PUNTA GORDA — Punta Gorda City Council members voted Wednesday to give the New Operation Cooper Street Board a temporary six-month lease to operate the Cooper Street Recreation Center in Punta Gorda.
Punta Gorda Attorney Ed Wotitzky, representing the New Operation Cooper Street Rec Center board at the meeting, told the City Council that the current lease with the city is legally sufficient.
He said the board proved the city-owned building is being used for a public purpose through its numerous programs, citing a Florida attorney general’s opinion that allows for a city building to be subleased for public purposes.
Later in the meeting, David Levin, attorney for the city, said the lease between the NOCS board and the city, which he revised in 2008 and 2015, is not legally sufficient and is therefore void.
He said he agrees that the NOCS board has proven a public purpose and meets the first “prong” of what the Florida Constitution requires in a public lease.
He said the lease doesn’t meet the second prong, however, because there’s no provision ensuring the council has oversight on subleasing the building to other entities.
Levin said without knowing who subleases the property, the council can’t prove the building will be used for a public purpose. He believes there are “levels of control that are necessary” to make the lease consistent with the state attorney general and the Supreme Court decisions.
City Council member Bill Dryburgh said he’d like the city to create a lease with those parameters and “get it on the street” as soon as possible for “any nonprofit” to operate the building.
City Manager Greg Murray said that could include the NOCS board.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Murray offered the board a blank lease to sign, but the board refused and instead sent a letter from Wotitzky saying there was a current lease in place that had not been terminated by the city.
Levin suggested the board vote on a temporary lease. He said it will take time for the council’s request for proposal process and to review the nonprofits who apply to run the rec center.
City Council member Debi Lux, voting against the measure, disagreed.
“We have a legally binding agreement with the New Operation Cooper Street Board,” she said, adding there are provisions in the lease that allow the board to sublease it to another entity.
Lux repeatedly asked the board to change the existing contract with the NOCS board to meet the provisions until the lease agreement runs out in five years.
She asked if the board is going to bring back its lease agreement with the Punta Gorda Boat Club because it wasn’t scrutinized like the Cooper Street contract. She said the boat club didn’t meet the “first prong” for a public purpose.
There were two answers to her question. One was yes, and the other was, there’s no need.
Council Member Melissa Lockhart said she was the one to bring up all of the leases the city has with nonprofits. She learned the city owns land where the boat club built a building, and the city owns and pays for some buildings that it leases for $1 a year.
She said some of the leases are for 20 years, which is far too long to have without a review or additional payments.
The board voted 4-1 to give the NOCS board six months to operate. Then it will see if the board has come into compliance with providing financial information.
The city will also prepare requests for proposals for any nonprofits to utilize the building and potentially pay for usage and some improvements.
Murray said city staff will provide the council the RFP in January.
Currently, the NOCS board subleases the property to the Charlotte County YMCA for before-school and after-school and summer camp programs.
That sublease was questioned by City Council member Donna Peterman, who is on a YMCA advisory board. She said the reason the NOCS board subleased to the YMCA is because the rec center board lost its child care license.
After the meeting, Jaha Cummings, the NOCS board president, said Peterman’s comments were incorrect.
“We didn’t lose our child care license,” he said. “We altered our lease with the city through attorney Levin to allow for the YMCA to use the building for child care purposes.”
Cummings said the council also falsely accused the center of lacking internet, not paying expenses and failing to provide financial information and programming schedules.
“We also added new high-speed internet for the Small Business Administration to use the building to help people start a new business,” he said. “Over the years, our board raised $100,000 for improvements to the recreation center. How is that considered not spending anything on the building? Every month, I send the city manager an update on the programming. Again, it’s false to say this information hasn’t been given to the council.”
After the meeting, Wotitzky said there seems to be an “underlying current” at the City Council level regarding the second prong of the sublease discussion that hasn’t been clarified.
Cummings said he believes some members of the council want to expand the YMCA’s programing into the Cooper Street Rec Center.
Wotitzky said the NOCS board is willing to work with the city.