continued recovery from last September’s Hurricane Irma. While the Category 4 storm didn’t devastate Islamorada like it did the Middle and Lower Keys, damage was significant and its impact is noticeable nearly a year later.
“Going forward, we need to continue storm recovery, including, but not limited to, execution of canal cleanup,” Meads said.
Regarding having two challengers, Meads said she’s not worried.
“In both August 2016 and now August 2018, I was the third candidate to file for Seat 2,” she said. “I’m not concerned.”
Purdo, 77, said he is running against Meads because he feels she and the other current council members aren’t doing enough to allow for the creation of more housing that police officers, nurses, teachers and those who work in the fishing and hospitality industries can afford.
“We are losing a lot of our current residents and retirees for the same reason,” Purdo said. “But this council keeps raising taxes.”
The preliminary tax rate for the 2018-2019 fiscal year is about 20 percent higher than the current fiscal year — $3.20 per every $1,000 of taxable assessed taxable value versus the current year’s $2.80 — but that is because Hurricane Irma response and recovery costs left the village’s general fund balance at zero, village Finance Director Maria Bassett said last month.
FEMA and state reimbursement money is expected to eventually flow to the village, but that could take months to years..
Bacheler, 70, has served on the village’s Land Planning Agency, a citizen panel that makes recommendations to the Village Council on proposed amendments to Islamorada’s land development regulations, comprehensive plan and changes to the official zoning map, for the last four years and is the current chairman.
“I really want to see some other things done in the village, and the only way I can do that is going a step ahead in the Village Council,” Bacheler said. “I really think I can do a better job than the person in Seat 2 and the other person running for the seat.”
Like Meads, Bacheler said the village’s building and permitting process needs to be less complicated, and the planning staff, which approves permits, needs to be more communicative with applicants.
“It’s not cut and dry and simple,” he said. “It should be, but it isn’t.”
In Bacheler’s experience with his business, he said he often has to keep on planning staff to provide him updates on where his clients’ permits are in the approval process, and he often does not receive prompt enough responses.
“It really needs to be the other way around. They’re doing a better job now, but that’s because it’s computerized now. You can go online to see your status,” Bacheler said. “But to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing wrong with a telephone call. To go two, three, four days without hearing anything, no, no, no, no.”
Councilwoman Deb Gillis, Councilman Mike Forster and Councilman Jim Mooney are all running unopposed for re-election for Seats 1, 3 and 5, respectively.
Sante, 63, is not seeking re-election after a total of 10 years on the council and has endorsed Davis, a retired DEA agent who also served in Iraq from 2009 to 2010 as a supervisory criminal justice investigator overseeing a 30-person team of law enforcement and intelligence agents.
“My proudest accomplishment was, despite conducting over 500 operations through the ‘Red Zone,’ everyone who worked for me went home in original physical condition,” Davis said.
When asked why he’s running, Davis joked, “My wife won’t let me go back to work in Baghdad and Monroe County politics is the next most dangerous thing I could find.”
Davis cites affordable housing for the village’s workforce as one of the most pressing issues facing Islamorada. He said he has been working with council members for about a year in identifying available land to build workforce housing neighborhoods.
“It’s important and critical to our future,” he said.
Davis said the village has already been instrumental in providing some lower-cost housing for workers, and is in the process of buying land for more. For instance, money from its affordable housing fund was key to buying land on Windley Key for a proposed 16-unit Habitat for Humanity complex.
Noting the exhausted reserve fund from Irma clean-up and recovery, Davis said replenishing the village’s savings is crucial, given the Keys’ vulnerability to tropical storms and hurricanes.
“We need to rebuild the reserve and assure we are prepared for another possible disaster,” he said.
Davis also said water quality is vital to the Keys’ economy that is heavily dependent on the tourism, fishing and diving industries.
“We must make sure we partner with federal, state and county agencies to assure clean water initiatives and that the environmental catastrophes impacting our Gulf neighbors are rectified and not allowed to spread south,” he said, referring to the red tide algae bloom that is plaguing much of the state.
Davis also wants to work with the county to establish a better policy for letting Islamorada residents back into the Keys following mandatory evacuations for hurricanes.
“After Irma, hundreds of residents were required to wait days for re-entry,” Davis said. “Because of this, many of those people have adopted the position of refusing to evacuate in the future. Islamorada should have greater control of re-entry for our residents.”
Davis is running against Eric Carlson, 36, a hospitality professional and resort manager at the Islander Resort Hotel at mile marker 82, who was previously general manger at Pierre’s and Morada Bay.
Carlson said while he and Davis both have the “best of interest at heart for our community,” he brings a “perspective of a younger working individual trying to make Islamorada a place where everyone can build a comfortable life in our village.”
“All of our residents are not business owners,” he said. “I could certainly be a fresh perspective and give all of our residents a voice they may not have had in the past.”
Carlson, like the other candidates, also feels the village’s permitting process is burdensome and overcomplicated.
“The program needs to be both simplified and streamlined,” he said. “Setting parameters for homeowners for smaller projects or damage replacement will take a great deal of pressure off of our already over-burdened village staff. Evaluating and modifying zoning and planning may also lead to opportunities for affordable rental programs that do not affect property values of current homeowners.”
If elected, Carlson said he would also work to make U.S. 1 and the Old Highway running through Islamorada safer and less congested by pushing for more traffic enforcement and improving mass transit.
“Projects such as the pedestrian bridge to Founders Park are a waste of state and local resources. If the state and county governments are willing to work with the village to address traffic concerns, those funds are better spent addressing the consistent congestion and safety issues facing our roadway.”