From all the buzz I’ve heard, I’m not the only person surprised that at their last meeting the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners voted Tuesday, November 18 to unanimously approve a $1.8 million settlement of the Water Impact Fee case without a single word of public discussion. Using a convoluted variation of the Queen of Hearts’ upside down “Sentence first — verdict after!” statement in Alice in Wonderland’s Trial of the Knave of Hearts and obviously accepting it as judicial precedent, City Attorney Tammi Bach, her cadre of out-of-town attorneys and consultants, and the city commission, managed to bypass any public discussion of the issue by the voters and taxpayers whose money they are squandering.
Apparently the settlement was surreptitiously decided upon prior to the November 18 public meeting, which as I understand it, is a violation of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine-Law, which provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels.
The law is applied to any gathering of two or more public officials subject to the sunshine requirements who discuss some matter that could potentially come before the governing board for action.
This does not mean that the city commissioners can’t meet privately to discuss a settlement and the cost of litigation. They can. But they can’t meet to accept a settlement and then have it ceremoniously accepted at a later open meeting and this is apparently what they did. It has to be publically discussed. In fact the Sunshine Statue explicitly states that any decisions made in an earlier secret meeting and later ratified ceremoniously are void ab initio….Latin and legal mumbo jumbo meaning “as if it never happened.” And the meeting need not be “clandestine” in order for an agreement to be invalidated. There are also criminal penalties for such actions under the Sunshine laws. (Look it up at MyFloridaLegal.com, pages 47-51).
So unless they are telepathic, the commissioner’s — who I was told did meet for many hours behind closed doors on this issue — are confined only to discuss settlement negotiations or strategy, not a final settlement. Nope, it is clearly stated in the law, that it is the job of the city attorney to explain it to the public and the commissioners, receive public input, and then have it voted on publically.
Oh, and the settlement package must be made available in advance. That was done. But making a complex 126-page document available just 24 hours in advance of such a vital and complex issue is a stretch. In that case Commissioners Charlie Corbett and Pat Gass would have made it to page three about now, even with the voices in Ms. Gass’ head reading it out loud to both of them.
Meetings were held in secret to discuss the settlement. The city attorney admits the suit was in resolution. The amount of $1.8 million was allocated. And there was no discussion at the public meeting November 18. So what may be the largest lawsuit in city history is the last agenda item that took less than five minutes to approve without a single word of discussion. That’s not legal.
And none of this takes into consideration that the impact fees were illegal and should never have been imposed in the first place.
Folks, I’m not a lawyer, but something here smells funny, or as Wonderland’s Alice shouted out in the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom: “Stuff and Nonsense!” And the final numbers are not just $1.8 million of our tax dollars.
As resident and local businessman Patrick J. Keogh pointed out in a comment to this blog last week, the cost to citizens is at least $3,535,000. “That’s $1.8 million in the settlement plus $735,000 previously refunded. By the time the settlement funds are returned add another $1 million in fees for the three law firms and consultants,” he explains.
If, like me, you’re a property owner in Fernandina Beach that recently received a tax statement, and you’re upset with the folks who are supposed to be stewards of our money, then let your voice be heard. Call or write the commissioners or attend the next commission meeting and ask for an explanation and by all means, vote on December 9.
If I am wrong here then someone please explain to me where I went off the rails.
Charlie’s Hilarious But Pat’s A Gas: If Charlie Corbett loses his December 9 runoff bid against businessman Tim Poynter to retain his Fernandina Beach City Commission seat, we’ll still have Pat Gass to keep us entertained with her bizarre comments. On November 18, for example, Ms. Gass, prompted no doubt by one of the unpredictable voices that reside in her head, suggested that the city should fire the complaining firefighters to make examples of them in an already demoralized fire department. Oh, and a sitting city commissioner told me that there’s “only” about five or six disgruntled firefighters causing this ruckus. Really Just five or six? In a department of less than 40? That’s a lot commissioner.
Speaking of Charlie Corbett: Corbett, who is running on a campaign platform of having never raised taxes is apparently very confused. During a July 10, 2013 budget session following then Commissioner Tim Poynter’s refusal to accept City Manager Joe Geritty’s proposed millage rate increase of 5.86 percent, Corbett announced that he would not be present for the financial workshops including the final one scheduled for August 2 that year. He also presented a chart accusing the last city commission of “bad budgeting” and using reserves to keep the city running. The city financial director said that none of Corbett’s accusations were true causing an irate commissioner Corbett’s voice to quiver in pointless rage. This is the same guy who voted for budgets that raised the tax rate 15.95 percent in fiscal year 2012-13 and another 3.3 percent in FY 2013-1014. Don’t forget the runoff election between Corbett and Poynter is December 9 folks.
If You Build It They’ll Come. Or Maybe Not: If you think $47,000 for a 651-square foot deck on downtown’s harbor visitor center is a bad idea then how about $1.2 million for a welcome center at the island’s tiny airport? At least the welcome center downtown attracts a visitor or two but unless I’m mistaken our little airport isn’t exactly overrun by tourists. In fact if you’ve ever visited the airport you’ve noticed that prior to a plane landing, a limousine is already waiting to whisk its occupants off to the Ritz-Carlton or their gated community destination. And if they’re performers staying at the Ritz prior to a Jacksonville appearance, they certainly aren’t going to be hanging out at a visitor center, because they aren’t interested in mixing with the hoi polloi. So what’s the point? In his reelection campaign talks Commissioner Charlie Corbett is taking credit for the deck, but whose idea was this airport project?
Attention Tree Huggers: Here’s something you can get your arms around: A new book “This Tree Has a Story” just out by Karen Saltmarsh and Sarah Cotchaleovitch, that asks and answers fascinating questions about trees in our area and elsewhere by two local ladies, who are not arborists, but who paint fascinating verbal pictures of trees that will intrigue people of all ages and make you think twice the next time you’re relaxing in the shade of that large backyard water oak. The slim soft cover volume boasts intriguing black and white photos of trees in this area and elsewhere and sprouts interesting statistics such as the fact that an oak tree needs to absorb at least 50 gallons of water daily and that pine needles aren’t really needles at all, they’re leaves. I’d like to say the book was printed without the use of a tree but don’t think that was the case, but if you’re interested in a copy of the $12.95 volume you can get one by going to the Nature Center at the Omni where copies will be available today, the Florida House, owned and operated by the Saltmarsh family, or by emailing Ms. Saltmarsh at email@example.com. Local book stores interested in stocking copies for the coming Christmas season should also contact Ms. Saltmarsh.
Car Talk: Finding a automotive mechanic you trust and who knows what he or she is doing can be an expensive proposition if you go the “hit and miss” route, but Linda and I were fortunate when we first moved here to find two exceptional area pros based upon recommendations from long-time residents. The late “Big Ray” Mullis of T-Ray’s Burger Station fame, suggested that I take my car to Corbin’s Automotive, tucked behind the 14th Street Shopping Center on 1424 Jasmine, while Linda’s almost 20-year-old prized Jaguar XJL is being serviced regularly at First Choice Goodyear in Yulee on the advice of Jaguar expert and consultant David Berghoefer. James Corbin is one of the most honest and professional auto experts I’ve ever encountered and will actually discourage you from having repairs or service adjustments he knows are not necessary, despite what you or your brother-in-law Louie might think. His pretty daughter Lauren who runs the office can talk cars with the best of ’em and Corbin’s staff are all polite, knowledgeable and conscientious, and you can tell what their customers think by reading just a few of the letters and cards posted on the office bulletin board. Call ’em at 904/261-8825. When David recommended First Choice Goodyear to Linda I thought he was sending her there for tires, not an engine analysis. However, the husband and wife team of Mike Burdett and Laura Shea, aided by Store Manager John Grimes, operate a full service operation capable of working on all makes of cars and have been doing so since they purchased the business in 2009 after Mike retired following 30 years of Goodyear employment, the last few as regional and district manager. They have computer equipment not available on the island to assess Linda’s aging Jag and have even called her following service to ask if the car is running OK. Hey, my doctor doesn’t even do that! Again, I can’t say enough positive about this team of pros except to encourage you to give them a try at 463670 State Road 200, Yulee or call ’em at 904/225-2775. Oh, and if you’re buying a used car for yourself or a family member both places will check it out for you, a step I highly recommend.
Fernandina Fireballers: Local resident Bob Hanrahan reports that his son, 33-year-old right handed relief pitcher, Joel, and the Detroit Tigers have agreed to a one-year one million dollar contract with an additional $2.5 million available in incentives despite the fact that Joel’s rehab from Tommy John surgery prevented him from throwing for the Tigers in the majors or minors last year. Despite the fact that Hanrahan was unable to take the mound in 2014, the Tigers have plenty of reason to be optimistic that he can help their bullpen in 2015. He spent parts of four seasons with the Pirates from 2009-12, where he was a two-time All-Star as the team’s closer. He posted a combined 2.59 ERA with 10.4 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 in 229 1/3 innings with the Bucs, and his walk numbers would be even better were they not skewed by a 5.4 BB/9 mark in his final season with Pittsburgh. The island is looking good baseball wise as we also boast former Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox, Cy Young award winner and L.A. Dodger pitching ace Clayton Kershaw. Who have I missed that we can add to the Halftime Sports Bar & Grill’s fall softball team roster?
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: I’ve just heard that the February 21 Montessori School Chili Cook-Off will stay right where it has always been on North 2nd Street and will not be relocated to a city park as apparently there was a lot of blow back against the idea to relocate the event. Good! If you’re sitting inside or on the porch listening to music at the South 3rd Street Green Turtle and get a case of the munchies, then you’re now in luck as not only can you step across the street to the new Pi Pizza joint and pick up a slice or a whole pie to eat at the bar or on the porch but thanks to an energetic, personable and young Steven Ruis, evening drinkers can now enjoy food from the Turtle’s tiny kitchen including: Tuesday: Tacos; Saturday, Buffalo, BBQ, Ranch or Jerk wings and, back by popular demand, Gyros on Friday. Don’t forget that Friday, December 5 is the next Crescendo Big Band event at Sandy bottoms beginning at 6:30 pm, so if you want to experience a fabulous 21-piece orchestra complete with male and female vocalists get there early for a good seat and don’t forget you can also place an order to sample some of Nick Hartley‘s innovative cooking. Downtown’s South 3rd Street’s Bright Mornings is not just for breakfast and lunch anymore and now boasts three different menus (breakfast & lunch, brunch and evening, since Swiss expatriate Walter Cereghetti bought the place a few weeks ago. We stopped by last Friday evening and enjoyed a wine and beer on the patio while listening to a couple of talented guitar players and singers who provided just the right volume and musical style to go with the new format. Call ’em at 904/491-1771 and ask Walter when he will begin serving spatzle. Not sure which downtown restaurant you want to eat in? Then try Amelia Island Tasting Tours, the brain child of Hola co-owner Marisol Triano where for just $59 from 2-5 pm where you can sample food from four-five downtown chefs all within walking distance of each other. Not hungry and just want a couple of pops? Not a problem, the tour offers a special Mixology treat for $39 from 5:30-7:30 at four downtown locations where you can sample craft cocktails. They tell me they’re planning other tours as well including a Kid’s Tour, Chocolate Tour, Dessert Tour, and a Boutique Tour. Check ’em out at ameliaislandtastingtours.com or call ’em at 1-800-979-3370 and ask about the special holiday tour events and times.