BROOKSVILLE — State lawmakers representing Hernando County voted this week to support a local bill to disband the city of Weeki Wachee. They cited concerns about a lack of transparency, potential conflicts of interest and the city’s failure to conduct elections through the county Supervisor of Elections, as required by law.
State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, presented the local bill to fellow legislators Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, at the county’s annual Legislative Delegation meeting on Monday.
Weeki Wachee city officials don’t live inside the city limits, yet they tax local businesses, Ingoglia explained. And while a bill passed in 2004 required the city to run elections through the Supervisor of Elections, that has not happened. Ingoglia also noted that getting answers to basic questions about the city was difficult.
In 2014, an audit by the Florida auditor general said the city was in "a state of financial emergency'' and owed its attorney, Joe Mason, more than $1 million. Despite levying property taxes every year, Ingoglia said, "none of it goes to benefit the city.'' Much of the revenue goes toward Mason’s bill, including $25,000 in the current year.
On Monday, Weeki Wachee River advocate Shannon Turbeville urged legislators to abolish the city. The so-called City of Live Mermaids has featured an underwater swimming show since 1947 with women dressed as mermaids. Weeki Wachee was incorporated in 1966 to put the iconic roadside attraction on maps and signs. Turbeville argued that it does not operate at all like a city.
Turbeville has been working for two years to help facilitate a $6 million river restoration project, a focus for Simpson. Turbeville’s research of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which now runs the attraction at the headwaters of the river, turned up many abnormalities of the 1-square-mile municipality. It has 13 residents, but only one address for voting residents, the state park itself.
Thousands of pages of public records lead Turbeville to question allowing the three Weeki Wachee city commissioners and city clerk to also work as key employees of the state park. He saw that as a conflict of interest between their roles to make money for the city and their duty to protect the river and springs.
State park ownership since 2008 has made the park more popular. But the documented overuse of kayaks rented by a state park vendor led the Weeki Wachee community to say they were destroying the river. Turbeville also found that the park was allowing more visitors into the park than it should. Limits on both of those activities are in the park’s unit management plan, which aims to protect the natural resources, but state park officials have only recently begun to enforce them.
At Monday’s meeting, Turbeville touted Simpson’s support for the river restoration.
“Please continue to have an open ear to proven conflicts of interest such as this that can have a negative impact on the life of your project and this natural resource,'' he asked Simpson.
Several Weeki Wachee State Park volunteers cautioned lawmakers Monday from making sweeping changes that would "erode the legacy'' of the Weeki Wachee mermaid experience.
Dissolving the city of Weeki Wachee worried volunteer Bill Scherer.
"Once you say it’s gone, it’s off the map,'' he said.
Ingoglia said that concerns about the state park and the river were not the same as concerns about whether the city should stay or go.
"You can see there is no added value to the city,'' he said.
One man in the audience had a distinctly different view of the city’s value -- its long-time attorney, Joe Mason.
"The importance of the city is in the community fabric,'' Mason said, calling the city “a significant benefit as a tourist attraction.”
Mason shrugged off concerns about oversight of past elections, saying there was no need because none of the commission seats was ever contested. But the 2004 bill required oversight, Ingoglia said, even if it was just that candidates register with the supervisor before an election, like in the city of Brooksville.
Mason said that wasn’t how he understood the law.
Abolishing the city would benefit him, Mason said, because he could collect his legal fees from the county, which would inherit the city’s assets and liabilities. But he would still like to see the city stay intact, he said.
“It won’t be the same if you take the city out of the City of Live Mermaids,” Mason said.
There are no conflicts of interest at the park, he said. He asked to present more information to the legislators. Ingoglia asked for contact details so his staff could be in touch.
Another meeting of the delegation, this time in Tallahassee, will allow them to examine the facts before moving forward with the proposed bill, Ingoglia said.