March 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.
While the residents of Fernandina Beach likely share a common appreciation and passion for our community, in many other facets, we are significantly different. Some have been raised and lived here for years; others of us have resettled from other areas from around the state, the country, and the world. Our educations are varied, our politics diverse, and our interests different.
It is that variety that makes the challenge of local government so rewarding. I strongly believe that everyone wants to be part of a safe and successful community. How we define those concepts differs, but no one (at least no one familiar to me) is arguing to intentionally make Fernandina Beach a worse place to live and work. Everyone has ideas on what they believe will somehow make this a better place.
We likely have different paths to or definitions of “better.” Would another restaurant, boutique, or industry be “good” or “bad”? Is more residential development? Some would support more of what we have, and many others would argue otherwise. The only thing that can be likely guaranteed is that changes happen.
It is the consensus building that is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Opinions (strong, at that) vary about what is best for the marina, the waterfront, the airport, the beaches, downtown, parking, parks, programs, projects, and priorities. How do we get things done?!
Five people are formally charged with providing leadership and direction for this multi-million dollar corporation we more commonly refer to as the City of Fernandina Beach: the City Commissioners. They are elected, at-large, to represent the City’s best interests. They are the directors and visionaries who task me and the City staff to implement their goals.
A common feature of many local governments, including, at times, Fernandina Beach, is paralysis by dissent. A few people voice their discontent with a proposed course of action and government officials are suddenly frozen. Political officials want to be liked. Actually, they need to be publicly liked because that’s what put them into their position to begin with: they were liked more than their opponent in their election!
So what happens when someone strides to the podium at a City Commission or pens a letter to the editor or posts an online comment to voice their dissatisfaction with something before the City Commission? That person is offering an opinion, a personal comment (and sadly, sometimes a personal attack) on the issue. It becomes a true measure of the leadership and effectiveness of the political officials to adequately gauge the public sentiment and then respond appropriately.
Political officials are typically well-established in a community, and, as a result, have an extensive network of personal, professional, and political connections and confidantes. The officials take into consideration many sources of information and comments. The responsibility of City staff is to provide objective information to the Commissioners upon which the Commissioners may draw, in addition to their other sources, to make good (from their perspective) decisions.
Decisions and support do not need to be unanimous. If we sought unanimity, we would never accomplish anything. It is a matter of hearing and recognizing dissent, judging and valuing public sentiment, and making wise decisions based upon the information available. And guess what- some people won’t be happy with the decision. Accept that and make the decision. Some are easy and relatively routine; others, more contentious, and, as a result, some people may not like the decision-makers.
In one of my former communities, road projects were funded through special assessments on the property owners abutting the street. The City paid for half of the project cost, and the remaining half was divided amongst the property owners. When that financing program was originally initiated (prior to my tenure), many of the property owners were vociferously opposed, angrily attacking the City Council and the City Manager. Nonetheless, the project moved forward and was successfully completed and later adopted as the model for all road and sidewalk improvement projects.
One of the City Councilors at the time of the original project, a very quiet but forceful community leader, owned a local business. She was still on the City Council when I began my service to the community, and she shared with me the ramifications of her decision to support the special assessments: even years later, a few residents of that first street refused to enter or support her business. She obviously lamented the loss of the customers, and, in some cases, friends, but she was adamant that she made the right decision on behalf of the city.
I hope that most residents recognize the efforts of the City Commission to serve the greater needs of the entire community, and not more limited or personal interests. If you wish to express your opinion or share any comments, all of the Commissioners are easily reached via email or telephone (with that information available on the City’s web site). I am sure that the Commissioners would respond.