Island Issues

Tentacles Of Fernandina Beach’s Building Extortion Racket  Squeezing Area Developers, Home Owners, Contractors, Etc.

Tentacles Of Fernandina Beach’s Building Extortion Racket Squeezing Area Developers, Home Owners, Contractors, Etc.

Just when you thought the problems with Fernandina Beach’s Building Department couldn’t get worse, they do.

Nobody at city hall gives a rip despite the fact that Building Department Director Stephan Beckman and his wayward organization are about as popular hereabouts as a clogged sewer drain.

Several residents that have had unfortunate experiences with Mr. Beckman tell me that they heard he had been canned. I contacted City Manager Dale “The Big Spender” Martin, who enthusiastically assured me that Mr. Beckman was indeed still a fulltime employee of the city and that those rumors were  just that — “rumors.”

It’s difficult to find anybody who hasn’t had a negative experience with the city’s fractious building organization. The Nassau County Chamber of Commerce, citizen watch dog group Common Sense, builders, developers, contractors, and individual home owners have all peppered the city manager and commissioners with horror stories and beseeched them to reign in an out-of-control department head. Nobody downtown listens to them they tell me.

Maybe the fact that Beckman’s department has $2,633,000 in reserves stashed away may have something to do with the city’s lack of interest in fixing the problem. An investigation might cut off a prolific source of revenue, no matter how ill-gained.

As Pat Keogh, one of the most perceptive city critics and area entrepreneurs observed: “This is a violation of state building laws to promote their own parochial interests. Same thing they did/are doing restate impact fee laws. It’s a criminal enterprise. Who knows what other state/federal laws are being routinely violated?”

All requests for relief by residents have been ignored by Fernandina’s comatose City Commission and the oblivious “Big Spender” Martin. Martin’s  probably already drawn up a shopping list as he covetously eyeballs Beckman’s more than two and a half  million-dollar stash.

Even the customarily lethargic Nassau County Chamber of Commerce was spurred into action by its members to conduct a Building Department survey. The results revealed that more than 75 percent of its 164 respondents condemned the rogue department. Hundreds of written comments were worse than scathing.

I have been contacted by local homeowners and builders who say they have been have been extorted by Beckman’s function. Most have asked me not to use their names because they fear retaliation as their projects are still incomplete.

One Fernandina Beach businessman who buys, renovates, and sells homes, told me that Beckman actually “broke into” a house he purchased.

When confronted by the owner an unapologetic Beckman responded telling him he thought the house was “abandoned.” The astonished homeowner asked if Beckman would have broken into his house if he had gone on a month-long vacation? “The doors and windows were locked, and the utilities were on,” reported Beckman’s victim. “This guy is punitive. He’s not attempting to fix issues, he’s extorting citizens. He fined me $400, saying I did work without a permit being pulled.”

His written complaints to the City Commission detailing the incident have been ignored.

“I didn’t see no stinkin’ ‘no trespassing’ sign!”

Another local who said his property was also trespassed on by Beckman and had a “stop work” order issued by him wrote to me saying: “Beckman needs to be fired or demoted. City needs to review his orders and rescind them immediately. Steve lied over and over in emails to me. Saying the property was abandoned. Saying he could trespass because I didn’t have a ‘no trespassing’ sign.”

The victim in this case never received a response from the City Manager but said: “After several messages to Mayor Mike (Lednovich) he seems concerned.  He invited me to a workshop regarding the building department. I’m still waiting to get the stop work order lifted.”

Mayor Lednovich invited the angry and frustrated resident to a two-hour City Commission workshop devoted solely to the Building Department issues. In his invitation he said: “Please attend and speak. It’s at 4 p.m. April 6th. My fellow commissioners need to hear what you have to say.”

The term “workshop” will surely catch the attention of Beckman, who is probably envisioning swarms of captive builders and will doubtless descend on the group gleefully issuing fines and “stop work” orders helter-skelter.

Last week disgruntled homeowner Fran Kane posted the following comment in this space saying: “The city would not give me an occupancy permit for months because I was missing two yard plants. But my tax bill for that years showed up on 12/15 so they could charge me for the full year. Go figure. The present city government needs to be abolished. Our taxes need to be brought in line with the county. We receive less services than the county but pay a premium.”

A survey on this site asking if residents think the City’s Building Department should be disbanded and its duties turned over to the County’s building function indicates so far that almost 90 percent of those responding would like that to happen.

Several weeks ago Nick Gillette of Gillette Associates, and Ron Flick, president of Compass Group, created a detailed analysis of the city’s permitting and building fees pointing out that they were 5.7 times higher than those in the county. In addition, Mr.  Flick, whose company is building the hotel at the corner of Fletcher and Atlantic, has demanded a $466,879 overcharge refund. That’s not small change.

Conducting a “workshop” with city officials like Lednovich and Martin is pointless. These two have previously sent glowing letters of support to local media defending and praising  Beckman. What’s needed is an independent investigation headed by an uninvolved state official, probably the state attorney general.

A group of influential locals are scheduling a meeting in Tallahassee to encourage the state to look into this issue. When Nassau County’s building department enforces the same Florida Building Codes with much higher satisfaction rates, lower fees, and a more efficient operation it’s obvious something is seriously wrong downtown.

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Pants On Fire Department: Of all the lies told by Democrats the past few months, perhaps the silliest came during Biden’s press conference when he said that half the Republicans in the country agreed with his agenda.  OK, Joe, name one.

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Things I Wish I’d Said: “A school without football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.”  — Frank Leahy.

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Voter Information: Fernandina Beach registered voters have received their mail-in ballots to vote for changes to the City Charter. A number of people have asked me to explain what this is all about and what it is we are voting on.

I don’t have to. Jack Knocke, one of the founders of local watchdog dog group Common Sense, did his homework and contacted local officials to get answers.

He spoke to the Fernandina Beach City Clerk (Caroline Best), the Nassau County Elections official (Janet Adkins), and the Duval County Election Supervisor (Mike Hogan).

First of all, “Why is this a mail in ballot only?” asked Jack.  He was told that if these questions were on the general election ballot in November, the Nassau County voters outside of Fernandina Beach would have had at least two blank pages at the end of their ballot because all ballots in a voting district need to be the same number of pages. He was told that this is a new law.  An additional concern was that voters would get fatigued and not answer the questions at the end because there were too many questions,” he said.

“So,” says Jack, “in order to avoid all of the additional blank pages and avoid voter fatigue, the Fernandina Beach Commission agreed to a mail-in ballot after the general election.”

It is hard to tell what the impact of some of these questions will be. Voters should read them carefully to be sure that there will not be lasting restrictions on how the city is managed. If voters don’t understand a question or aren’t sure, they should probably not vote on it.  Likewise, questions that voters think have one good part and one bad part, should probably not be voted on either.

For each of the ballot questions, Jack suggested asking yourself if this is a problem that should be corrected?

These are not recommendations on how to vote but things to keep in mind as voters go down the ballot. Ask yourself if there is a hidden impact that could effect residents negatively?

Here is a summary of the questions/proposals with Jack’s paraphrasing:

  • 1-Who cares whether we call it a seat or group?
  • 2-Shouldn’t the Commissioners review Charter Officers annually already?  We need to codify that they need to do the job that we elected them to do?  Forfeit their seat if they don’t do the reviews?
  • 3-If a commissioner commits a felony or ethics violation we should let other commissioners appoint their replacement?
  • 4-Change Mayor election to binding versus non-binding?
  • 5-Mayor should be in charge of enforcing review of Charter Officers?
  • 6-Sick City Commissioners can vote by Zoom meetings?
  • 7-City Commission must consider multiple candidates for city manager and they have to be a member of a liberal city professional organization?  I have heard stories about this organization that would curl your toes.
  • 8-The city attorney needs to know the law and be certified?
  • 9-Require a referendum before dissolving the police department?
  • 10-Require a referendum before dissolving the fire department?
  • 11-City Clerk has to be a member of an association?
  • 12-City Comptroller needs to be certified and do a good job?
  • 13-Land Conservation money can be used for no other purpose?  Why just that fund?  There may some other egregious abuses that should have been considered.
  • 14-Eliminate prohibitions on Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs) and restrict CRAs?
  • 15-Every city employee needs an oath of office?
  • 16-Empower City officers, commissioners, and advisory board members to start an investigation of city employees and city officers?
  • 17-Citizens can introduce ordinances.  If rejected, it goes to the citizens for a vote – like these questions.  Maybe next election this could be 4 pages of votes.
  • 18-Review the charter every 8 years?  What is it now?  Why the change?
  • 19-Correct/rewrite the history of Fernandina Beach?
  • 20-Remove things that are already in state law and rearrange other things to be consistent with state law?

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Some Things Never Change: Following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan served as the militant arm of the Democratic Party during Reconstruction. Today Antifa and Black Lives Matter serve the same purpose.

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Cancelling Trump Continues: The media are doing their best to erase the fact that President Trump’s actions dating back to January 2019 saved a lot of lives. Trump removed the bureaucratic red tape that Obama and Biden busily employed to over-regulated businesses, enabling his “Warp Speed” program of fast-tracking the development of a vaccine. In January 2020 he banned travel from China and other countries despite the opposing screams of Democrats. The Democrats, on the other hand, said that closing schools, churches, and businesses, and emptying the jails while at the same time moving people who contracted the disease into nursing homes and allowing COVID-infected illegal aliens to pour across the border are good ideas. These are just a few examples of how during the next four years we will be hectored, harassed, and harangued as “bad thinkers” by people who can’t think at all.

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Top Tracer Needs A Mulligan: I’ve been told that the Top Golf complex in Jacksonville derives 45 percent of its revenue from food and beverage sales, not golf. Many patrons use the Jacksonville facility for social events such as birthday parties, anniversaries, bachelor parties and more. It was planned with that in mind. Celebrating such events at the $500,000 Top Tracer mess at Fernandina Beach’s Golf Course would be more than difficult since the facility doesn’t even have restrooms much less a bar or food service. I’m told that every once in a while hot dogs are brought out on a cart. How exciting.

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Liberal Hypocrisy On Display: A black member of the Illinois State Senate, Elgie Sims of Chicago, sponsored legislation that would eliminate cash bail for those arrested for felonies. But before the legislation could take effect, Sen. Sims was threatened by a man with a gun. The man was arrested. But when his bail was set at $1,500 Sims was outraged that the felon could be released for such a mere pittance.

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Beyond Stupid Department: Remember when you had to smack the TV because the channel wasn’t coming in clearly? I feel that way about too many people. For example, staff members in the University of Oxford’s music department have suggested removing sheet music from the school’s curriculum because of its purported connections to a “colonial past” reports The Telegraph, a British newspaper. Oxford professors said that music notation has not “shaken off its connection to its colonial past” and that sticking with it would be a “slap in the face” for students of color, according to documents the paper said it reviewed. The same faculty also reportedly questioned whether the current curriculum was complicit in “white supremacy,” pointing to the program’s focus on “white European music from the slave period” – composers like Mozart and Beethoven. The professors further suggested that certain classical music skills – like playing the piano and conducting orchestral arrangements – ought not to be required given that they “structurally center white European music” and cause “students of color great distress.”

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It’s obvious the referee was not one of the “tiny” people.

Drinking, Dining & Dancing:  The midget wrestling event at Hammerhead last Saturday evening was a BIG success with an overflow crowd estimated at more than 600 on hand to witness one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever attended as a paying customer. Attendees got their money’s worth as these entertaining diminutive performers tossed each other around the ring with reckless abandon. It was not a family-friendly event with the tiny wrestlers shouting vile epitaphs at each other and one named “Meatball” even mooning the crowd. Laura, the lone female grappler, wasn’t any more polite than her opponents.  The tag-team finale saw the contestants whacking each other with folding chairs and trash cans and one being unceremoniously stuffed into a garbage container. By the way, they do not call themselves “tiny people” or “micro people.” They refer to themselves as  midgets. I’ll be there for a repeat performance.

 

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7 Comments

Larry Cook - 03. Apr, 2021 - Reply

I have had similar problems with the Utility Department. I have requested a connection to the sewer system. The Director (now retired) told me that I could not be connected because I was down hill from the best place to connect my property. He was not interested that he could come up hill from the rear, What’s the point of being in the city if you can’t get city services?

Richard Lowe - 03. Apr, 2021 - Reply

Any comments about that media moron, GOP Rep Matt Gartz, and the mess he’s in now?

Make that Gaetz

Robert Reisner - 03. Apr, 2021 - Reply

Charter changes:
[1] No. not necessary
[2] No. Commissioners should be allowed to interact with city employees.
[3] No. Miss 3 meetings and you are out?!
[4] No. No need to fix something that works ok.
[5] Yes. Make sure City employee reviews happen.
[6] No. An opportunity for mischief.
[7] No. Degrees and membership are not qualifications.
[8] Yes. Attorney should be real attorney and able to actually go to courts.
[9] Yes. About the only department I like but almost said No. (see [10] below).
[10] No. No reason county shouldn’t be the source for Fire Department.
[11] No. Clerk paid to be on the job and association membership is not a real job qualifier.
[12] No. CPA not needed.
[13] No. There might be a need and we shouldn’t put this item above all others in an emergency.
[14] No. We don’t need more CRAs.
[15] No. We seem to not need this now, so why start?
[16] No. An opportunity for mischief.
[17] Yes. Citizens should have the opportunity to fix problems that Commissioners won’t.
[18] No. We could have avoided the expense of this election but someone felt the need for useless or mischief changes.
[19] Yes. or No. Do we really care?
[20] No. Reads like a blank check for unknown people to make fixes that create mischief.

Coleman C Langshaw - 02. Apr, 2021 - Reply

I have some thoughts about the Charter Amendments. For the most part, the proposals sound fines, with the exception of four, that don’t sit well with me:

Question 12:
I am not sure the specification requiring the Comptroller to propose sound investment policies for the City is valid, because it does not define what “sound investment policies” are, and who would be the judge of that, and what consequences if someone deems the policies not to be sound for the Comptroller. It seems arbitrary and political in its basis.

Question 14:
CRA’s can be beneficial, but we all must remember that the tax money levied for the district remains inside of that district, and the rest of the tax base must absorb the loss of revenue overall, even if the pre-CRA tax revenue is minimal. I think two CRA’s are enough, otherwise it could become a slippery slope in the future. One caveat: if this passes, the language prohibiting the creation of a CRA with properties that make up more than 2% of the total assessed property values in the city, should be lowered to 1%. Two CRA’s that make up to 4% (combined) of the total assessed property values in the city, could be a bigger hit on the rest of us than we may realize.

Question 16:
This smacks of political witch-hunts and agenda setting tactics. The buck stops with the City Commission, and they are the only elected officials representing the residents and taxpayers of the City. Anyone can “call” for an investigation, but only the City Commission should be able to do so, and instruct the City Manager or his designee (Police Chief, for example, in cases of alleged legal wrong-doing) to investigate a department of charter officer. Otherwise this would invite torches and pitch forks to be admitted as evidence to initiate an investigation.

Question 17:
Ordinances should be proposed by staff through the City Manager. The City Manager is answerable to the Commission for proposed ordinances, whereas any special interest, or lobbyist would be allowed to by-pass this check and balance. Furthermore, if the proposed ordinance is disapproved by the Commission, this change would allow the proposer to do an end-around and place it out there for the voters, who then would have to make a decision, influenced by lobbyists and special interests. This would open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities, and could possibly make the City Commission’s role minimal or moot. Ordinances can be tricky, and need legal review and an educated decision-making team to make it correct and appropriate for our community. Without proper channels for ordinances, the potential for a free-for-all is frighteningly possible. Think: only property owners on the beach can walk, sit, sunbathe or swim in front of their house (sound familiar?) or residents or merchants can block off parking spaces anywhere for their personal use, without limitations. Sound crazy? Just give someone that chance, and with enough money for a referendum campaign to convince voters, it could happen. The 20% who actually vote, could control YOUR rights as a taxpayer of the City. As the old expression goes: “look before you leap!”

Nomadi Costieri - 02. Apr, 2021 - Reply

Omitted from the proposed City Charter revision are oversight and accountability metrics for Commissioners. Current examples for consideration:

The Approved 2020-2021 Budget on the City’s website. It is very telling that the document, unlike past Budgets, has no updated section on the Building Department. When compared to 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 Budgets, the Building Department section in the current Budget could be considered blank. It was approved by the City Commissioners, but did they read it?

The January 21, 2020 approval of the $500,000 plus TopTracer endeavor. It was exuberantly advocated by Mayor Lednovich based upon a projection-based presentation and his assertion that overall Golf Course revenue would be enhanced by the addition of TopTracer food and beverage sales. Fast forward and we learn as early as last September that the TopTracer development omitted a restroom or food and beverage capability, all necessary to produce those Lednovich promised food and beverage sales. Was there any City Commissioner oversight for the building plan and construction after approval?

DAVID LOTT - 02. Apr, 2021 - Reply

Dave, while I believe your percentage of TopGolf revenue due to food and beverages can be reasonably conveyed over to a TopTracer operation, there the similarities end. A TopGolf facility franchise cost is estimated between $15 – $20 million dollars and is clearly billed as an entertainment facility with a large bar, kitchen, dance floor and stage, etc. Whereas the TopTracer facility is more of an instructional or practice facility. Kind of like comparing a 60′ luxury RV to a 14′ pop-up camper. It will be very interesting to see the financial performance of the TopTracer operation and whether it realizes a profit for the golf course.
And by the way, here in the South we call it “rassling” not “wrestling”. As the southern humorist Lewis Grizzard once noted that his grandmother was “the only person that believed the moon landing was fake and professional rassling was real”.

Richard Gray - 02. Apr, 2021 - Reply

Dave – Elsewhere on FB I posted this comment about the change from group to seat. It seems that this change is a set up to eventually go to a Rank Choice method of electing our commissioners. The change may not be be as innocuous as we’ve been told. I later read the “Rationale” section where it was explained that the state has not yet approved this rank choice method. Now, I am not saying good or bad, just that it seems to me to be more than a simple word change

“In the article, she mentions that the change from group to seat is cosmetic. Perhaps I am reading the proposal wrong. In the clean version on the city’s website it states: “The designation of seats is not used or construed to divide the City into Commission districts for purposes of
qualification, election, or representation. ” If this is truly the case, then it would make sense that all candiates would run for all “seats”. In otherwords and for example, if three seats are up for election and there are 5 total candidates, the the voter would select any three. There appears to be no need for “districts” or groups and thus a candidate has no choice as in the past to select the group where he/she has the best possibity of winning. In the recent past, we had candidates running in a particular group sometimes challenged, sometimes not. This to me sounds more than cosmetic.”