BROOKSVILLE — Ron Caldi was adamant in his opposition to the expansion of the homeless shelter.
It didn't belong in the residential neighborhood, not near schools where shelter residents, many with drug, alcohol and criminal issues, might come in contact with children.
As a member of the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission, Caldi told his colleagues last week that he couldn't support the application. He added that his position was not just because it is was envisioned for Brooksville; he wouldn't want to see it in any neighborhood similarly situated near schools.
The planning board rejected the project, with Caldi voting against it. The applicant, Jericho Road Ministries, then sought an appeal before the County Commission.
Caldi, still feeling strongly about the project, tried to reach county commissioners before the hearing to share his concerns. Commissioners would say later that they didn't speak with him before voting.
On Tuesday, however, the commissioners did hear plenty of opposition about the project from someone else named Caldi. This time, it was Caldi's wife, Kate.
Mrs. Caldi identified herself as a neighbor of the shelter, and said she had been chosen by neighbors as their spokeswoman. She told the board that she had dozens of signed petitions urging the commissioners to vote no.
She said she was concerned for her own child, whom she would not allow to walk to Hernando High School two minutes away if there were a chance the shelter clients were around.
While Mrs. Caldi as a resident is entitled to voice her views on a controversial issue affecting her family, Mr. Caldi's involvement as a planning board member arguing against an applicant without fully disclosing his personal connections raises questions in some officials' minds about the perception of fairness toward the applicant.
When questioned Wednesday about whether Caldi had a conflict on the case, county attorney Garth Coller told the St. Petersburg Times that Caldi did not have a conflict and did not have to abstain from the vote. In fact, the law makes clear that because Caldi did not have a direct conflict of interest, he could not abstain from his duties as a planning board member.
To have a formal conflict of interest, a voting member would have to be in a position of possible financial gain or loss because of their vote.
"The answer is no,'' Coller said. "However it does have an appearance of impropriety that could have been easily remedied if he had simply disclosed that he lived in the neighborhood.''
Land-use decisions are quasi-judicial in nature, which means they are treated similarly to court cases and follow very specific rules. At the beginning of each set of land-use hearings before either the planning commission or the County Commission, members are asked whether they have had any "ex-parte communications.''
That means they must disclose whether they have had conversations or contact with individuals trying to give information or argue a point of view on an upcoming application.
Commission members cannot consider that information as they make a decision unless the same information is brought up during the public hearing.
Commission members are given that clear direction at every meeting by their attorney.
At Tuesday's meeting, County Commissioner Jeff Stabins voiced concern about hearing from Caldi about the application. He asked planning director Ron Pianta to be sure that his planning commissioners understood that they should not initiate ex-parte communications.
Coller gave a more-in-depth explanation of the rules governing quasi-judicial hearings than usual, saying that the detail was for the benefit of new commissioner Wayne Dukes but noting that it applied to everyone.
Planning commission members regularly state whether they have visited the sites of various applications they rule on, but at last week's meeting none of the commission members mentioned visiting sites, living near sites or having any ex-parte communications.
Coller declined to comment further and referred questions about whether it was proper for Caldi to attempt to reach commissioners to the general public statement he made about quasi-judicial proceedings at Tuesday's meeting.
Caldi said he didn't believe he had any conflict. He said his wife heard about plans for the expansion from a newspaper article that appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission met and not from him. He said he didn't believe that she organized the petitions and opposition to the project until after Caldi and the planning commission took formal action.
As for her public comments at the commission meeting, he said he believed she spoke honestly about her concerns. Caldi said he agreed with her public statement that she would not allow her children out into the neighborhood if the Jericho Road clients were around.
He did acknowledge that he had been chided after the fact by Pianta for trying to reach county commissioners before their hearing. None ever called him back. Caldi also said he would make a public statement about his error at the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in December.
Caldi, who joined the board in November of 2009, said he was still learning the ropes about his new role as a planning commissioner. "I still have a lot of learning to do,'' he said. "I look forward to finishing out the remaining three years of my term and expect I will be a better planning and zoning commissioner at the end of that than at the beginning.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.