SALT Energy’s Lisa Kaul, left, addresses a panel of Marathon Planning Director Brian Shea, FKCA president Armand Messina, Public Works Director Carlos Solis, Building Official Gerard Roussin and City Manager George Garrett at a contractors workshop on Oct. 26. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Those counting the number of times the word “communication” came up in conversation at an Oct. 26 meeting between the city of Marathon and the Florida Keys Contractors Association (FKCA) had their work cut out for them.

A product of recent weekly meetings between FKCA president Armand Messina and city officials, the open workshop brought a panel of Messina, City Manager George Garrett, Building Official Gerard Roussin and Public Works Director Carlos Solis before a crowd of local contractors to address issues with Marathon’s permitting system and other related workflow complaints. Councilmen Jeff Smith and Kenny Matlock attended the session as observers, while Planning Director Brian Shea joined the panel later in the meeting after requests from public commenters.

For nearly three hours, the panel worked through a gamut of concerns and questions brought by local contractors, several of which could fill a page of this paper by themselves. While some prompted simple “no-brainer” fixes – working to improve cell phone reception for Roussin from within his own office, for one – others fell outside the city’s current purview, highlighting the tail end of strained relationships between Marathon and the Florida Department of Commerce (formerly the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity).

Marathon’s planning department, among others, was frequently under the microscope, as several echoed the sentiment of “Permit Lady” Gay Marie Smith that “Communication is bad. I’m going to say it with a capital B, capital A, capital D.” Though it admittedly would not solve their issues, many said frequent updates on the city’s progress with permitting work, as well as greater accessibility to contact employees directly, would go a long way toward assuaging their concerns. 

Others lambasted Marathon’s OpenGov permitting portal, saying the city’s permits require items not needed in other municipalities and that the system prohibits progression with required entry fields that may not be applicable to their particular type of permit.

A few advocated for a 48-hour deadline to return calls and emails, while Messina returned to his oft-repeated request to do away with the locked door at the entrance to City Hall’s lobby. Solis said the area is due for a remodel in the coming months, while Garrett added that city staff are currently undergoing customer relations training.

“I would like to get to the point where any time we are interacting with the public, I would like that interaction to be something where you are the client, and in order to make us successful, we’re going to try to accomplish something for you,” Garrett said. “There’s no reason that anybody should be impolite, because I can tell you ‘hell no,’ but do it with a smile. There’s nobody in this building who should have that problem.”

“Overall, everybody was just really pleased,” Messina told the Weekly a day later. “Even if they didn’t like what they heard, they were just pleased to get it out and express their opinion. 

“Now, the future depends on how they take it. Let’s see if it does any good. … The FKCA would like to see Marathon be the best city in the Florida Keys as far as pulling permits goes, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t be.”

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.