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Marathon’s internal processes for permit reviews and inspections faced heavy scrutiny from a cohort of frustrated contractors at the city’s monthly workshop on May 28.

The second in what looks to become a series of sessions to address permitting concerns is an extension of ongoing conversations and weekly meetings between Florida Keys Contractors Association president Armand Messina and city staff. 

Concerns on Tuesday evening largely centered on what Mayor Robyn Still later identified as the “three Cs”: consistency, communication and consequences. 

Several who approached the podium said that they weren’t completely aware of the city’s internal protocols and steps that could be causing delays during the permit review process. Others described instances of waiting several weeks with no response from staff to their questions submitted by phone or email, primarily taking aim at the city’s planning department and saying that it often took direct calls to a city council member to prompt a response from the city. 

Virtually all demanded clear expectations for contractors and inspectors along with more constant communication and updates throughout the permit review process, particularly in cases of delays as steps in the review process were passed off to other or additional staff members.

“Our company does work from Key Largo to Key West,” said Design Center owner Andrew George. “I don’t even know any of the (other) council members’ names, and I haven’t talked to any of the building officials because we don’t have problems when we submit a permit. We get the application, and we get the permit within a reasonable amount of time.”

“If something gets held up, we need to be able to address it, and we need to be able to talk to somebody about it,” said Messina. “Two weeks without a call back, there’s no excuse. … (After) our last workshop (in October) it was getting better, but somewhere along the line we lost it.”

“One of the worst problems with staff is communication,” said “The Permit Lady” Gay Marie Smith. “We were told at the last workshop that it was going to get taken care of, and it did not. We don’t get returned phone calls, and we don’t get returned emails.”

Others requested more cross-training, overlapping duties among staff members or allowing staff to answer questions on specific projects if department heads were unavailable, lambasting extended wait times to receive answers to simple questions if certain employees were out of the office due to vacations, sick time or time spent working from home.

“When you’re waiting for permits, time is money,” said Paver Dave owner John Keller. “I have to make sure my employees are paid, so we need to do work.”

“It always seems like it’s the contractors against (the city),” he added. “Aren’t we supposed to be working together for the homeowner to make sure that it’s done correctly? … Us together, we make sure it’s done correctly. But we don’t feel that. … What are we going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again in the future? That’s where I want to see some answers and steps towards that.”

“The number one reason we became a city was the permitting issue we had with the county,” concluded Messina. “I’m very proud that we’ve gotten where we are now, but we can do a lot better.”

Tuesday’s workshop was the first in the series to officially incorporate members of the Marathon City Council, all of whom pledged accountability and closer attention to the city’s timeliness moving forward.

“The private sector should be wishing they were as good and efficient as we are, and we are the dead opposite,” said councilman Kenny Matlock. “Something needs to be implemented. I don’t think it’s right, and it’s costing people big money. … The average person doesn’t know a councilman. They’re frustrated and annoyed and wondering why they can’t get a response.”

“This is about improvement of our process,” said councilman Jeff Smith. He praised potential solutions raised by public commenters, including the use of computer programs to identify “stagnant” permits within the city’s online system. “What I really appreciate is that anybody can sit here and throw darts and complain, but I heard some very specific things today about working on solutions.”

“Consistency, communication and consequences seem to be the theme, no matter what the issue or the problem was,” said Still. “So that’s what we are personally going to be looking for.”

Announced Tuesday night and again in a press release, City Manager George Garrett said that staff will be required to answer or acknowledge all communications regarding permit reviews within 48 hours, whether submitted by phone, e-mail or through the city’s online permitting portal. He added that staff taking time away from the office will also be required to assign a back-up point of contact to each permitting item assigned to them in the city’s online portal to ensure timely completion of reviews.

“Everyone on staff understands this is a requirement,” he said.

Alex Rickert
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.