Plan to hire a consultant to conduct ‘after action’ review of county hurricane procedures sparks commission debate
Sarasota County is on track to complete the “first pass” of storm debris collection within 90 days, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the County Commission this week.
Additionally, County Administrator Tom Harmer reported that staff is working with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation on what he termed an “after action” review of the county’s readiness for and response to Hurricane Irma. He hopes to have that completed within 90 days, as well, he said.
“We are starting to see an improvement with services from our vendor,” Lewis said on Oct. 11. CrowderGulf, with which the county has its primary storm debris contract, provided more trucks last week and again this week, he continued. (The firm is based in Alabama.)
Even more trucks were expected late this week, he added.
Further, Lewis reported, the county has eight of its own trucks working in both North County and South County, with the opening of more debris management sites having made that possible.
Earlier this week, Richard Collins, the county’s emergency services director, announced that the county had closed Rothenbach Park on Bee Ridge Road so it could use that site for debris management. The park will remain closed until further notice, the county noted on social media.
Altogether, Collins wrote in an Oct. 9 email, as of that day, 21 trucks were collecting storm debris countywide.
Staff still was waiting on 10 rental trucks for which it had made arrangements, Lewis told the County Commission, but they should be in by the beginning of next week at the latest.
Additionally, “staff has made significant progress” in its efforts to obtain signed “hold harmless” agreements, so workers can pick up materials on private roads and in gated communities, he said. Message boards are going up in neighborhoods on private roads about two or three days in advance of crews’ expected arrival, he said, so more residents will have the opportunity to turn in agreements.
Contrary to misinformation that has been spread, Lewis pointed out, not every resident on a private road has to be willing to have storm debris collected for the county to send a crew down that road.
When Commissioner Alan Maio asked how residents are being notified on private roads, Lewis responded that door hangers are being used along with the message boards. Contractors’ representatives also are going door-to-door to alert people, he noted.
Moreover, Lewis said, staff planned to begin using its CodeRed alert system to spread the word about the collection schedule.
Harmer pointed out that the interactive map that staff created on the county website has been of assistance to residents. Anyone can enter his or her address to find out when storm debris collection is anticipated in the resident’s neighborhood, he added. The public also can see information about the areas where the first passes have been completed.
“That map should be changing frequently as additional resources some in,” Lewis noted.
Furthermore, the fees at the county landfill have been waived indefinitely for vegetative debris, Lewis told the board, and the landfill remains open on Saturdays for the public to bring in such materials. More than 25,000 tons of debris has been deposited there already, he noted.
The landfill is located at 4000 Knights Trail Road in Nokomis.
Commissioner Michael Moran then told County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh that he thought the Office of the County Attorney did “a phenomenal job” on the contracts with the vendors for storm debris collection. Although he is not an attorney, Moran said, he thought “a first-year law student could read [the contracts] and see that the punitive language in there was very specific, and it was designed for specifically this exact situation that happened.”
Moran was referring to the fact that when the county began working on storm debris collection, subcontractors hired by its vendors learned they could make more money — twice as much in some cases — by heading to South Florida instead of staying in Sarasota County. That has led to the delay in Sarasota County collections.
“Do you need or want anything from us to, as aggressively as possible, collect on some of the punitive clauses in the contracts?” Moran asked DeMarsh.
“I do not need anything from the commission today,” DeMarsh replied. “We are working with the administration to evaluate the best course to proceed.”
If it appears a lawsuit will be necessary, he continued, he would seek the board’s approval of that step.
As for the ongoing expense of the hurricane: In his Oct. 9 email, Collins wrote that the county had incurred expenses so far totaling $5.2 million.
The ‘after action’ review
County Administrator Harmer then brought up the “after action” review, noting that the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Barancik Foundation are working with staff to schedule two facilitated sessions to review the county’s actions related to the hurricane and to suggest any modifications in procedures. The goal is to hire a “highly qualified professional” to lead those workshops, he pointed out.
Additionally, staff plans to bring in at least three professional emergency managers from other Florida counties to conduct a peer review, Harmer noted.
A formal report will be produced and “ultimately presented to the board for discussion, review and support,” he continued.
“Are we paying somebody to facilitate this?” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked.
The foundations offered to assist with the process, which will include the Sarasota County School District, Harmer replied.
“A facilitator charges,” Detert said.
The county has not budgeted for that, Harmer told her, though “there may be a cost.”
He reiterated his statement that the foundations had offered to be “part of the process.”
“We’re not paying for that service [of the facilitator]?” Detert asked again.
That has not been finalized, Harmer replied.
“There’s a charge [for a facilitator],” Detert said.
“We’re in the early stages,” Harmer told her.
Then Emergency Services Director Collins pointed out that staff is “working through that process now,” including researching the expense of a facilitator.
“I think you did a great job,” Detert said of staff’s response to the hurricane. “There’s two little blips,” she added, but “I don’t think we need to pay a facilitator. … I’m just not interested in paying a consultant to tell us what we did right or wrong. If you all have the time and money, you’re on a different planet from me, quite frankly.”
“I do think that the system needs to be audited,” Chair Paul Caragiulo responded. “Arguably, [the county’s assistance to the public in an emergency is] the most significant and important thing that we can do. It is the reason why you have government in the first place.”
Considering the number of people involved and the fact that people suffered little damage, he added, he thought things “went very well.” Nonetheless, he said, “I absolutely want somebody from the outside to take a look at this.”
Commissioner Maio said he thought Caragiulo’s “use of the word ‘audit’ is appropriate. … But, overall, we just did a phenomenal job.”
An audit will provide guidance on the number of shelters it should use, shelter locations and the need for backup generators for special needs shelters, for example, for a future emergency, Maio pointed out.
The participation of the foundations in the review “only further drives home the point of how important it is,” Caragiulo said.
As for bringing in the emergency management professionals: Harmer explained that as the design of the Emergency Operations Center was underway a few years ago, staff brought in emergency managers from counties where such facilities recently had been built to ask them for their thoughts. The county paid for their lunches and possibly some of their travel expenses, he added. “That return on investment was tremendous. … We’re not looking to spend a lot of money in this review.”
Detert told Harmer that the only problems with the county’s efforts for the hurricane that she would call “blips” dealt with the lack of shelters in Venice and the need to communicate better with the municipalities on shelter space they can provide their residents. “People should have a list; they should know where they’re supposed to go,” Detert added, and they need to know that “well in advance.”
“It’s definitely an area we are going to be reviewing and responding on,” Harmer told her.
City of Sarasota update
In his Oct. 6 newsletter, Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin reported that as of the middle of that week, “approximately 40% of the storm debris throughout the city limits has been picked up during the first collection cycle. Crews are working in all areas of the City now and we expect they will finish the initial pass for the entire City by October 20th,” he added.
“Approximately 75% of the debris north of Fruitville Road has been collected, as contract and [city] Public Works crews continue to work from north to south,” he noted. “Additional crews are now in neighborhoods south of Fruitville Road and on the barrier islands.
“So far, a total of 20,000 cubic yards has been picked up. We calculate the amount of debris created by Irma is almost the same amount of yard debris our crews would pick up over two years. It’s an enormous task made even more challenging with so many communities throughout the southeast seeking the same resources,” Barwin pointed out.
“The Storm Debris Hotline is still active and will continue to take calls as long as necessary,” he wrote. The number for the hotline is 855-428-4526.