WEEKI WACHEE — The iconic Florida roadside attraction where women wearing tails put on an underwater swimming show — Weeki Wachee — isn’t just known as the City of Live Mermaids. It is, literally, the incorporated city of live mermaids.
The problem with that, according to a determined advocate for the county’s most treasured natural resource — the Weeki Wachee River and springs — is that the elected city commissioners of Weeki Wachee also are key employees of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Shannon Turbeville sees that as a conflict of interest. The same city leaders motivated to market the attraction are also entrusted with protecting the river and spring from overuse. Of additional concern is a $1 million debt the city has been carrying for more than a dozen years.
On Monday, Turbeville will urge the Hernando County state legislative delegation to disband the city of Weeki Wachee by an act of the Florida Legislature. His goal is to eliminate the conflict. In his proposal to the delegation, Turbeville lays out the facts he has learned through a host of public records requests made over the past two years.
Turbeville cites several examples of how park activities have negatively impacted the Weeki Wachee springs and river, including key violations of the park’s own management plan designed to protect them.
Last year, he learned that a park vendor was renting as many as 900 kayaks a day when the plan limited launches to 280 people per day. The result? Bumper-to-bumper kayaks that crowded out wildlife, damaged river banks and left a flood of litter in their wake.
The number of park visitors — and annual revenues — also skyrocketed in the decade since the state park system took over Weeki Wachee. In 2008, there were 78,116 visitors generating $4.8 million in direct economic impact. By 2017, that grew to 388,512 visitors and $33.8 million in economic impact, according to the Florida state parks annual reports.
The management plan recommends capping attendance at 1,686 a day, but park officials were allowing more people when others left, even after reaching that number, according to emails by state park officials. In late spring, they stopped that practice.
Florida statute has a sweeping prohibition against public employees serving conflicting interests.
No public official "shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect; engage in any business transaction or professional activity; or incur any obligation of any nature which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or her duties in the public interest,'' it says.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of state parks, has begun to address Turbeville’s concerns, including limiting the number of kayaks and attendees.
"The Florida Park Service is committed to preserving and protecting natural and cultural resources in a transparent manner within local communities,'' the department’s deputy press secretary Weesam Khoury told the Tampa Bay Times this week.
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Barbara Goodman, the department’s deputy secretary for land and recreation, did not return a call or email to comment on Turbeville’s concerns. Neither did any of the four Weeki Wachee city officials who also work for the state park.
In a September email, Turbeville pushed Justin Wolfe, the department’s general counsel, to resolve the conflicts.
“Mr. Wolfe,’’ he wrote, "is it not a conflict of interest for these employees to have to choose whether to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to a broke city that is dependent on a natural resource for tourism dollars, or do what’s ultimately in the best interest for the protection of this natural resource?”
The Weeki Wachee attraction has been around since its first underwater mermaid show in 1947. It was incorporated in 1966 to get Weeki Wachee on road maps and billboards as the City of Live Mermaids.
The Weeki Wachee springs and the river are in public ownership, but the park built around them went through a half dozen private owners. The last owner donated the struggling attraction to the city of Weeki Wachee in July 2003, five years before it became a state park.
In the months after the city took ownership, it was blistered in a scathing state audit. It raised questions about city finances and fiscal controls and included an ethics complaint.
As a way to help fund the city, Weeki Wachee city officials were competing with Hernando County to take over Florida Water Services, the private water company serving thousands of homes in Spring Hill. They lost the bid, but in the process, ran up a large legal bill with their attorney, Joe Mason.
There was talk at the state level about pulling the city’s charter, former state Rep. Dave Russell from Spring Hill told the Times last month. But county officials feared that if the city were disbanded, the county would have to pay off Mason’s legal bill, he said. The most recent state audit of Weeki Wachee says the city still owes Mason more than $1 million.
Instead of disbanding the city, Russell got a bill passed in 2004 to curb the city’s power. It took away the city’s power to condemn property, prevented it from annexing land, reduced the tax rate it could charge and required oversight of city elections by the county Supervisor of Elections.
Russell told Turbeville last month that it seemed the city had avoided election oversight — it simply held no elections to be overseen. Apparently, only one candidate per city job has stepped forward each election year since then.
It’s one of many ways Weeki Wachee is unlike most cities.
Weeki Wachee has no residential addresses. The one-square-mile city, population 13, consists of the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, some undeveloped land and the Winn Dixie strip mall diagonally across the corner of State Road 50 and U.S. 19.
People, mostly employees, live in a few cabins in the state park. The city has five registered voters, who all list their address as the park.
But they don’t pay the property taxes that city commissioners enact each year. Neither does the park. Those tax revenues, budgeted at $49,221 for the coming year, according to a public hearing announcement, are paid by businesses in the strip mall.
Only one city commissioner lives in the city, in one of the park cabins. Commissioners are supposed to hold regular public meetings, but they are not widely advertised. State audits have criticized the city for canceling so many.
”The local businesses fund the city through taxation, with absolutely no voice as an elector of the city,'' Turbeville wrote to the legislative delegation. "What services the city provides, if any, are unknown.''
Turbeville focused his concerns on the roles of Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson, city commissioners John Athanason and David Hramika, and city clerk Marcia Karcher. Hramika lives in the park.
Anderson arrived in the area nearly 30 years ago and has held nearly every position in the park, including mermaid. She is the most recognizable of the city’s officials, and has been assistant park manager since Weeki Wachee became a state park.
Athanason is the park spokesman, while Hramika has overseen the park’s water park, called Buccaneer Bay. Karcher is the park bookkeeper.
State records show that Anderson earns a park salary of $58,160 per year. Athanason makes $45,990, Karcher makes $44,640, and Hramika earns an hourly salary of $13.20. The city charter allows for city commissioner salaries of $10 per month.
Turbeville also discovered that Hramika and Anderson operated a private business in the park. State corporate records show that the business — Aquatic Safety Consulting Plus — was shut down after he raised questions.
State park officials have told the city it can no longer run its government operations from the state park, according to the spokesperson, although the city’s web site still lists the state park address. For the required public hearing Sept. 17 on its annual budget, the city’s notice listed the address of a storefront just outside the Weeki Wachee city limits.
The only visible indication of the city’s presence was Karcher’s city clerk business card attached to a name plaque beside the door.
The general counsel for the state Department of Environmental Protection has been investigating possible conflicts at Weeki Wachee. In addition to Turbeville, state parks staff members have expressed concern about the dual responsibilities for the four employees, according to a July email from Chuck Hatcher, assistant director of field operations for state parks.
“It is thought that these council positions would be a conflict. I am advising to not allow them,’’ he wrote to Brian Fugate, bureau chief for Florida State Parks District 4.
Last week, Goodman, the state’s deputy secretary for land and recreation, wrote to Turbeville. She had delivered his materials to the department’s general counsel, she wrote, and "they want to speak directly with some of the park staff and then will deliver their conclusions in writing.''
Goodman did not say when.
“The Department has taken steps to remove possible conflicts of interest, such as ending the use of park property that was formally leased for official city business,” said department spokesperson Khoury. "We are also continuing to look into the possibility of any remaining conflicts of interest moving forward and how to address them.''
On the issue of dissolving the city of Weeki Wachee, Khoury said, "DEP has no jurisdiction regarding this matter.''
Russell, the legislator who tried to head off problems in 2004, said he shares Turbeville’s concerns. Protecting the river is tantamount, he agreed, and the time has come for the city to go.
"The bottom line is that it’s about the resource,'' Russell said. “What does the city of Weeki Wachee’s existence provide to that end? I don’t know that it’s anything more than being about money at this point. And self-perpetuation.''