Home / Government / Mayor Steingold silences residents following tree ordinance discussion

Mayor Steingold silences residents following tree ordinance discussion

Jim Barge speaks at the Safety Harbor City Commission meeting on Nov. 2, 2015. Mr. Barge and others were not allowed to speak by Mayor Andy Steingold during last night's meeting.
Jim Barge speaks at the Safety Harbor City Commission meeting on Nov. 2, 2015. Mr. Barge and others were denied the right to speak by Mayor Andy Steingold during last night’s meeting.

Did you know that if you planted a sapling when Safety Harbor officials decided to revise the city’s grand tree ordinance, today it would be a full-grown oak that would be subjected to the very standards they were looking to set at the time?

Okay, so maybe that’s not quite true.

It just seems like it’s been a long time since the City Commission began overhauling its existing grand tree ordinance, a process that started last October and has encompassed countless hours of discussion and debate during numerous workshops, town hall meetings, commission meetings and appeal hearings dedicated to the topic.

The City’s latest exercise in watching trees grow, and telling people where to plant them, came on Monday night, when the commission held what essentially amounted to a town hall meeting – a single item on the regular meeting agenda – to address a dozen potential changes to an ordinance that is less than nine months old.

However, unlike typical town hall meetings, or any city government meeting, for that matter, Mayor Andy Steingold refused to allow any public comments at the conclusion of the two-hour discussion, a move that infuriated one resident who’s been affected by the ordinance.

Michael Oberacker at the nov. 2 commission meeting.
Michael Oberacker at the Nov. 2 Safety Harbor City Commission meeting.

“That’s a freaking joke!” Michael Oberacker, who recently lost an appeal for unknowingly violating the tree ordinance, told Safety Harbor Connect after he stormed out of City Hall following Steingold’s decision.

“They’re being too heavy handed to land owners in this town,” he added. “We own the property, we take care of the property, and now not only are they telling us where to plant trees on our property, they won’t even allow us to speak up about it. It’s wrong.”

Oberacker wasn’t the only one who was upset with Steingold’s decision.

Outspoken Safety Harbor businessman and property owner Jim Barge, who called out the commission at their last meeting on November 2, earning a stern rebuke from Steingold later that night, was also upset he wasn’t allowed to speak.

“You have a City Commission that’s clearly not resident focused,” Barge said.

“There were several residents in attendance at the commission meeting that wanted to speak, and the mayor, even knowing this, did not give residents the opportunity to promote public input.”

Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold.
Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold.

The reason behind Steingold’s snub was simple — since the commission was taking no action on the proposed amendments, meaning they weren’t voting on anything, they were not required by law to seek public input on the subject.

“I am not going to take public input at this point, only because we did not vote on anything at this time,” Steingold said after returning from a five-minute recess he called at the conclusion of the discussion.

“All we did was have a discussion amongst ourselves and it’s going to come back on the agenda for changes, at which time I will take extensive public comment from anyone who wishes to be heard at that time.”

Steingold then suggested that anyone who did wish to comment send an email to city hall expressing his or her thoughts on the matter.

The move, while legally sound, was definitely curious, since the mayor has been known to allow comments on any agenda item, including presentations and proclamations, over the course of his two terms in office.

Safety Harbor Connect reached out to Mayor Steingold for his comments about the matter, and he reiterated his stance about not being legally required to take public comments in that situation.

“Due to Sunshine laws all dialogue between commissioners on a matter that may be voted on must occur at a public meeting,” he wrote via email. “Last night there was merely dialogue amongst the commission and no action was taken. Thus, we did not take public comment.”

“However, the commission will and always has taken public comment prior to action items on the agenda. The commission values the input of its citizens which is how we improve the operation of city government.”

Safety Harbor resident Jim Barge (File photo).
Safety Harbor resident Jim Barge (File photo).

According to Barge, the move was directly aimed at silencing them.

“It was absolutely aimed at two people that wanted to speak, myself and Mr. Oberacker, that wanted to make comments that were not of their thinking,” Barge said. “If the people that wanted to speak were supporters of his position, he would have opened the meeting to public comment.”

“The mayor’s lack of taking comment that is contrary to his own thinking shows that he is out of touch with the average citizen who he is elected to represent.”

This morning, Mr. Oberacker left a comment directed at the mayor on an article we wrote about the denial of his appeal, and he pulled no punches:

All due respect, the stunt pulled last night if not illegal was truly unethical. At the beginning of the meeting and in the agenda it stated that citizen comments would be heard. Just before your 5 minute break you even stated that citizens would be heard next. Then after you and the commissioners conferred in the back room you came back and would not allow citizens to be heard. You well knew several of us were there to weigh in on this topic. This was a shameful use of power on your part and backed up by the commissioners.

The issue is set to come up again when the Commission votes on the proposed changes to the tree ordinance.

Stay with Safety Harbor Connect for full coverage of this topic.

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  1. Reading through these comments, it is clear to me why they weren’t allowed to speak. There’s a difference between respectfully bringing up your concerns and going there to argue and yell at people.

  2. Some of you act like this is just our little town making all these bad rules about trees. As an FYI, Safety Harbor was just about one of the last cities in Pinellas to get our trees protected. It took me just a few minutes to go find several bits and pieces from other cities to show you that the protection of trees in our cities is a major issue.

    The conservation of native trees on a site is strongly encouraged; however, the protection of the following species of trees shall be mandatory: all oak species; all maple species; sweet gum; hickory; elm; loblolly; sweet bay; real bay; swamp bay; sycamore; magnolia.

    Due to the benefits derived from a healthy tree canopy, the Clearwater Community Development Code establishes tree protection standards that promote the preservation of and expansion of tree canopies. The City requires a certain number of trees and a variety of tree species to be maintained on a site to achieve these goals. A permit is required to remove any protected tree, which is any nonhazardous tree four inches DBH (diameter breast height) or greater or any palm with a 10 foot clearance and straight trunk.
    • Removal of a protected tree without a permit could result in fines up to $5000.

    Table 2 – Tree Replacement Fees FEES; Individual Single-Family Residential Lots 4 inch to less than 10 inch DBH, $10.00 per inch removed.. 10 inch to less than 20 inch DBH, $20.00 per inch removed. 20 inch to less than 30 inch DBH, $40.00 per inch removed. 30 inch and greater DBH, $50.00 per inch removed. All Other Developments or Properties: 4 inch to less than 8 inch DBH, $25.00 per inch removed. 8 inch to less than 15 inch DBH, $50.00 per inch removed. 15 inch to less than 25 inch DBH, $75.00 per inch removed. 25 inch and greater DBH, $100.00 per inch removed.

    Tree Regulations
    Effective 09/17/15, City Council amended the minimum landscaping requirements and the tree protection standards, establishing Grand Tree and Signature Tree protection standards; Ordinance 195-H

    • 4″¬15″ DBH 1 inch replaced per each inch removed -1 required canopy tree
    • 16″¬30″ DBH 2 inches replaced per each inch removed -2 required canopy trees
    • Over 30″ DBH 3 inches replaced per each inch removed -3 required canopy trees (1) Replacement trees shall be native species selected from the Approved Species List of this Code

    Some Dunedin trees are protected under the provisions of District Plan

    ARTICLE II. TREE PROTECTION Sec. 62-31. Intent. Trees are declared to be a natural public resource. It is the intent of the city to protect them as set out in this article in the interest of the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of this city. To that end, it shall be unlawful to cut down, damage by topping or improper pruning, poison or in any other manner destroy or cause to be destroyed any trees as covered by the terms of this article except in accordance with all the provisions of this article.

    I would suggest that if you don’t like where you live now, that there are other cities to live in, but most others will also tell you what you can do with your own trees.

  3. One question…. When did we move into a Dictatorship? This is the most insane thing I have heard so far. So if I remove a 12 inch trunked tree I must replant a combination equal or greater to the number of inches in tree removed. UMMM do I not own my land? If the Commission is going to dictatorship us into what our properties need to look like should they not also be given the equal to or greater option….. Option one – you pay my mortgage/taxes or Option 2 allow me to live on my land as the US Constitution allows. – What’s your decision City Commission – #1 or #2? In addition to my question – the new land being developed for yet more Luxury Condos under the guise of being affordable vacation rentals, (Corner of Bayshore and 10th) takes down 100 trees do they not also have to replant under the equal or greater than rule? And what about when you re-zoned the Ferminich Land (Corner of 590 and McMullen) for BayCare to build “Offices/retail space” there are a lot of trees to come down, will they also be required to obey your hair brained tree ordinance?
    The City of Safety Harbor is not a deed restricted city – so I ask when did we begin to hand over all our decision making capabilities to these power hungry BUFFOONS?

    • Ms Reardon- I heartily agree. Mr Barge the best of luck in your suits, as for being civil to the mayor, I think civility includes responding in kind.

  4. Tiffin, you asked me a specific question, so I’m going to answer your question. Your question was: why am I disrespectful (to the mayor and his closest supporters)? It’s time for every resident to learn the truth. The information below are all facts, all of which are being addressed in a pending lawsuit against the mayor and several of his closest supporters.

    Prior to his election as mayor, one of the most ardent Steingold supporters, from the group that I call the crazies and the extremists, trespassed onto my neighbor’s property and they did 2 things. First, they hid undercover video surveillance equipment. Second, they then posted a campaign sign. It’s fact that (a) they did this without my neighbor’s knowledge nor permission, (b) my neighbor was unaware of the hidden video surveillance equipment and (c) my neighbor was not a supporter of Steingold.

    Let’s stop there for just a moment. Just these facts alone are incredible. Would any resident of Safety Harbor be OK with hidden cameras being placed on their property, without them knowing about it?

    Knowing that my neighbor clearly was not a Steingold supporter, when leaving for work one morning I saw the sign and removed the sign. My neighbor had no issues with that. This is the type of neighbor you share an occasional beer with, that I take care of their garbage and am asked to keep an eye on their home when they are on vacation, etc.

    Steingold and/or his supporters, I’m not sure which (these facts will be discovered when Steingold is deposed) then took that video of me removing the sign, and called in a favor to Mike Deeson at ABC News. It’s a fact that Steingold and Deeson have a long-running friendship. Deeson then does Steingold a personal favor and runs a reports claiming that the sign was “stolen”. Oh, and night before the election. Very convenient. What are friends for, right?

    What wasn’t reported by Deeson, and can only be characterized as a gross abuse of power: he ran his news story at 5pm claiming “sign theft caught”, dragging my name through the mud … but did not call my neighbor until after 6pm (after the story was run) to ask them any questions. That’s correct: they were only “interviewed”, AFTER he ran his news story. During that phone conversation, my neighbor specifically told Deeson that he was unaware that the sign was placed in his yard, that he was NOT OK with it, that he was fine with the fact that I removed it, and that I had his permission to remove it. Most importantly, my neighbor was also clearly stunned that there was hidden video survilleance cameras placed ON his property, hidden in his bushes, without his knowledge. He was simply shocked by this.

    What Andy Steingold and his small merry band of core supporters did was defame my name, after taking Gestapo-like tactics in an attempt to falsely discredit a person (me) that was critical of him, in order to win an election. All facts.

    Is that where this city is? That hidden video cameras are being placed on the property of residents without their knowledge? That our elected officials call in favors to old friends at the media to paint a resident as a thief, when no “theft” occurred? These actions are shameful.

    Now keep one last thing to keep in mind. When deposed, people are legally sworn to truth. For anyone that might doubt these facts above, I’ll point out that I’m legally bound to the truth (as will be Steingold) and with those stakes, would certainly not say anything unless I was 100% sure of their accuracy. So yes, everything told here are facts.

    Within 3 weeks, these people are being hit with a defamation lawsuit which is already in process. I don’t want money. I want a public apology. I also want other residents to be aware that THIS is what our small, quaint community has come to. When I talk about “over reaching” elected officials, I am not only referring to what they are doing in city commission meetings.

    So, Tiffin, there is the answer to your question. I think any reasonable resident would be quite bothered if the same had happened to them, and as a result, yes, my tone with the mayor (and a handful of less than 10 of his most extreme supporters) has been less than civil. Flasely attack my character, and yes, I do have a problem with that and yes, it is something that needs to be corrected and resolved. I look forward to the truth being fully exposed, a full retraction of WTSP’s “news” story, and a very public apology from the mayor.

  5. Awesome report Mr. Spoor…Thank you for the time and energy you put into this report. I appreciate you showing the real facts of the situation. Seems like the ordinance is working the way it was designed to work. Great job to our commission for standing up for a little piece of what makes Safety Harbor’s character and charm…our trees!
    Also, let me just say that I’m glad we are allowed to reply to post’s on here, because Jeff’s articles seem to be getting a lot more lopsided as time goes by. Where are his journalistic ethics of just reporting the news? We might as well start calling this “tabloid” The Safety Harbor Unconnected.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Sheryl. I’m sure if you were denied the right to speak at a City Commission meeting, you would want me to report about it as well, and I would. There are always two sides to every story, and I try to cover both.

      • Jeff, it’s not at all about “whether” you reported it, it’s about “how” you reported it. By the way you wrote this article, you would have thought that YOU were the one standing up there all angry about their decision. I could understand your tone if this piece were an opinion piece but I don’t think you ever came out and used the words. You sensationalized this little piece of news to make the commission and the mayor look bad. And what was the whole night about in the first place? It was not about whether Mr. Barge got to speak… It was about re-addressing the tree ordinance, and the changes that needed to be made! Where was that news reported?

        • First I would like to state that I do not know Mr. Barge, Mr Oberacker or any of the other respondents to this post and I don’t believe I have any “heritage” trees on my property.
          I do believe the Tree Ordinance is wrong and antithetical to the principles of any democratic society. As opposed to what Sheryl and Tiffin seem to believe trees on private property are not “OUR TREES” they are the property owners trees. The property owner should not have to prove anything. If the government believes the PO is attempting to harm his neighbors or the city-let THEM prove it!
          As to Mr Spoors not debating on social media, it seems he is making a lengthy and one sided justification of the city’s actions. He seems to think because the city didn’t receive a large amount of cash, the ordinance is working but I don’t see a dollar value put on the 174 trees “replaced” ( a cost to the homeowner) or the cost of the “arborists” salary (a cost to all citizens). As for making comments directly to city hall, we must all consider the city’s ability to legally retaliate against those who disagree them.

        • Sorry you didn’t appreciate the tone of the piece. I was just trying to capture the mood in the room after one person stomped out and had the PCSO deputy follow him and another was sitting inside irate at what happened. As a journalist you have to know when those unforeseen moments overshadow the bigger picture, which is why I attend the meetings and always stay until the very end. At that point, that became the story within the story, not the actual amendments themselves, and the direction of the article changed. As I mentioned, I would do the same for you or anybody else who felt they had been slighted by city officials. As for reporting the news about the ordinance, as the mayor, said it was merely a discussion on possible changes and nothing was voted on. I will be at the meeting when there is a vote taken, and I will report on what, if any, changes to the ordinance are made at that time. Again, thank you for reading and commenting.

        • It is very news worthy for the citizens to know this “town hall” meeting was obviously not for the “town” citizens. I have never attended a town hall meeting where the citizens were not allowed to speak and offer their input. Isn’t that the point of having one?

  6. Please allow me to add a few facts to the discussion. Before you attempt to bait me, regardless of how much fun it may be, I don’t plan to enter into a debate via social media. If you are interested in setting up a time to discuss our Tree Ordinance or have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at 727-724-1555 or mspoor@cityofsafetyharbor.com.


    (1) Mr. Oberacker has many trees on his property, by his own account “about 20”. His property is beautiful and well kept, due to the many protected trees and his property maintenance standards.
    (2) Mr. Oberacker applied for a driveway permit to expand his driveway, after he applied for his tree permit. The driveway permit is a separate permit and has nothing to do with his tree permit. The two trees removed were permitted for removal because they were causing damage to his existing driveway. His driveway permit application does not change that fact.
    (3) The City does not tell residents where to plant trees on their private property. An appeal was made based on the premise that there was no room to plant a tree on said property. The City Arborist walked the site and opined that there is room to plant two trees. During the appeal hearing the City showed Mr. Oberacker where we believed there was room to plant trees, we did not tell him he had to plant trees at any specific location. See #6 below regarding resident options when removing a tree.
    (4) The City Arborist has 25+ years of experience as a certified arborist dealing with trees, specifically trees in Pinellas County
    (5) The City Arborist did offer to assist Mr. Oberacker in the planting of two trees. The City Arborist has offered and assisted many residents over the last eight (8) months.
    (6) The Tree Ordinance allows a resident the option to (1) replant a tree; (2) pay into the Tree Bank or; (3) a combination of both for multiple trees being removed from a site. As you will see in the data below 99.3% of all tree removal applicants have chosen option #1, replant a tree.
    (7) The Tree Ordinance review/discussion on Monday night was requested before the Tree Ordinance was adopted, not as a result of our first/only appeal to-date. Last March the City Commission asked for a review in the fall, after the first six months of operation.
    (8) There were twelve (12) items discussed Monday night, the majority (8/12) of which there was little discussion or debate. For the full agenda item or to watch the meeting please visit http://www.cityofsafetyharbor.com.
    (9) The Tree Ordnance statistics based on our first nearly eight (8) months of the new ordinance operation are as follows: (March 17- November 5)

    Tree removal permits issued: 135
    (95.5% or 129 hazardous tree permits and 4.5% or 6 for new development/construction)
    Total trees removed: 177
    Total trees replanted: 174
    Total trees given to residents during the fall Free Tree Event: 300
    Total number of property owners who choose to pay into the tree bank vs. plant a tree: 1
    Total amount of funds paid into the tree bank: $100
    Total number of appeals: 1

    In summary, the City has seen 177 (mostly hazardous) trees removed with 474 new trees being planted (assuming all 300 trees were planted). During this same time frame all but one (1) property owner has chosen to replant a tree vs. paying into the tree bank. Contrary to what many believe, the City is not collecting THOUSANDS of dollars from the tree permitting process. In fact the single payment of $100 over 8 months equates to less than $.75 per permit issued or $.56 per tree removed.

  7. I think the commission is doing the job they were elected to do. The law is the law. I don’t even pay much attention to what’s going on here in Safety Harbor, but even I knew that there was a new tree ordinance. I say just plant the couple of trees that I guess they say they gave you, and call it a day. Who cares whether he’s going to put in some cement for his boat. Everything probably would’ve just come out in the wash, if it weren’t for this Barge guy stirring it up. Seems to me he was stirring up trouble about a year ago too. Mr. Oberacker, plant a couple of trees, pour yourself some cement for your boat, and then distance yourself from this Barge fella …he just seems like a Bully to me.

  8. Now Mr. Oberacker needs to explain himself, with regards to expanding his driveway? Wow, the Zodrow/Steingold police are out in full force! You can be next! Us common citizens didn’t know we needed to offer public explanations when we make improvements to our property. Yes, Mr. Oberacker took 2 of his 36 trees out. Yes, the city arborist deemed the trees were causing driveway damage. Yes, the city gave him only 2 choices: replant new trees (despite the fact that he has 34 trees in his yard) or pay a $1,600 fine; one or the other, no other options. Yes, the city even went so far to tell him exactly where on his property the trees should be planted (wow, that may be THE definition of “over reaching government”). And yes, he apparently is expanding his driveway. And the dictators in town feel he needs to explain himself …. ????? I think 9 out of 10 residents would agree that if a resident of a normal sized lot has a “forest” (arborist’s word) in their yard, and takes out 2 of 36 trees, the resident should not be forced to replant or else face a fine. The commission is looking to alter the law, but STILL would fine the resident based upon last night’s discussion.

    • Ha, why am I not surprised you jumped on my post. Good grief, are you the protector of all those that come before the city commission you so love? We do need a super hero like you to defend against all the evil going on in SH. Come on Jim, did he pay a fine or work with the city on a compromise?

      Quit being such a school yard bully when you and your friends don’t get their way.

      You belittle people in a public forum, call them names, and are disrespectful. This type of behavior makes it very difficult to put any value in anything you say. Why do you do that? I would never do that to you.

      Now you are taking up for Mr. O who seems quite capable of speaking for himself. I just want to know if he had to pay the fine. All else aside, including expanding the driveway (if that’s the case), was a fine paid? I believe that is an important piece of information you really don’t want to answer because it pokes holes in everything you have said.

      Agree or disagree with the tree ordinance, rules are rules. Why not go after the tree company that pulled the permit instead of the city? They know the rules, did they fail to notify to homeowner?

      • Tiffin, what about anything I’ve said in this string constitutes bullying? Just stating the facts … the city commission is over reaching and frankly it’s great to see it coming to the attention so many other citizens, who seem to have an equal problem with the mayor and commissioners.

  9. Mr. Oberacker, there is a rumor going around that you paid no fine and the city worked with you to find trees to plant.

    Is this true?

    By the way, what are the stakes in your yard for?
    Expanding your driveway for your boat?

    If the above is true, what is your issue with the city?

    • Hey Tiffin, go and hug your own trees. I bet you do not have 34 trees on your property (you are probably a renter) like Mr. Oberacker does. Sorry but the arborist was just wrong stating he had room to plant more trees. Just trying to justify his job.

      • Laurie,
        Thank you for the kind words. I did hug a tree this morning and sorry to disappoint,, but I am not a renter, but a home owner.

    • Who cares what he is doing to HIS driveway on HIS property!! Good Lord!! Does every house need to look like a run down piece of crap in this town for the morons to be happy?? I didn’t know Safety Harbor is a Governement run Deed restricted city!?! Time to get rid of all of the commissioners, Mayor and City Manager. Let’s get a petition circulating to get this done sooner than later…they seem to like petitions so…

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