Ripple Effect: Titusville's Call for Transparency in Government Grows Stronger

Kristin Lortie is a dedicated organizer for Brevard Cares Citizens Coalition, working tirelessly to promote transparency.

TITUSVILLE, FL. - More than two dozen people participated in a Speak Out Titusville rally on April 30, 2024, just before a city "Strategic Planning Workshop" began. During the workshop, the City discussed a community survey and updated a PowerPoint slide containing the city's annual goals and objectives. The survey results presented by the city manager painted a more optimistic perspective on the City's current standing with residents, and that was disputed by attendees who had reviewed the survey results in more detail. The City declined to reference the citizen's rally during their meeting. 

Based on the City presentation, a survey was distributed to 3,000 individuals out of 49,319 residents, with less than 600 individuals providing their responses. Kristin Lortie of Brevard Cares Citizen Coalition points out that the survey provided valuable insights that city council members and residents should review in more detail. 

The City did not highlight the survey details during this meeting, but several results reflected exceedingly low scores, such as the following city governance measures with percentage positive scores and percentage ranking comparison to over 300 communities: 

  • Treating residents with respect: 41% positive, bottom 4%
  • Treating residents fairly: 35% positive, bottom 6%
  • The overall direction the City is taking: 34% positive, bottom 8%
  • Value of services for taxes paid to Titusville: 32% positive, bottom 10%
  • Being honest: 31% positive, bottom 2%
  • Generally acting in the best interest of the community: 28% positive, bottom 2%
  • Overall confidence in the Titusville government: 26% positive, bottom 2%
  • Being open and transparent to the public: 24% positive, bottom 2%

Additionally, the following (6) indicators received 1% or less:

  • Making all residents feel welcome, 42% positive, bottom 1%
  • Opportunities to participate in community matters, 37% positive, bottom 0%
  • Stormwater management, 36% positive, bottom 1%
  • Drinking water, 32% positive, bottom 1%
  • Sense of civic/community pride, 28% positive, bottom 1%
  • Informing residents about issues facing the community, 23% positive, bottom 1%

Over 130 indicator questions were posed to survey respondents. 

One of the main focuses of the meeting was a slide that outlined the City's "strategic goals and objectives." These goals and objectives were divided into five categories:

Goal 1: Quality of Life

  • Continue initiatives and measure actions using the Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) to improve the Indian River Lagoon
  • Enhance the appearance of the City, including entryways
  • Enhance youth educational, recreational, and employment opportunities in conjunction with other governmental agencies
  • Enhance emergency preparations and management
  • Sustain and improve public safety
  • Ensure the quality of drinking water

Goal 2: Efficient & Effective Services

  • Commit to funding Capital Improvement Plan, including infrastructure
  • Continue partnerships & coordination with public, private, and nonprofit entities
  • Develop and implement a sustainability plan

Goal 3: Financial Stability

  • Continue to execute strategies to address long-term liabilities
  • Plan for future capital obligations

Goal 4: Economic Development

  • Continue implementation of a comprehensive economic development plan
  • Encourage managed growth using low-impact development principles as a means of developing an attractive built environment while protecting and conserving natural resources and green spaces
  • Continue to market trails and amenities
  • Continue efforts to eliminate blight and revitalize empty buildings
  • Establish additional parking capacity downtown to meet current/future needs
  • Increase partnerships & coordination with public, private, and nonprofit entities to support affordable housing

Goal 5: Effective Governance

  • Expand methods to increase and enhance 2-way communications
  • Continue the effectiveness of current advisory boards
  • Continue to broadcast advisory board meetings, expanding the broadcasts when appropriate
  • Continue to use the city website and social media as communication tools to increase awareness of civic functions

The city declined citizen requests to allow public comment at the beginning of the workshop to hear from attendees prior to council discussion. Towards the end of the two-hour meeting, the public was allowed to make a three-minute comment. Several speakers expressed their concerns about the perceived lack of transparency, citizen involvement, inadequate planning, and the unsatisfactory outcomes of the community survey. Kristin Lortie pointed out that there is no accountability or connection between the city council goals and objectives slide and City Manager Scott Larese's actual performance measures, which aren't included in presentation materials or discussed during the meeting.

Titusville City Council Candidate Christopher Childs (left), Elizabeth Baker and Jessica Leona

Elizabeth Baker, the owner of I Pick Up Litter and a resident of Titusville, said at the meeting, "We shouldn't have to give an appearance if things are going well. We wouldn't have to give an appearance if our curbs weren't falling apart, our water was clean, and we didn't have homeless in the park. They talk about ensuring water quality but have no plan for that. They talk about sustainability with no plan to include waste management to clean up the litter. Every time I walk in the park, I pick up at least 20 needles and 55 gallons of trash. Our water is full of microplastics, but no one wants to talk about that. I heard people beg to broadcast this meeting, but they didn't. They talk about enhancing engagement, but I do not know what they are doing. $18,000 a month for the city manager's salary? Something's got to change; this isn't working anymore."

City employees, consultants, council members, numerous police officers, and citizens attended the meeting. However, the meeting was not live-streamed for those unable to attend. Over the years, numerous persistent complaints have been made about the City's lack of transparency and accessibility, including the failure to video record Titusville Environmental Commission (TEC) meetings. The audio-visual (AV) staff was present at this meeting to record audio only, and attendees argued that the city could have easily recorded video and chose not to.

Around eight police officers were present at the meeting, some in uniform, some in the hallway, and others wearing polos and badges.

Residents are expressing their concerns about the overwhelming presence of police officers during city council meetings, events, and other city activities. In mid-April, the City authorized $130,000 in shortfall funding for overtime pay and benefits for the police force. Stan Johnston, a 71-year-old resident, is questioning the necessity of having an excessive amount of police officers present at the city meetings. He wonders if any other local city or county has such abundant funding to afford 5-8 officers for each meeting and event.

Resident and vocal sewage spill advocate Stan Johnston was taken into custody in October 2023 for allegedly entering a construction site without permission, crossing several lanes of traffic to puncture a bladder bag. Police reports indicate that officers believed he was dumping "chemicals," but Johnston insists he was innocent and was only attempting to collect water samples at Sand Point Park.

Titusville residents are also asking questions about the allocation of their property taxes. There has been a surge in discussions on social media platforms regarding the need for independent audits, particularly in relation to drinking water bills and complaints about the City's management of water customers. Additionally, the community has expressed dissatisfaction with the City's ineffective communication practices and the city council's justification for the City Manager's annual salary of $220,604.80, which includes $24,645 in 2023 salary increases.  

Several additional issues were raised, such as the need for more measures to achieve the City's objectives. Michael Myjak, chairman of Speak Up Titusville, stated, "We have no metrics to understand these goals. We must learn how to live within our means, and we are not doing it yet."

Many are also frustrated because three council members refuse to stop suing the citizens over the passing of a ballot initiative known as the Right to Clean Water. Instead of respecting the voters' decision, the city fights them in court. Council members Herman Cole, Sarah Stoeckel, and Jolynn Nelson persist in multiple court appeals of the 2021 citizens Righ to Clean Water referendum passed overwhelmingly by over 82% of voters that voted.

Citizens' concerns regarding rapid and unsustainable development also took center stage, mainly due to the adverse effects experienced by those living near these projects. Traffic congestion, flooding, and other related impacts have become pressing issues. Additionally, housing affordability has been questioned, as it is not truly accessible to many individuals. The exorbitant living and housing costs have disproportionately affected senior citizens, while the dream of property ownership has become increasingly unattainable for many people.

"People are unhappy because the river stinks, they are flooded with sewage and stormwater runoff, and there's traffic from recent new development," said Toni Shifalo. She highlighted her five-year experience attending budget meetings, where she noticed a repetitive presence of consultants and colorful pages outlining goals and objectives. Shifalo says, "The invite-only survey results are astonishingly negative. The jig is up; you can't pull the wool over the eyes of citizens. These are real results."

Katie Delaney, candidate for Brevard County District 1, publicly disclosed the survey findings within her allotted three-minute timeframe, ensuring they were officially stated on the city record. She also highlighted a troubling project that could transform Titusville into "New York City" due to the absence of greenspace and emphasized that residents in north Brevard appreciate their wooded surroundings and outdoor environment. She advocated for the residents near the project who were dissatisfied and feeling unheard.

Delaney recently appeared on a Brevard News segment addressing the concerns of Titusville residents who feel their voices are not being heard, "You have these people who are career politicians who get comfortable in seats of power and forget who they are working for, and they let staff control them. We didn't elect the staff. It's disheartening watching elected officials who work for us serving somebody that's not us," she stated.

Another speaker emphasized the contradiction between the cancellation of the City's 2024 Community Engagement Day and the City's objective of achieving effective governance by opting for a resident survey. "What's the point?" asked Lortie. She went on to say, "You all work on updating your PowerPoint slide boxes, but then what? The whole process disappears. What was presented at the last city meeting were the city managers recently added quarterly ‘achievements’ statements about his accomplishments," which Lortie denounced as inadequate to measure progress. “What about what citizens have to say about the city, and what about measuring city progress against actual goals?" she asked.

Sarah Hodge proudly waves the American flag in front of Titusville City Hall.

Ahead of the meeting, a rally was organized outside city hall, with multiple groups joining forces to underscore the importance of citizen participation and their potential to effect change in Brevard County. Lortie from Brevard Cares Citizens Coalition remarked, "This is where the left and right unite." Among the attendees were council and commissioner candidates, Brevard Cares Citizens Coalition, Right to Clean Water advocates, District 1 Brevard Democrats, Citizen Defending Freedom, Fight for Zero, and numerous other concerned citizens showing up to have their voice be counted. 

There will be a meet-and-greet with future elected officials at Harry T. Moore Memorial, 2180 Freedom Ave. Mims, FL 32754, on May 11, 2024, from 11 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. The community can come and meet District 1 candidates. Food trucks will be present.

The current city council members of Titusville are Mayor Diesel, Vice Mayor Robinson, and Council Members Cole, Stoeckel, and Nelson. During these meetings, several solutions were presented to them, such as:

  • Due to public interest in addressing ongoing environmental issues, 100% of Titusville Environmental Commission (TEC) meetings are live-streamed.
  • Livestreaming City Workshops to help inform residents.
  • Expanding 2-way public engagement opportunities for residents.
  • Residents need to hold City Council members accountable for managing Titusville City Manager Scott Larese, who received a $25k 2023 salary increase plus receives near-perfect annual performance evaluations.
  • Request that city council members hold the City Manager accountable for addressing the people's concerns and stop awarding the city manager hefty raises and glowing annual performance reviews.
  • Demand that Council Members Nelson, Cole, and Stoeckel repeal the Right to
  • Request that City council members approve virtual participation in meetings for advisory board members who are out of town and unable to physically attend.
  • Request that the city meeting materials be placed online for every meeting (similar to other local meetings) using an online records management platform, that residents’ written comments and presentations be incorporated into meeting records, and that they be allowed to be presented on the city’s projectors.
  • Request that the city manager’s annual performance measures be discussed at the city strategic planning workshop, be open to public and advisory board input, be posted on the city’s website, and that the city manager be required to make a quarterly presentation to council members and citizens and to provide progress updates and to address citizen concerns.
  • Request that the city manager and council members make themselves available to the public for monthly meet-and-greets and/or town halls to answer questions and to hear directly from residents outside of the formal meeting format.
  • Request that the city restore the annual Community Conversation event so that residents can hear directly about their concerns for the city.

"You have to enforce the Constitution to save the Constitution. Every single citizen has a responsibility and duty to start standing up. Don't let someone else be your voice. Make sure your voice is heard. Veterans died for us so we could have this freedom to speak and protest. This is what we need to be doing," Executive Director Ruth Kaufhold of Citizens Defending Freedom.

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey, a cancer cluster survivor and environmental health advocate, is a researcher and journalist with more than two decades of multimedia experience, having been published globally.

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