Shooting the Messenger?

Shooting the Messenger?

On Feb. 28, Collier County Commissioner Chris Hall fired Joe Trachtenberg, the volunteer chairman of the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, for being “more focused on getting in the media” and “pandering to the crisis” than on “bringing us deals” and solutions. Since then, the firing has brought even more attention to the county’s lack of affordable housing and launched a backlash of its own.

In this post, I’ll review what was said at the Board of County Commissioners’ (BCC) meeting on Feb. 28 and developments since. My intent is to provide you with more information than you may already have about a recent action by the post-2022-election Board of County Commissioners to address what many agree is an affordable workforce housing problem. Hopefully with “both sides of the story,” you’ll be better able to decide: was the firing of Joe Trachtenberg justified? or was it shooting the messenger?

The Motion

Chris Hall was the first commissioner to offer “Staff & Commission General Communications” at the end of a more than seven-hour BCC meeting on Feb. 28. (Watch the 9-minute discussion and vote here beginning at 6:00.)

Hall began by saying that he attended his first meeting as the BCC’s representative on the county’s 11-volunteer-member Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC) on Dec. 20 and that for the last two years, he had “campaigned hard on workforce housing.” He said that he was “clear on day one that I didn’t want to hang around and just talk about things. I wanted to get things done.”

Video replay here beginning at 6:00

He then began to speak about Joe Trachtenberg, but without mentioning him by name. He said that in the time Trachtenberg had been chair, “he’s brought forth two things. One was the landlord thing,” i.e. the 60-day notice requirement of rent hikes of more than 5%, which the BCC had narrowly approved in October and voted to repeal in January after the election. The other was “four initiatives that got postponed” several times and are now scheduled to be taken up on Mar. 28. “Those are the only two things that he’s done.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “I’ve seen 12 different articles or interviews in the media, and every one of them are pandering to the crisis. You know, it was a problem, then it’s a crisis, then it’s overwhelming. It keeps getting worse and it keeps getting worse. And so it’s obvious that he’s good at building the problem, but he’s not in bringing forth anything solution-wise.”

“We need someone leading that group that’s not more focused on getting in the media and building the problem. We need someone that’s results-oriented,” he concluded.

Then made a motion to “remove the current chairman” and “find someone else on that committee to fill the seat.”

Commission Chair Rick LoCastro, who preceded Hall as the BCC representative on the Committee, then spoke. He said that while “we did make quite a bit of progress,” he had been frustrated because the committee wanted the BCC to hold a workshop before it had developed a plan and the county manager “says they’re ready for prime-time.”

The Second

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Burt Saunders said to Hall, “I hate to see somebody removed from a committee that’s been a volunteer, but you’re the guy that now is focusing on it, and I’m going to follow your recommendation.”

The Discussion

Commissioner Bill McDaniel asked Hall if he had informed Trachtenberg of his decision before raising it at the meeting. No, Hall said, stating that Trachtenberg had been spoken with previously by LoCastro “numerous times about it”.

Next, LoCastro said that while writing letters to the editor is “anyone’s right,” he was “disappointed” that what was said in them wasn’t instead discussed in a meeting with the county manager.

Hall then said that “the mantra of his [Trachtenberg’s] articles is that we don’t care… but there’s not one of us up here that doesn’t care deeply about this issue.”

“I’ve always said it’s a private sector solution,” Hall continued. “We can get out of the way, but bring us deals. Let us look at some things where we can make some decisions, whether positive or whether negative.

“But it seems to be like we don’t care. ‘Other counties in the state have all got this handled,’ they’re saying. ‘Collier County’s lagging behind because we don’t care.’ I don’t want to deal with that,” he concluded.

The Vote

After comments by Hall, LoCastro, Saunders, and McDaniel, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of Hall’s motion to remove Trachtenberg from the AHAC and replace him as chair.

At the Naples City Council

When addressing the Naples City Council at its Mar. 1 meeting, Commissioner Dan Kowal was asked when the BCC would take up the AHAC recommendations. (Watch his 5-minute response during his monthly update as the commissioner whose district includes the City here beginning at 54:00.)

In response, Kowal gave his take on the prior day’s BCC meeting.

“The first time I heard about it” (i.e. the 2017 Urban Land Institute (ULI) Study from which AHAC’s four recommendations were derived) was at “the forum that about 400 people came to at the church on Seagate,” he said. He was referring to the Jan. 11, 2023, Workforce Housing Forum presented by Greater Naples Leadership and the Naples United Church of Christ Justice Committee. (Forum recording here; read about it here.)

Kowal said he “went back to staff” and asked, “Where’s this study? Where are these things that were given to us?”

Kowal said he was told that “whoever did the study was not familiar with a lot of the state statutes” and that “about 90%” of the ULI recommendations could not be done in Collier County” without violating state law.

“So the study was never really looked at realistically,” he said. “But I think this individual [i.e. Trachtenberg] keeps touting that we have it on our desk and we’re not doing anything with it, and that’s not true.”

Then like Hall, he characterized Trachtenberg as “enjoying being the limelight, or in the newspapers, or just talking about it.” And he said that by a unanimous vote, the BCC voted “to remove him and put on somebody who’s willing to bring us ideas and not talk about it to other people.”

Who is Joe Trachtenberg?


Joe Trachtenberg spent most of his career with Victaulic, a privately-held global manufacturing company based in Easton, PA, which he joined in 1974 as controller and from which he retired in 2004 as CEO and chairman. He continues to serve on its board and chairs the audit committee.

Trachtenberg became a volunteer with St. Matthews House in 2010 and served for eleven years on its board, six as chairman. In that capacity, he was intimately focused on the lack of workforce housing in our community, which in 2021, led him to apply for a seat on the AHAC.

Before retiring and moving to Naples in 2003, Trachtenberg served on New Jersey school boards as a member and president, and on the boards of a hospital, a nonprofit theater, a health foundation, and an industrial development, among others. He has an accounting degree from Long Island University and completed an executive education program at Columbia University.

He was honored with the Greater Naples Leadership’s 2023 Distinguished Leadership Award earlier this month. (announcement here)

In email replies received by several community members as recently as Feb. 25 and shared with me, LoCastro described Trachtenberg as “a community leader & friend…. He has our strategy headed in a positive and aggressive direction… and is working closely with all County leadership and Commissioners….

“I work closely with Mr. Trachtenberg as well as my four fellow Commissioners — together, we are doing everything possible to come up with designated land locations, projects, incentives, etc… so we can see these long-required housing options turn into reality… rather than what they have been in the past — mere ‘discussion items’ with the can kicked down the road. Unfortunately, we have many citizens who act supportive of affordable housing projects — but are quick to remind us ‘not in their backyard.’ We are working hard to find balance and cohesion to address long-overdue required solutions to retain our workforce here in Collier County with affordable options.”

Media Coverage

Media coverage since the Feb. 28 meeting shed additional light on Hall’s motive, provided Trachtenberg’s side of the story, and sought the reaction to the firing by several Collier County nonprofit community leaders.

Hall’s Motive

Hall phoned Trachtenberg after the Feb. 28 meeting to tell him he had been removed from the AHAC by unanimous vote of the commissioners but that it wasn’t personal, according to Michael Braun at WGCU Public Media. “They decided a change was needed.”

But responding to a request for comment from WGCU on the removal of Trachtenberg, Hall said his decision to replace him was made after a letter to the editor he wrote on Feb. 15 — suggesting the firing was personal after all. (Read the Feb. 15 letter here.)

Hall also gave the Feb. 15 letter as the reason for the firing to Liz Freeman at the Naples Daily News. He told her it “contained the same ‘pessimistic rhetoric’ even after he was cautioned several times earlier to present solutions instead.”

Trachtenberg’s Story

“Finally, I realized we’ve waited 13 months, and we haven’t been listened to,” Trachtenberg said. So on Feb. 27, “I wrote to them and very politely said, ‘I implore you, respectfully: Put us on the March 14 agenda. Let’s work together. And let’s bring workforce housing to Collier County.’”

The following day, he was fired.

“It was totally unexpected,” he said. “My letter obviously struck a nerve. The solution our commissioners found, in response to my pleas to finally give this important issue a hearing, was to get rid of me. Even unpaid volunteers should be allowed to express their opinions, without consequences.”

Regarding the charge that he has only brought two items to the BCC, Trachtenberg said that over his time as chair, he has publicly asked commissioners to consider AHAC’s recommendations on zoning regulations, impact fees (waiving and deferring), linkage fees, additional height and density, allocating ad valorum tax funds to affordable housing, establishing rules for the $20 million sales tax surtax fund, and ADUs (accessory dwelling units).”

And while “It’s true I have spoken to many groups and written several articles, …. My goal has been to gain support for workforce housing in Collier County. This is in response to a comment I have heard countless times from the commissioners — ‘We only hear from people opposed to these projects. Never from folks who want them’. I took it upon myself to change this view; to make our residents understand the extent to which we need our essential workers, and the cost to us of losing them.”

In addition, Trachtenberg suggested in an email to Kowal, copying the Naples mayor and city council members and shared with me, that “you actually need to read all 49 pages of the ULI report, which was presented to our BCC in early 2017.

“The Urban Land Institute is the most respected land use organization in our country,” he continued. “Your dismissal of their findings and incorrect labeling of them (“90% inapplicable due to Florida law) is simply not correct. Most of their findings remain appropriate today.”

Community Reaction

Elizabeth Radi, leader of the Collier County Tenants Union: “I think Trachtenberg was a big component in getting people to understand the need for workforce housing, to push out the not in my backyard-ism that was going on in the lack of understanding of the need of affordable housing. And that’s where he brought so many people together.”

Lisa Lefkow, Habitat for Humanity of Collier County CEO: “He has focused his activity on educating and engaging the larger public on this critical issue and providing a call to action that makes clear that we ALL have a role to play in solving the problem. While it is going to take many players to solve the affordable housing crisis in Collier County, we must welcome the voices of advocates like Joe Trachtenberg ….”

Former Commissioner Penny Taylor: The BCC’s ouster of a volunteer “will have a chilling effect” on citizens’ willingness to volunteer to serve on advisory boards.

Michael Overway, executive director of the Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County: Trachtenberg listened to concerns about the housing problems for the homeless and that has not been the case when the same issues are brought to the commission.

You Decide

“There’s not one of us up here that doesn’t care deeply about this issue,” said Hall. But this needs “a private sector solution. Bring us some deals.”

LoCastro says, “Don’t ask for a workshop until you have a plan and the county manager says you’re good to go.”

And “stop talking to the media about the problem.”

Trachtenberg says four recommendations were put forth more than 13 months ago, and discussion of them has been deferred four times.

He was encouraged to organize public support in favor of addressing the problem to offset the voices of those who say “not in my backyard” or who do not even acknowledge that a problem exists.

And while the newly-elected commissioners may be unaware of the ULI study and the county’s history of “kicking [the problem] down the road,” many (like Trachtenberg) have been watching it get worse for years and are frustrated.

So you decide. Was the BCC right to fire Trachtenberg? Or were they shooting the messenger? And who owns the problem now?

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