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Did Collier County Just Secede?

By David Silverberg

Beginning this month, the nation baked in relentless, climate change-induced heat; wildfires and storms took lives and wreaked immense havoc; former President Donald Trump was charged with a total of 91 alleged crimes under four indictments; he and 18 of his associates were indicted in Georgia for trying to overthrow the 2020 election; all were arrested and processed in the Fulton County Jail; Trump’s mugshot was released; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) steadily dropped in the polls; Republican presidential candidates except Trump held a televised debate; in Naples convicted Proud Boy Chris Worrell and his girlfriend fled before his sentencing and disappeared; Collier County commissioners passed an ordinance asserting their right to ignore federal law and Hurricane Idalia formed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other than that, it was a typical, sleepy August.

Looking ahead, of all these monumental events, the one that looms largest, with the greatest, longest and most far-reaching consequences for Southwest Florida in particular was…

Passage of the anti-federal ordinance.

Why is this? Let us count the ways.

The vote

On Aug. 22 the Collier County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to pass the “Bill of Rights Sanctuary County” ordinance. Commissioners Rick LoCastro (R-1), Chris Hall (R-2), Dan Kowal (R-4) and William McDaniel (R-5) voted for it. Commissioner Burt Saunders (R-3) cast the only negative vote.

The decision came after weeks of intense debate and hours of testimony on the day of the vote that saw 52 speakers argue both sides.

Proponents, in particular Hall, the bill’s sponsor, maintained that the ordinance protects Collier County citizens from an overreaching federal government by giving them standing to sue officials whom they might allege violated their basic rights. They argued that it actually enhanced adherence to the United States Constitution.

“Collier County has the right to be free from the commanding hand of the federal government and has the right to refuse to cooperate with federal government officials in response to unconstitutional federal government measures and to proclaim a ‘Bill of Rights’ sanctuary,” the ordinance asserts.

Opponents argued that the law was unconstitutional, illegal, unnecessary, vague, unenforceable and would encourage lawlessness and confusion.

(The Paradise Progressive extensively covered this debate both in 2021 when it was first raised, and in 2023 and expressed strong opposition. Past articles can be seen here. The ordinance’s full final version can be downloaded at the conclusion of this article.)

Now that the ordinance is law in Collier County, what are some possible effects in both the immediate and long term?

Hurricane hell

Debris lines a street in Naples, Fla., following Hurricane Ian in 2022. (Photo: Author)

Ironically enough, the Collier County Board of Commissioners passed the anti-federal ordinance right in the depths of hurricane season, just when the “I” storms seem to come at Southwest Florida (Irma, Ian, Idalia).

Hurricanes are an annual fact of life in Southwest Florida and last year’s Hurricane Ian showed just how devastating they can be. Just north of Collier County the town of Fort Myers Beach was virtually wiped off the map. Collier County too suffered flooding and wind damage.

After Hurricane Ian, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped in to aid the affected area. Search and rescue crews from all over the United States were brought into Fort Myers. People were sheltered and fed. Housing was provided to those left homeless. FEMA worked hard to restore communications and infrastructure. When it came time to clean up, FEMA funding helped with debris removal and restoration.

But FEMA works according to an extensive and complex set of federal laws and regulations and those laws and regulations govern its relationships with the states and localities it helps.

There is a real question whether FEMA would be legally able to assist a county that proclaims itself outside federal law.

Hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30 and Collier County could be hit at any time. This year, if it’s struck, FEMA leadership will have to weigh whether it can assist a county that has proclaimed its right not to obey federal law and may not follow any of the rules and regulations that govern disaster assistance.

If that’s the case, Collier County alone would have to bear the costs of debris removal and clean up and would get no federal assistance with rescue and restoration. Those costs could run into the billions of dollars and the county could be crippled financially for decades. Physical damage that might otherwise be quickly repaired could linger just as long.

What is more, this could affect insurance and insurance rates in the county. Insurance companies are already fleeing the state and rates are skyrocketing, but with a county outside federal law and beyond the reach of FEMA, Collier County and everything and everyone in it will become uninsurable.

With its anti-federal ordinance, Collier County proclaimed its determination to go it alone. If it finds itself devastated by a hurricane, it may just get its wish.

Law enforcement

The FBI poster for Naples Proud Boy Christopher Worrell. (Image: FBI)

The anti-federal ordinance injects a degree of uncertainty in the federal search for Proud Boy Christopher “Chris” Worrell.

On May 12, Worrell was convicted of 19 crimes related to his participation in the riot and insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. On Aug. 15, a warrant was issued for his arrest because days before his scheduled sentencing. Worrell and his girlfriend, Trish Priller, had disappeared.

His flight made national news and he is now on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most wanted list.

In a regular, law-abiding jurisdiction, the local law enforcement agency would be expected to join with federal law enforcement in investigating and apprehending this criminal as a matter of course. However, in a jurisdiction that has carved an exception for itself that kind of cooperation cannot be assumed.

This is particularly true in Collier County where Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, the highest ranking local law enforcement official, endorsed the anti-federal ordinance, not once but twice. The first was in 2021 when it explicitly nullified federal law and the second was this year’s slightly less harshly worded statute.

Whether Rambosk would be able to execute federal warrants was the subject of considerable discussion during the Board’s debate and while Worrell’s name wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it certainly seemed he was on commissioners’ minds.

After one rambling introduction, Kowal asked Rambosk, who testified through Zoom: “If that came to you, for you, and the FBI walked down here with a warrant in hand that was signed by a judge and a law that was created in the federal statutes, that don’t mean you’re going to deny him the right to serve that warrant. Yes or no?”

Rambosk returned an equally meandering response. “No, that’s exactly correct. We would never operate outside the Constitution and particularly as we talked about the 4th Amendment [against unreasonable searches or seizures and requiring a warrant or probable cause], nor should any other law enforcement agency in this country, because if you enter someone’s…. If there’s an expectation of privacy and you enter into somebody’s residence without a court order to do so that was lawfully issued, we’ll arrest you for burglary.”

This seemed to indicate that the Collier County Sheriff’s Office would still assist federal law enforcement agencies.

But further questioning by Saunders revealed the dilemmas created by the ordinance. Saunders pressed Rambosk to explain how he would determine if an action was unconstitutional or not.

“If we believe and our legal staff told us that it is in their opinion that it is unconstitutional, and we had the right evidence, court cases, information to support that then we would take the appropriate action,” said Rambosk.

“Would that appropriate action be going to the judge to rule in whether that statute is constitutional?” Saunders continued. “I mean, I’m just trying to get at: can you make that determination? I think you’re saying no, you can’t but maybe you can.

Rambosk answered: “Yeah, well, pardon me, we do that each and every day. We look at a case, we determine whether we believe it fits within the criteria of the law and I think even with a constitutional complaint we would make that assessment and if we believe that it goes to that level we may have to take it to court. I’m not even sure if any of us know that at this point. We would take that act.”

The vagueness and illogic of the ordinance was clear in this dialogue. Rambosk said he wouldn’t impede a lawful federal investigation but he wasn’t sure how he’d determine whether it was lawful or not and he might go to a judge to get a ruling. But he wasn’t sure.

The confusion was the result of the confused thinking in the ordinance itself.

So at this point it’s not clear, at least in public, if the Collier County Sheriff’s Office is assisting the FBI in pursuing Worrell or if they would assist this or any other federal investigation in the future. According to Rambosk, they’ll make it up as they go along.

At the very least the ordinance creates a fog of uncertainty in policing, since it carves out an ill-defined exception to the clear and uniform application of law and its enforcement. This is particularly relevant in the Worrell case, since Worrell has claimed to be a political prisoner subject to “blatant civil rights violations,” in his own words. Indeed, it almost seems as though the ordinance was drafted with him in mind, to allow him to evade federal justice.

The ordinance is almost certain to be challenged in court at some point, although when and under what circumstances cannot be known in advance. However, the US Department of Justice would be a prime candidate as plaintiff given that the ordinance is not only unconstitutional, it has the potential to hinder and impede uniform law enforcement nationally, especially if it is taken up by other jurisdictions, as its advocates propose.

The sky could fall

The Naples Airport is what is called a “general aviation” airport; it doesn’t serve regularly scheduled commercial flights but rather private aircraft, including charter flights, sightseeing tours, training flights and businesses.

Private jets and aircraft are especially in evidence when the wealthy fly in on weekends and holidays in season and at the time of the Naples Wine Festival.

The airport handles over 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year and serves an estimated 200,000 passengers. It employs 85 people directly, according to its website. Economically, it affects an estimated 3,250 people in related businesses and services, making it a significant economic engine in Collier County.

It is also an official port of entry into the United States and governed by the federal rules governing customs, immigration and security.

Like every airport in the United States, the Naples Airport is subject to the federal laws, rules and regulations that govern aviation as administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Federal rules also govern hiring, non-discrimination and working conditions. Port of entry regulations are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

These rules and regulations must be national. Rogue airports making their own rules would make safe and orderly travel and commerce impossible.

By legally asserting its right not to follow federal law, Collier County may have created an aviation hazard, a civil rights violation and a border vulnerability.

The FAA could conceivably order the airport closed as a result.

The funding conundrum

Everyone grumbles when paying taxes and headlines usually concentrate on instances of waste, fraud, abuse and corruption. But what often goes unnoticed is the vast majority of times when taxpayer money is put to work for good.

This includes federal support for infrastructure including roads, bridges, housing, education, Internet access and a wide variety of other goods and services that help people, towns and counties prosper, flourish and stay safe. For example, President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed in November 2021, invests $1 trillion in America’s foundations.

But all of that federal money comes with strings attached and those strings are intended to ensure that the money is used for the purpose intended and to prevent any misuse.

By declaring itself outside federal law, Collier County has also declared itself outside the rules and regulations governing federal funding. As a result, it may have cut itself off from that pipeline, which means it will get no help on any improvements, repairs or assistance.

Even worse, it is conceivable that by passing this unconstitutional measure, the federal government could try to claw back money currently in the pipeline or already distributed. On a personal level, the ordinance could create a loophole that encourages people to try to evade federal taxes, incurring the intervention of the Internal Revenue Service.

The curse of Cassandra

These are just some of the potential consequences of Collier County asserting that it has a right to ignore federal law.

When the Collier County Board of Commissioners voted for its anti-federal ordinance the skies did not darken and the earth did not open up. Lightning did not strike and whirlwinds did not blow. The sun still shines and the waves of the Gulf still lap the beaches. People go about their business.

The effects of this ordinance will not be felt all at once. However, over time they will have their impact. It will come in boardrooms and offices as officials or businesspeople try to conclude contracts or negotiate deals. It will come when people get their insurance bills or when the effort to clean up storm debris drags on interminably because there’s no federal money provided to speed it. It will come when lawyers review documents to reach some goal and hit the complicating roadblock of a county outside federal law.

This article doesn’t even go into the impact of giving citizens the standing to sue county officials for simply carrying out their mandated duties, as covered previously.

As for dismissing these concerns as overdrawn or extreme, perhaps that is best answered by the Greek myth of Cassandra.

Cassandra was a princess in the ancient city of Troy. The god Apollo blessed her with the gift of prophecy but when she refused his advances, he imposed a curse: she could see the future accurately but no one would believe her prophecies.

Cassandra warned the Trojans against keeping the Greek queen Helen in their city. They ignored her. She warned them not to go to war with the Greeks. They ignored her. She warned them that the Trojan horse left by the Greeks was a trap. They ignored her. She warned them that Troy would fall. They ignored her. And Troy fell.

Those warning of the consequences of Collier County’s anti-federal ordinance may be dismissed by its advocates as alarmist—but like Cassandra, the opponents may also be right.

The so-called “Bill of Rights Sanctuary County” ordinance is a Trojan horse and Collier County commissioners have taken it inside the city walls. They and all residents will have to live with the consequences.

One can only hope that Collier County does not go the way of Troy. But as Cassandra might have said: “You have been warned.”

Editor’s Note: From 2004 to 2013 the author was editor of the magazine Homeland Security Today, whose coverage included the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the Transportation Security Administration.

Click here to access the final, signed, engrossed version of the “Collier County Bill of Rights Sanctuary County ordinance.”

Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on August 28, 2023.

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