The movie theatre on 14th Street has closed but City Hall on Ash Street downtown is helping plug the entertainment gap during the Tuesday evening meetings of the Fernandina Beach City Commission.
If you’re a resident and tax payer you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll recoil in horror as you watch the most bizarre collections of characters ever assembled in this community burn through the citizen’s money at alarming rates and then defy you to question their actions, some of which are intentionally left on the editing room floor, never to be viewed by the public.
For example, instead of addressing urgent city issues, this past City Commission meeting, Tuesday, December 2, had as the very first business item on the agenda a resolution opposing Seismic Air Gun Testing in the Atlantic! Nope, I’m not making this up folks. The commission, at the urging of Commissioner Johnny Miller, invited a Ms. Erin Handy of Oceana, an international ocean conservation and advocacy organization, to discuss the effects of seismic air gun testing used for oil and natural gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. She urged the commission to send a message to the Obama Administration to stop the seismic air gun testing process.
Ms. Handy presented a Power Point presentation of photographs of oil spills and dead animals on beaches, with no collaborating information, saying that this is what will happen here if seismic testing isn’t stopped in its tracks now. This woman even compared the seismic testing to “your next door neighbors setting off dynamite charges every half hour or so.”
During a questioning session by skeptical observers to this propaganda display Ms. Handy admitted that her evidence of beached dead animals was “anecdotal and that there was really no good way to determine how these animals died.” She also made no mention of where the oil spill photos were taken.
There was no one from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the petroleum companies, the American Petroleum Institute or anywhere else, invited to offer opinions, but that didn’t stop the commission from voting unanimously to tell the Obama administration that they want no part of it. Nobody wants to go on record allegedly promoting the killing of whales, turtles, etc. even if they really don’t really understand what the heck they are voting for, right?
Commissioner Miller, who apparently thinks he was elected to the Berkeley, California City Council, appears to have lost his way. When he initially ran for election to this commission he campaigned on a pro-business platform saying, “unclear regulations with confusing steps are especially burdensome on new and small businesses. We need a full review and improvement of permitting and regulatory functions.”
Mr. Miller, who is a friend of mine and who always puts up a spirited debate, is a good-willed man, determined to do good deeds. In an earlier day, he would have been a hard core revivalist banging out hymns on an out-of-tune organ as his sawdust floor tent filled with sinners.
But now he gives us a “save the whales, anti oil and gas exploration” campaign on the heels of backyard chickens, dogs dining on restaurant patios, horses pooping on the beach and plastic bag bans. What’s next Johnny, resolutions on behalf of Greenpeace and PETA or maybe turning the harbor front into a community vegetable garden?
A bit of background on the seismic sounding resolution: The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) under the Obama Administration announced that oil and gas companies could apply to perform seismic air gun testing in search of oil and gas deposits along the coastline from Delaware to Cape Canaveral.
Proponents say seismic testing has been going on for decades off the U.S. coast with no repercussions and according to South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan there hasn’t been a single verifiable instance where a marine mammal has been harmed through seismic work. So when do we hear from the proponents Mr. Miller?
And since we sit just South of Kings Bay, one of the world’s most secretive and powerful nuclear submarine bases in the world, I doubt the US Navy will allow anybody who could pose any kind of threat to anything in these waters operate anywhere nearby.
In the meantime, if anybody onshore is paying attention, the city has a variety of pressing and urgent local matters that require immediate and ongoing attention on behalf of all local citizens until they are resolved including:
- Fernandina Beach’s underfunded pension programs are ranked the worst in the state of Florida, even worse than those in neighboring Jacksonville, which are making daily newspaper headlines. What are your solutions or suggestions commissioners? Where are the outside experts to address this mess?
- A public discussion of the terms of the settlement of a three-year impact fee law suit that will cost the citizens of Fernandina Beach some $3.5 million including an acknowledgement of the mistakes made, the details of the remedial acts including disciplinary actions to be taken and the specifics of the amounts and timing of the refunds. When do we hear details about closing this money losing rat hole?
- A fire department where low morale and turmoil are hot topics that have resulted in the firing of Robin Marley, the city’s human resources director who has since filed a “whistle-blower” suit against the city. What exactly happened and what are the fixes here?
- Discussions of how the city can stimulate economic growth particularly encouraging entrepreneurs to fill the empty store fronts downtown, many which have been vacant for several years. Ideas?
- How can the city work with private property owners to convert 8th Street, the main traffic corridor into historic Fernandina Beach from a redneck’s back porch, into something more appealing?
- What’s going on with dredging at the downtown marina? Can we get our $8,000 back the commission gave to gadfly Lynn Williams for his mysterious magic mud machine that no one has ever seen and get on with a real solution to fixing the harbor issues?
- And how about more bids on what appears to be a lone offer on a ridiculously high $47,375 for a 651 square-foot welcome center deck?
Once all of the above are handled, then those who want can sit back and listen to folks like Ms. Handy discuss how the evil oil companies will hypothetically blow whales out of the ocean.
If this city hall’s escapades were the 1974 Mel Brooks film “Blazing Saddles”, conniving state attorney general Hedley Lamarr would be played by City Attorney Tammi Bach; Joe Geritty, the dim-witted governor William J. Lepetomane; and Public Utilities Director, John “Pay-to-Play” Mandrick, their slow-witted henchman, Mongo.
Our naive city commissioners, corralled and cowed by this inept trio, which is doing its best to turn Fernandina into a 21st Century version of Pottersville, can be best described as the group that the film’s Lamarr instructed his flunky assistant Slim Pickins to assemble: “rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, train robbers, bank robbers, and Methodists.”
If pressing issues aren’t addressed soon I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a Fernandina Beach preacher rising from the pulpit like the Reverend Johnson in “Blazing Saddles” saying: “Now I don’t have to tell you good folks what’s happening in our beloved little town. Sheriff murdered, crops burned, stores looted, people stampeded, and cattle raped. The time has come to act, and act fast. I’m leaving.”
Blazing Shrimp Boats Part II: City Commission Johnny Miller sent a copy of last week’s column “Is No Public Discussion of $1.8 Million Lawsuit An Example of Shady Local Government?” to City Attorney Tammi Bach who provided a detailed response with the subject “Dave Scott BLOG” to Mr. Miller and copied the other city commissioners as well as City Manager Joe Geritty, Public Utilities Director John Mandrick and others. Good for him, as it got more attention than if I had done the same.
Ms. Bach’s memo can be read in its entirety by going to the left side of this Blog to the commentary section of last week’s column where Mr. Miller posted it. The memo was also read aloud at this past Tuesday’s commission meeting and entered into the commission’s public record.
In it Ms. Bach declares that “…. the $1.8 Million is NOT being paid from TAX DOLLARS. The settlement and City’s outside attorneys’ fees for the ‘cadre of out-of-town attorneys and consultants’ will be paid from reserve funds in the Water Utilities account which is an enterprise fund not at all funded by property taxes or any other kinds of taxes. The Utilities Department is funded solely by rate and fee payers who use the system.”
Excuse me Ms. Bach those “rate and fee payers” are local citizens and it is our money, as citizen Rich McCullen colorfully pointed out in a comment to last week’s column: “My wallet can’t tell the difference between a tax bill and a water bill.”
The whole thing was also illegal Ms. Bach, so you are defending the indefensible, which of course is your job. If you provide bad advice to the City Commission and they act on it then, as their attorney, you have to defend their actions. Right?
In his public opinion issued January 2 this year, Circuit Court Judge Brian Davis ruled that the City of Fernandina “lacks the authority” to issue $5,000,000 in refunded bonds that are secured by water utility “impact fees” and that those “impact fees” do not comply with Florida Law. The court found the “Impact Fees” in violation of law and that the amount of the “impact fees” were arrived at “through a wholly arbitrary negotiation process.”
In other words, the whole thing was illegal and no amount of bluster by Ms. Bach will ever change that. One of the key architect’s of this folly was now City Manager Geritty, who was mayor at the time of this fiasco, who approved it and signed off on it. And no matter what Ms. Bach calls the funds, that money came from citizens of Fernandina who were cheated. It’s simple. As local businessman Pat Keogh stated in a Fernandina Beach News Leader Viewpoint November 28 (We get the government we deserve) “Mr. (John) Mandrick operates the municipal utility as a phantom taxing authority priding himself on transferring millions of dollars to city coffers.”
Ms. Bach also says settlement documents and amount of settlement ($1.8 Million) were published prior to the City Commission’s public meeting giving the public an opportunity to make comments at the meeting and for Commissioners to discuss it. Really? I find it hard to believe that the largest law suit settlement in the history of this community prompted not one word of discussion from the City Commission. Is it because the complex 126-page document was posted so late it was impossible to read and comprehend in time or because the commission had already settled it outside of the chambers and there was nothing left to say?
But Ms. Bach says this is not so. In her memo she says: “There was never a vote taken at any attorney/client meeting behind closed doors indicating that the City Commissioners had voted on a settlement outside of the Sunshine. The City followed all legal procedures pursuant to Section 286.011(8), Florida Statutes. The Commissioners considered the settlement issues and amounts in attorney/client meetings which are recorded in transcripts prepared by Bill Hazes Court Reporting. Those transcripts will be available to the public in the next few months upon the conclusion of the class action (after Court approves settlement and class members are identified).”
However, I’ve heard that there was talk of a settlement long before the November 18 meeting, in fact, as far back as September. Didn’t Ms. Bach back then notify both the state Supreme Court and the State Appeals Court then that the cases were “settled?”
In her memo Ms. Bach continues to defend actions the courts have declared illegal and against the best interests of the citizens. Good grief! She says “The City Commission, City Manager, City Attorney and outside attorneys believe, and still believe, that the actions taken by the City Commission back in 2003 when the City purchased the FPU water system was a benefit to the community and done through a public process of several Commission meetings with consultants presenting evidence that buying the FPU water system was a good thing for the City.” Excuse me Ms. Bach, but those consultants you praise were hammered by Judge Davis in his ruling saying “The Court found that the City’s consultant Gerald Hartman’s “calculations” to support the imposition of Impact fees “were at best perfunctory, inaccurate and incomplete.” The consultant’s Impact Fee calculation, said Davis, “imposed” an “arbitrary and irrational fee” on new users of the Water Utility.”
This nonsense has also cost local businesses thousands of dollars in illegal fees, prevented many from expanding and hiring, and stopped others from locating here. Yeh, Ms. Bach these fees were a real benefit to the community.
Are the voices that run amok in Commissioner Pat Gass’ head running the city. Or maybe Ms. Bach has abdicated her responsibilities to outside attorneys who have picked up buckets of our money doing her bidding. Something has gone badly amiss and the commissioners just sit back and nod approvingly.
Ms. Bach closes her memo saying: “I have a couple of questions to folks who are sadly misinformed by bloggers and weekend editorialists:
1) Do you really believe that the City Commission did not settle this case earlier because they wanted to pay more attorneys’ fees or wanted to continue the legal fight for the sake of fighting?; and
2) What would be the purpose of the City Commission violating the Sunshine Law when every word discussed behind closed doors is taken down verbatim by a Court reporter present in the room the entire time with the City Commission?”
I don’t know the answer to those questions Ms. Bach. You tell us. You’re the one who has been providing them, as your clients, with the legal advice that has cost the city millions and that you are now so pathetically trying to defend.
Wasn’t there a mediation earlier that you and your outside attorneys rejected, for a sum that was considerably lower than what the citizens are now stuck with paying? And if, as you say, the case is now settled, may I please have a transcript of that meeting you referenced? Please send it to email@example.com.
And if any readers of this blog would also like to receive a copy of that session it can be requested by email from City Clerk Caroline Best at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking Of The City Commission: If, like me you are getting tired of the city government running rampant, then next Tuesday, December 9, you have an opportunity to select between incumbent City Commissioner Charlie Corbett or former commissioner and businessman Tim Poynter for a seat on the Fernandina Beach Commission. Educator and community activist Robin Lentz, already defeated Sarah Pelican for one of the seats, and the addition of Poynter to replace Corbett would put two very smart, responsible, reasonable and articulate voices on a commission that woefully needs all the help it can get, and will help direct sound use of our tax dollars. To help put a stop to the waste, nonsense, chicanery and back-room dealings of many on the current commission do us all a favor folks and cast your vote for Tim Poynter.
Inhospitable To Hospitality: During a November 18 City Commission discussion on employment zones and a failed effort to obtain permission to build a hotel on Fletcher, Commissioner Pat Gass pooh-poohed the idea of hotel jobs being worthwhile saying “bartenders, servers, hotel maids, etc. aren’t real jobs. They’re for high school or college kids or people in retirement….people who don’t have anything else to do.” Sitting slack-jawed next to Ms. Gass was Commissioner Johnny Miller, one of the most popular and talented bartenders in town who practices his trade at the Palace Saloon and who, along with his Lulu’s Restaurant server wife Lori, is putting daughter, Summer through FSU on very generous hospitality industry earnings. What makes her comments even more perplexing is the fact that Ms. Gass comes from a family that once operated a downtown restaurant. She managed to insult some 50 percent of the working folks on Amelia Island and it’s my bet that if she runs for re-election her words will come back to bite her. The voices that reside in this lady’s head apparently stepped out for happy hour and were seriously over served.