STUART — Mayor Kelli Glass-Leighton wanted a simple answer to a simple survey question regarding the opinions of residents on the possibility of a future stop on Brightline’s planned high-speed passenger railroad but found even that idea to be complicated in the eyes of some citizens.
The mayor broached the topic during her commissioner comments Sept. 24, expressing concern because very few city residents had actually expressed their opinions during a City Hall workshop held on the topic Sept. 17. She said most of the people speaking that evening in the packed chambers were county residents opposed to both the train and a potential station, although some did express support for the station idea. The Commission had tentatively planned to discuss the matter again Oct. 8.
Brightline had recently offered an olive branch of potential passenger service to Treasure Coast municipalities, which for the most part had fought to derail the fast-track efforts of parent company Florida East Coast Industries to implement the service along their section of the rail corridor from Miami to Cocoa and eventually to Orlando. Martin and Indian River counties led the charge, spending more than $6 million to fight the $3.1 billion project. Although it never officially joined the legal challenge, the Stuart City Commission unanimously passed a resolution in 2014 condemning the public safety dangers its members perceived from the proposed rail service. Now the tide of public opinion shows signs of possibly turning.
“We had a public workshop a week ago, and we probably had 40-some public comments,” Mayor Glass-Leighton said. “However, we had very few city residents that got up and spoke in favor or not in favor of having a train station, so I would like to ask the Board if we would consider moving our meeting back to speak about the train station to the following meeting. During this time frame, I would like to get some more feedback from city residents.”
The mayor asked City Attorney Michael Mortell if there would still be enough time to mail out a survey and compile the results in time to meet Brightline’s two month deadline for responses to the idea, which ends Oct. 24, the very day of the Commission’s second meeting that month. The company has sought proposals from the communities of Stuart, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and Sebastian for potential station sites.
“It depends on what you want to do,” he said. “I mean, if on the 24th, you just want to send a letter to the train station saying one thing or another, then sure. If there’s going to be any direction to staff to prepare anything, then it depends on what you guys are going to want to prepare. I doubt there’s a magic bell that’s going to go off on the 24th of October, so if we responded on Oct. 25, again I don’t think that’s going to be a critical delay.”
Mr. Mortell said complications and further delays could potentially come from the type of survey the Commission had in mind, since he suggested a minimum three-week period for the highest number of responses. Even though the city could risk blowing the deadline by a long shot, Mayor Glass-Leighton worried city residents would get caught holding the bag on the platform of a train station pushed by non-city residents.
“I just would err on the side of slowing down and getting some feedback before we make any decisions,” she exclaimed. “If we decide to go with a station and there’s any expense, it’s going to come from the City of Stuart residents. It’s not necessarily going to come from the county residents, so for me at this point I just feel like we need to get more feedback from our residents because they’re the ones that are going to have to foot the bill.”
Commissioner Lula Clarke suggested having a “Train Day” at City Hall for people to drop off their survey responses, as well as utilizing the city’s development partners to send out email blasts with the survey.
“We need to ask the Police Department through their community, watch groups and other groups if they can get residents so we can get a cross section of people trying to respond,” she said. “We’re serious about knowing how our community feels, so maybe we can try to advertise it and at least have a box ready from this week until the 15th of October.”
The mayor initially suggested inserting the surveys in city utility bills, but Assistant Public Works Director David Peters shot that idea down with the timeframe needed to meet the next billing cycle.
“The dilemma is it takes a month to get that out,” he said.
Interim City Manager David Dyess then came to the rescue, offering both an email blast and snail-mail surveys.
“I can get that out -- I’ll get it out -- it’ll be done,” he said. “Whether it’s on the bill because it rotates in cycles, or we do it through the current mailing list we have, it’ll get out to as many residents as we can touch.”
“How quickly do you think you could get the blast churning?” the mayor asked.
“The survey’s ready in my head, so by tomorrow morning it’ll be done,” he replied. “It’s then just a matter of delivering the emails for response to the question.”
Mayor Glass-Leighton and other members of the Board decided on a single yes or no survey question on whether city residents would like to have a train station or not, but they quickly found that simple idea unpopular with the public in attendance who viewed the matter in a much more complex lens. Resident Sandra Feeley insisted the public needed more information in order to answer such a question.
“I don’t feel that I have enough information to say yes or no to a train station in Stuart even though I thought at first I wanted one,” she said. “One question to ask people without couching it in some context as to what impact it would have on the town, particularly the downtown, what use it would be to us as citizens, what will we get out of it if we had a train station -- there’s so much in deciding whether you want a station here.”
Nita Denton wanted to ensure condominium residents like herself who don’t receive city water bills would get a copy of the survey, while NAACP President Jimmy Smith worried the Commission wouldn’t get an accurate snapshot of opinions if households with multiple residents only received one survey via utility bills or otherwise.
“We have got to figure out how to get other people involved,” the latter said. “I’d like to be a part of trying to get that survey out because it’s a concern of all being able to vote on that.”
Mr. Dyess said he could solve the problem with Internet survey responses.
“We can do response by single IP [Internet Protocol] or I can allow multiple from single IPs,” he said.
Ms. Feeley’s husband also spoke, expressing irritation that a community that previously tried to stop the train in its tracks now wanted to hear a conductor yell ‘All Aboard.’
“Every meeting I went to everyone said ‘stop the train, stop the train, stop the train’ -- now we’re saying do we want a stop,” he fumed. “The next thing you know it’s the City of Stuart wants a stop: It’s tantamount to approval of the train. So why would we want a stop if we don’t want the train?”
Like his wife, Mr. Feeley said residents needed accurate information in order to properly answer the survey question.
“I think you need to do a little bit more study before you come up with a questionnaire before you get — as my wife pointed out — inaccurate information upon which you’re going to make a profound decision affecting this town,” he added. “I would hope that you’d know better than to have to put this stuff into a mailer to ask the people what do you think. I think you should know that before you ask these questions.”
The issue became slightly more complicated when at least one county resident facing potential annexation asked whether she would be allowed to answer the survey question, but Mr. Mortell quickly reined in that idea by insisting it be limited to current city residents. The Commission subsequently voted unanimously to send out a sole yes or no survey question couched in hypothetical terms since Brightline has yet to begin construction on the portion of the railroad extending from Cocoa to Orlando.