INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - There is a consensus at the Indian Rocks Beach city commission regarding at least three important city issues.
First, the city commission has demanded a return from former city manager Al Grieshaber of about $15,000 of city taxpayers' funds that allegedly were misappropriated (moving expenses.) This demand from the former city manager has full city commission support even though the questionable appropriation had taken place the previous year.
Much like some other contentious issues at Indian Rocks Beach, the suspect city expenditure had taken place by request from the then city manager to the city treasurer. What makes the city manager expense reimbursement of concern to some city commissioners, such as Commissioner Jose Coppen, is the fact that an e-mail for the city expense check from the former city manager also said the expense was approved by the city attorney. However, the city charter does not delegate such authority to the city attorney and the city attorney factually was not asked by the city treasurer if such check was indeed approved (reviewed) by the city attorney. Thus, the check was released to the former city manager for over $13,000 for questionable moving expenses by the city treasurer.
When the financial matter came to light in late December by the city commission, all were surprised by Grieshaber's e-mail request for payment and lack of notice by the city treasurer to the city commission.
Mayor Bill Ockunzzi stated he was surprised to hear and read about the expense check, "I was just as surprised as other members of this expense reimbursement check." According to the mayor, "the city treasurer has admitted that it was his error in judgment that resulted in the moving expense check being issued." Further, the mayor said that " the treasurer admitted that no one on the city commission was involved with (the matter) and that the city attorney had no role in approving or authorizing issuance of the check." The mayor stated he supports changes to be implemented at city hall to "improve city financial oversight."
However, city commissioner Jose Coppen is not pleased with how the expense reimbursement was handled. "I agree that if Grieshaber requested the moving expense reimbursement from the city treasurer and no one else was involved, then we would have an issue with only the former city manager. Was this a fraudulent request to use taxpayer funds? But, when there is an e-mail from the former city manager stating that the expense reimbursement "was approved by the city attorney," then you might think there would be a communication from the city attorney on the matter since the city attorney was furnished a copy of the e-mail request. There is no communication from the city attorney (who denied approving the check.).
Even though the city attorney might not be delegated to approve or disapprove such city checks made by the city treasurer, you would think he would respond in some manner since his name was used as further approval on the e-mail.
Coppen, however, agrees with this mayor that there must be changes made at Indian Rocks Beach, "Yes, we definitely need some changes at Indian Rocks Beach."
With the matter now in the hands of the city attorney, who made a certified demand for refund of the $15,000 from the former city manager, time will tell how this issue might be fully resolved. As of Tuesday, a return receipt of the certified mail was not yet returned.
Second, there is an issue of a certain roadway named Whitehurst Avenue at the south end of Indian Rocks Beach. This small beach access roadway has been a topic of city discussion for several years. The issue? Where is the exact boundary line between Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores as it relates to the south end of Whitehurst Avenue.
According to documents at Hillsborough County and Pinellas County, the boundary line for Whitehurst Avenue is not clear. Old land documents and time have seemingly "clouded" the exact spot of the southern street boundary of Indian Rocks Beach.
How much land is at issue?
According to the mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, several feet could be at issue.
In 2003 there were meetings to resolve the land dispute. At the time, IRB voted to not vacate land rights. In 2005 IRB Mayor Bill Ockunzzi had conversations with a nearby property owner's attorney regarding the Whitehurst Avenue property, "I said there was no way we were going to give-up our land and that they owed us back taxes." It became clear that a nearby property owner to the roadway desired to obtain a resolution of the land dispute to the south side of Whitehurst at IRB. The land attorney called the IRB city manager and city attorney of IRB for a meeting. "The latest information we received on this matter was from attorney Hellinger representing the nearby property owner, that was on January 24th where we saw his offer of agreement." They seem to want to offer land definition and pay IRB any taxes that might be owed, but I said there were other issues to consider such as coastal land questions," explained Mayor Ockunzzi.
However, meetings to resolve the land issue and property agreement terms suggested by the mayor has been questioned by commissioner Coppen. An ethics complaint against Mayor Ockunzzi has been filed by Coppen.
How might the land issue at Whitehurst be resolved?
There are ongoing discussions between IRB commission and the property owner seeking a final resolution, until then, there is a question regarding the exact southern land location of Whitehurst Avenue at IRB.
Lastly, the city of IRB is trying to resolve a proposed Pinellas County parking lot project regarding certain land the County bought at 23rd and 24th Avenue. Pinellas County officials would like to develop a 60-space parking facility at the location. IRB officials have disagreed with the size of the parking project and are currently working with the County to resolve the issue. "The intent of the County is not consistent with IRB positions regarding this property, " said the mayor. Commissioner Coppen agreed and said that IRB is most visitor friendly, "We have 28 beach accesses, metered parking lots and would work with the County regarding their intent to add more parking at 24th Street . . . though it may not be the size they had once requested. We are a visitor friendly city."
With upcoming elections at IRB one thing appears obvious, there are differences of opinion at IRB and most everyone believes some changes are necessary at IRB city hall.
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