Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Longtime village critic takes on new mayor

ISLAMORADA -- The race for Village Council Seat 3 matches newly appointed Mayor Ken Philipson against hotelier Paul Bates, a vocal village critic who is making his fourth council run.

Philipson, 73, is the owner of Tropical Optical eye wear shop on Upper Matecumbe Key. He's also a one-term Village Council incumbent who became mayor last month at the behest of his predecessor, Michael Reckwerdt, who passed him the gavel. Bates, 53, owns Coconut Cove Resort on Windley Key. He's also a part-time pilot for American Airlines, a wedding planner, a minister, a pyrotechnics expert and a midwife.

The two men have sharply different takes on what their priorities would be if elected, as well as on the state of the village.

Philipson said there's no question as to what his main focus would be in a second two-year term.

"Grants, grants and grants," he said, referencing the need to pay for the village's $113 million wastewater project. Philipson touted his experience on the council, including numerous trips to Tallahassee, when asked why he'd be more effective than Bates at securing grant money.

Other priorities Philipson identified for the coming two years include running the village in an efficient, businesslike manner and hiring an in-house attorney to work with the village's contracted legal team from the Weiss Serota law firm.

"We'll be visiting that as one of the first things I do if I'm re-elected," Philipson said.

Bates, who has been persistent and often personal in his criticism of Weiss Serota through the years, and who is currently the litigant in three lawsuits against the village, says Philipson's proposal doesn't go far enough.

"Ken's position is so flawed because he has Weiss Serota involved with the transition to in-house, and that's like having a wolf create the checks and balances for the henhouse," Bates said. "I would sever all connections with Weiss Serota immediately."

Bates also said he'd push for a lobbying ordinance, requiring job applicants and village staffers to disclose if they've ever had financial dealings with one another.

Bates also promised to reduce taxes if elected.

"The greatest waste we have is overpaying our highest managers, along with the fire department, Weiss Serota and bad decision-making by the council," he said.

His opponent's critique aside, Philipson touts the financial results from his first 2 ¬½ years on the council, a period in which property tax collections and expenditures have remained virtually flat. Among his biggest achievements, he said, is helping the village obtain a $20 million state wastewater grant this year.

In addition, Philipson said, the current council has worked hard and successfully to pare down the litigation that is pending against the village -- a move that will reduce legal fees.

Sixteen cases involving the village have been closed this year, either by settlement, dismissal or after trial, according to a late August report from village attorney Nina Boniske. Among them was a lawsuit over the north Plantation Key wastewater system in which litigant WPC Industrial Contractors agreed to pay the village $1.075 million.

Other accomplishments Philipson ranks among his most important over the past two-plus years are completing a $90.9 million sewer deal with Reynolds Water Islamorada and replacing former Village Manager Ken Fields with Ed Koconis.

But the buyout of Fields' contract, which Philipson later took responsibility for negotiating behind the scenes, was also among the most criticized actions of his Village Council term. The rapid-fire manner in which the council approved the $200,000 deal two Septembers ago led to a State Attorney's Office investigation into four councilmen, including Philipson, for suspected violations of Florida's open-meeting law. No charges were brought in the case, but public criticism led Fields and the council to agree to reduce the buyout to $160,000.

Philipson also had his motives questioned in his successful effort to reduce the affordable housing impact fees that the village charges on new development -- a pursuit he took up after learning it would cost $9,000 in such fees to complete a modest expansion of his Tropical Optical building.

He defended his record last week.

"I exposed excessive taxation which has since been changed," he said. "I have been totally transparent on everything I've done. Ask me a question and I'll give you an answer."

Philipson was loathe to criticize Bates last week, questioning only whether his opponent, with his many professional interests, will have the 25 to 30 hours a week which Philipson said is needed to perform the job of councilman.

In response, Bates said he already spends 50 hours a week working on village business as a citizen watchdog.

Meanwhile, Bates took his opponent to task on issues ranging from the Fields buyout, to fiscal management, to Reckwerdt's recent decision to pass Philipson the gavel. Bates calls the latter a "back-room deal."

Bates, though, is no stranger to controversy in Islamorada as well. He has been the plaintiff in seven of the eight lawsuits in which he has been embroiled with the village, including the three active cases. Many of the lawsuits have involved allegations that the village targeted Coconut Cove for code enforcement violations in retribution for Bates speaking out against the local government.

Meanwhile, Bates' often fierce criticism of village officials has made him a pariah in many quarters of Village Hall.

He's also struggled at the ballot box -- never garnering as much as 44 percent of the vote in three runs for council.

Bates last week said he's proud of his efforts to expose what he views as village corruption. And he said he'll have more success this year because elections are in November instead of March, meaning turnout will be higher and the election demographic will be different.

"I would have done things much different than Ken," he said.

Countered Philipson, "I'm experienced and can get the job done. You don't have to worry about my integrity or loyalty or honesty."

rsilk@keysnews.com

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