BROOKSVILLE — Plagued by financial issues, personnel turnover and active discussion about getting rid of the city’s police department, City Council this week got a reality check on public opinion.
A crowd at Monday night’s council meeting was just a tip of the iceberg as hundreds of city residents and business owners have scrambled to organize and support a variety of efforts over the past week ranging from petitions to recall three of the sitting council members, petitions to support the continuing operation of the Brooksville Police Department and talk of formal action to outright disband the city.
Social media has lit up with criticisms about how the council is doing its job. And one council member has posted questions on her Facebook page about whether another council member’s motives are pure or political.
The latest uproar comes just days after the City Council voted to stop pursuing a special taxing unit for the Sheriffs Office. Council member Natalie Kahler has pushed the issue for months. She finally voted for a city budget she didn’t like because her fellow council members agreed to consider the move.
If the city could convince the county to enact the special taxing district, the city could then opt out, leaving just city police to provide law enforcement, she argued. Currently the police provide patrols and the county’s sheriffs deputies also provide services, but at what level is subject to disagreement.
During this year’s budget talks, some city residents urged the council to stop the double taxation for duplicated services both in law enforcement and fire service.
But now that the choice of police service with no sheriff seemed off the table, the council has asked for new information about how much it would cost for sheriffs services to take charge over city law enforcement.
During Monday evening’s meeting, council members assured citizens that no option is off the table, no decision has yet been made and that much budget work is still ahead. But that hasn’t soothed residents who worry what the future might hold.
At the Little Lady Cafe, owner Rory Steele said she has seen strong public outrage in the form of signatures on a petition to recall Mayor Robert Battista and council members Betty Erhard and William Kemerer. "It’s over 600,’’ she said. "And then I stopped counting.’’
"They’re against the police department,’’ Steele said. "I’ve not had anybody not sign it. It’s a very hot topic.’’
Steele said she and other residents want their police department to continue to serve their city, because they provide personal attention and good response times. Steele was also upset that the council hasn’t done more to welcome the public into the discussion.
She was specifically concerned about Sheriff Al Nienhuis meeting with council members individually rather than in public to talk about the issue. In one case, Nienhuis has contradicted information about how much service he provides in the city during one-on-one meetings with council members compared to answers given by his chief deputy, Col. Mike Maurer, in a public meeting.
Despite concerns by Steele and others who have said the council is not interested in public comment on the police department and other issues, council members assured the citizens they will have ample opportunity to give input before any decisions are made by the council.
Steve Wyatt, owner of Bobby Meadows Printing and Antiques, has also gotten keen public interest from residents who have signed petitions in support of city police services at his business and at others.
"I believe in the Brooksville city Police Department,’’ he said. "Their response time is good. Their officers are good. They always come around.’’
Wyatt said, "if we don’t have a Brooksville Police Department and then they go after the Fire Department, when why do we need the city of Brooksville?’’
During council budget talks, disbanding city fire services has also been discussed. The city recently fired its chief after he was arrested on charges of committing fraud over $50,000 from his previous chief’s job in Hernando Beach.
Wyatt said he would take petitions door to door if necessary calling for disbanding the city if the council moves forward with plans for doing away with the city police, a move that would cut 30 jobs.
Kahler was the sole council member supporting the taxing unit for the sheriff in order to keep the city police but she has faced some staunch criticism for her stand from fellow council member Betty Erhard. Erhard blames Kahler for misinforming the public on her Facebook page. Erhard said the real reason for the taxing unit push was "negative publicity against me and other council members.’’
"Who stands the most to gain from this,’’ Erhard wrote, reminding people that Kahler has decided to not seek reelection to the council next year but instead run for County Commission.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.