Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 30, 2020
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) has not held a “normal” public meeting since March, due to CDC requirements designed to halt the spread of the coronavirus. However, all that is about to change — somewhat — with the FBCC’s June 2, 2020 Regular Meeting, which will abandon the virtual format for a return to a more familiar, open meeting style. All commissoners will be in attendance physically in Commission Chambers, along with the City Manager, City Attorney and City Clerk.
According to City Manager Dale Martin, “Public attendance at the meeting, due to recommended physical separation, is limited to ten. Residents desiring to offer public comment, if not already seated in the City Commission Chambers, will be invited into the Chambers to present their comments. Request to Speak forms will be available prior to the meeting.”
During the last two months, the FBCC meetings dispensed with proclamations and presentations, concentrating on the business portions of the agenda, where FBCC votes were needed for the City to move forward with administrative actions. Public input was restricted to emails directed toward the City Manager to be shared with commissioners prior to the meeting or emails directed toward individual commissioners which they chose to share or not with their colleagues and the remote viewers of the meeting.
The public has always been able to communicate with commissioners outside of regular meetings. The underlying principle is that prior to voting, commissioners consider all public input, no matter how received. However, some commissioners expressed discomfort with lack of face-to-face input from constituents during virtual FBCC meetings. Some commissioners also expressed constituent concerns over the order of agenda items, which placed FBCC discussion items at the end of the meeting.
In an attempt to address these concerns, Mayor John Miller has reordered the agenda for the June 2, 2020 meeting so that the ten FBCC discussion items follow presentations and precede public input. Since votes cannot be taken on discussion items, unless the FBCC declares an item to be an emergency, the actual business portion of the meeting will be delayed. The public wanting to weigh in on grants, budget items or ordinances will be left to cool their heels some place (since only ten seats are available in Commission Chambers) until their item is called later in the evening.
The question of in-person public input has been controversial over many commissions, not just the current one. At one time, public input was the last item on the agenda, which led to complaints that citizens had to sit through an entire meeting before they could be heard. To address that concern, the agenda was reordered to give people an opportunity to speak on items not on the regular agenda prior to any discussion of noticed business items. And citizens have traditionally been allowed to speak on individual business items prior to Commission vote when that item is called by the Mayor.
With the current Commission, the number of Discussion Items scheduled for each Regular Meeting has exploded, increasing from 2-3 to the 10 scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting. There are various reasons for this: a desire to accelerate city action on various projects like marina repair and a waterfront park, dune protection and beach accesses. The primary purpose, however, is to give Commissioners an opportunity to share ideas and discuss among themselves the best way to proceed with thorny issues. State Sunshine Laws mandate that any discussions between commissioners about items that may come before the governing body for a vote must be held in a public meeting; commissioners may not, under penalty of law, discuss these items with each other privately or via an intermediary.
Does the public also have a right to engage in these discussions? And if so, should Regular City Commission Meetings be the setting for such discussions as opposed to public workshops or town hall meetings? Is an oral comment at a meeting more effective than an email or personal meeting with a commissioner? Or are oral comments really directed toward an audience as opposed to the commissioners?
A former commissioner once explained to me that commissioners should come to meetings well prepared to vote, having read back up material and listened to input from all sources. “Any commissioner who comes to a meeting not knowing how he’ll vote, hasn’t done his homework,” this former commissioner said. But other commissioners appear to be more influenced by the number of speakers at a meeting, advocating for or against a specific item. Therein lies the dilemma.
Tuesday’s meeting may set a course for future meetings, or may demonstrate that another way must be found that allows the public to be heard while at the same time allows commissioners to discuss important matters among themselves before bringing such matters to vote.