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One year in: Q&A with Town Manager Roger Hernstadt

May 2, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt celebrated his first year with Fort Myers Beach on April 25.

In 2017, Hernstadt was the final choice after several rounds of interviews, coming on board and leaving his manager position in Marco Island. Hernstadt took the place of interim town manager Jim Steele. Since taking over, Hernstadt has been working on budget improvements, policy updates and professionalization.

We sat down with Hernstadt to talk about his first year, and the changes he's implementing.

Article Photos

How did your first year go? What were some of the challenges and successes?

I think it went really well. The town is an interesting place to work. The public and Town Council have been very supportive, and so have the employees. Because of that, we've been able to work together to solve issues for all of us.

One challenge was dealing with a lot of turnover in a short time. Several directors left. With my vast experience, I knew people I wanted to join our team and enhance our staff. When we lost (directors), there were other people in the department who were knowledgeable, and I augmented that with other people who had knowledge of the subject matter.

It gave some of our younger people the opportunity to step up.

One goal I was very happy about was, the council recognized that we didn't have a funding source for maintaining our assets. The council supported the 2018 budget and being able to fund repair and replacement of what we own was really significant and a mature step forward. It takes away from the worry for unexpected repairs. Each director has a budget to manager with a multiyear capital improvement plan.

Like the Town Hall roof, it had been repaired and repaired and repaired and needed to be replaced. Staff was afraid to go to council with the request because it was expensive. Now we have a funding source, now it's happening.

So, what's on the horizon in challenges and goals for year two?

The stormwater and water projects continue to be a challenge. Because of the nature of the projects, we're basically in people's front yards. We're going to need to go on every street and try to save every tree that we can possibly save and help people understand when we can't. Get the project done timely, get the restoration done timely so they can get back to their lives with minimal impact, understanding that this is a once in 30 to 50 year project.

Obviously, TPI if it continues to move forward and clears the zoning phase, it will transition into the building and construction phase. And all that brings with it, from plan review to building inspection to the impact of a major project being built in a confined space downtown.

Another goal is to continue to work with Lee County, to partner with them, to deal with issues of traffic and bridges and parks and funding, other things of mutual concern. Clearly we've taken over the building, permitting and plans review function, and we're going to do an outstanding job and nothing less.

You've been making changes, both voluntarily and involuntarily, in community development and code compliance. Now that permitting is in-house, rather than with the county, what should residents know?

Unless you're absolutely certain about the town's codes, check with our staff to see what your responsibilities are as far as permitting.

Generally, anything going up or taken down should be a trigger in your head that you may need a permit. Replacing a towel-holder in your bathroom, probably not. But generally speaking, if you're using tools, check for a permit.

It's worth a phone call, or stopping by, we'd love to see you.

Sometimes you start on something relatively simple and the scope creeps. Before you know it, you're doing things that even the most non-governmental person would say of course you need a permit for that. Maybe they're in the middle of a job and they don't want to stop and submit paperwork and wait for approval. One of the things we're working on is, if you can come in and get a permit that day, people will come in and get a permit and walk out with a permit. In the past, you could be wait days, weeks even months, here I was in the middle of something.

You have the potential for illegal expansions where people take units designed for one family and increase that. We have the responsibility to make sure people don't build certain structures in flood zones. So all those things were spurred by someone's bad behavior in the past, I don't think someone woke up one day and said let's start collecting a permit for this because why not.

You've been discussing the new idea at Town Hall of compliance agreements for code violations. What are those and why do you want to implement them?

Our objective is to help people through that (permit) process. But if they make a mistake, not to compound the mistake, but to come to us and work with us to establish a compliance agreement rather than going to the magistrate, where their objective is very black and white and they set a hard deadline.

A compliance agreement, they can come to us and we can understand their time constraints, like I'm only doing this on the weekend, or I can only do this when the tenants transition. We're not as inflexible to the time as the magistrate might be. Moreover, we don't set interim milestones. We say great, you're going to have this completed by this date and we're going to come on this date and check that it's complete, do we both have agreement on that, great. Understand if you're late, you'll pay a penalty but you're saying you can be done by this date.

For us, the people are going to take care of the problem and we're working with them. We're not having to pay a magistrate to have the hearing, they don't have to pay for that. It's a much better way in my opinion to achieve compliance.

While we have both residential and commercial type violations, the case typically is the residential violators don't typically have attorneys representing them and commercial ones do. And not that we want to treat them differently, we'd do a compliance agreement with a commercial one as well, but residential don't typically have the benefit of legal representation.

It doesn't pit a defendant and prosecutor type situation, we're working across the table. We have to clear this issue off the docket, now tell us your plan to do that, that sounds good, you're going to have it done by this date and there's only a penalty if you miss that date.

So special magistrate is the second avenue to resolution. What policy are you changing there?

Some people want to have their day in court. For those that don't want to do a compliance agreement, we will be taking magistrate hearings very seriously and whoever you are, we will pursue the case vigorously. And if you need a continuance, it will only be after the magistrate has set a fine.

So we send you a notice of violation, you have to do something and you have x number of days to comply. If you don't, we take it to the magistrate. The magistrate looks at the evidence, says it's against the code. Now you have to get a permit by this date and repair it by this date. The magistrates don't ask when it's convenient for you. If you fail to meet the date, a fine of x will accrue.

Let's say, we schedule you for the magistrate in May, and the day before you say you can't make it.

People, if the magistrate hasn't set a deadline for them yet, they think a continuance buys them time. I told staff, not to grant any continuances unless a deadline has been set through the magistrate. Sometimes people have a date where they can't make it and we understand that, but we're not going to let that elongate the compliance process. If you're using that time to postpone, it won't buy you additional time for compliance.

We know some people drive by violations every day and wonder why it's taking so long to get resolved. There's a lot of due process and notice involved. That being said, we have an obligation to get the situation addressed timely. We're working on that, working closely with BASE team and code compliance to improve our timeliness. Unfortunately in a small town like this, some people start thinking there's nothing happening on this violation because this person knows this person or this person is so-and-so. That wouldn't matter to me who it was. So we're trying to balance fairness and timeliness. Sometimes they conflict, but there is a little bit of a shift in how we're doing business because in the past people would call in and say okay, I'll take care of it, and everything was done very informally. We're just trying to put some structure to the process.

Anything else you'd like to say?

In this job, you never know what the next email's going to say or what the next issue will be. But I really feel good about the transparency we have in our government, that we're making sure that planning and zoning decisions that potentially impact neighbors and neighborhoods are being vetted publicly and not just being administratively approved and people didn't know what was going on, why it happened or how it came to pass. I think that's a very important step for people to have confidence in their government.



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