ACLU Florida investigates Fellsmere, alleges unfair practices

FELLSMERE — The City of Fellsmere is responding to allegations posed by the ACLU Florida that the city denied water service to potential customers because those customers could not provide proper identification.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union Florida, the City of Fellsmere denied service to at least eight families between 2012 and 2013 because they did not provide identification that met the city’s policy.

“The denial of something as basic as water to these individuals is as bizarre as it is unjustifiable,” Shalini Goel Agarwal, the ACLU of Florida staff attorney who authored the letter to the City Clerk’s office, said in a prepared statement. “There is no defense for trying to force people to live without basic utility services that they are ready and willing to pay for based on their immigration status. The City must explain why they tried to keep these families from having access to basic necessities.”

The ACLU said all eight families eventually received water service from the City of Fellsmere, but only after working with Fellsmere employees.

Fellsmere City Manager Jason Nunemaker said Monday evening that no one from the ACLU had contacted him about the investigation.

For the city’s part, policy requires that customers provide identification recognized by the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re not imposing some frivolous rule,” Nunemaker said.

The Department of Homeland Security recognizes numerous types of ID, and for the purposes of aligning documentation between the various components of the department, issued a list found on the Transportation Security Administration’s website. It is that list the City of Fellsmere follows.

The ACLU claims the residents provided the city other forms of non-US-issued ID, including consular IDs, expired driver’s licenses, and foreign passports.

Nunemaker said his own interpretation of the TSA list would allow for consular IDs – though it’s not an interpretation shared by the Utility Department.

“We need to get that resolved,” Nunemaker said.

Referencing a customer from last week, Nunemaker said the resident – who could not provide appropriate ID to the Utility Department – did pass through a screening process for Whispering Pines, the Habitat for Humanity community.

“I gave them the benefit of the doubt,” Nunemaker said of that customer.

Nunemaker said that if the ACLU has an issue with identification requirements, the organization should take it up with the Department of Homeland Security. He said he’d like to see the ACLU “pick up the phone” and coordinate a meeting with the City of Fellsmere and Congressional leaders such as Rep. Bill Posey or Sen. Marco Rubio.

While the ACLU alleges the City of Fellsmere denied water service based on the would-be customers’ immigration status, Nunemaker disagrees that their status had any bearing.

“Legal status has never been an issue for the City of Fellsmere,” he said – it’s an issue for the federal government.

He added that the city knows it has residents of questionable legal status. “We’re not known for being antagonistic.”

“We’d like to sell as much water as possible,” Nunemaker said – so long as the customers are able to pay their bill.

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