By Adam Kaufman
On Special Assignment
September 27, 2020
On or before Tuesday, November 3, registered voters in the City of Fernandina Beach who choose to cast a ballot will have the opportunity to select three (3) non-partisan representatives to sit as City Commissioners. Each Commissioner will serve for a term of four (4) years, on the City’s five (5) member Commission.
On Thursday, September 24, the candidates, who all run City wide but in separate “Group” races, answered questions posed at a Candidate Forum sponsored by the Fernandina Observer.
What is almost universally true, is that candidates who run for local office, be it City Commission or Council, School Board or County government, run because they fundamentally care about their communities and the institutions that serve them. This commitment to public service is nearly obligatory when one appreciates that local elected officials become the subject of social media fury, Facebook wrath, Twitter rage, and potentially will be pilloried in blogs and the press, whether based upon fact or not.
Each of the City Commission candidates has demonstrated, in this forum and in other settings, that he or she is committed to serve City residents and act in the interest of the betterment of Fernandina Beach.
The questions asked at the Observer Forum, addressed specific issues. The questions, moreover, were also designed to assess what qualities each candidate, as a representative of the voters of Fernandina, will bring to the office of City Commissioner over the next four (4) years. Who by knowledge, understanding, temperament and judgment will best serve the City?
Edmund Burke, an 18th Century Irish Member of Parliament, explained that as an elected representative, notwithstanding his “unreserved communication with his constituents,” he was obligated to exercise his own judgment, informed by knowledge and experience, to serve the public interest and not to simply echo public sentiment: “government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not inclination,” he advised. “If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form a hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavor to give it effect.”
Burke also cautioned against legislators who “choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity.”
Said Burke, to his constituents in Bristol, a representative’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or any set of men living” … “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The exercise of a legislator’s “judgment” may differ from the preferences of constituents or constituent groups in complex questions because it is likely to be based on more information than most constituents have. Witness the recent position taken by Commissioner Mike Lednovich and in rebuttal Commissioner Chip Ross with regard to budget constraints and which “roll back rate” is in the public interest.
This is not to say that constituents’ perspectives should not carry considerable weight, but we require our Commissioners to distinguish between the wants of various constituent groups, judge between competing priorities and make decisions for the benefit of the City as a whole.
Burke’s construct of representative democracy is but one measure that may be worthy of consideration as we determine who we can rely upon to govern the City of Fernandina Beach during the next four (4) years.
The Candidates and the Questions
The candidates in Group 1 are Bradley Bean and Marian Phillips; Group 2, Alexandra Lajoux, Genece Minshew, and David Sturges; and Group 3 Wendall McGahee and incumbent Ronald “Chip” Ross.
Prior to the Observer Forum, the candidates were given a list of 18 possible questions. Candidates were asked to introduce themselves and give closing statements. Each candidate Group was asked a separate set of subject specific questions from the 18 questions that were received by them.
The specific questions asked related to the performance of the City Commission during the last four (4) years; the purchase of private property for conservation purposes; City Advisory Boards; and the relationship between the City and the County.
Bradley Bean recalled his family’s dedication to public service and his commitment to “fight for the people of Fernandina.” He underscored his desire to create opportunities so that Fernandina High School graduates would “come home” to the City, as he did, and find jobs and careers.
Bean observed that running for office is difficult and that the task of a City Commissioner is a balancing act. Overall he believed the City Commission, particularly in this period of COVID 19, has done a “great job.” Bean promises low taxes and fees, and will promote economic growth if elected. With regard to conservation, and the purchase of property, he acknowledged our beaches and “conservation land” are what makes the community “viable” and tourism “work.” Bean is in favor of a “streamlined budget” and would not, however, support the purchase of private property for conservation purposes.
Bean called attention to the fact that he now serves on the Charter Review Committee which proffered an amendment to the Charter that will protect conservation land, and that he believes that Advisory Boards are effective and should be listened to. With regard to relations with the County, Bean expressed his conviction that good relationships are built on trust and communication. Bean would work toward that objective not only with the County but with all other political entities that have relationships with the City.
In closing, Bean reiterated his and his family’s commitment to public service and promised to work for the community and put “Fernandina First.”
Marian Phillips emphasized her leadership roles and training received as President of her local Union, and as Vice President of the Florida AFL-CIO. Phillips pledged to protect our “treasures:” our beaches, trees, Marina, and “small town life style,” together with a promise to keep taxes low.
Phillips stated that the City Commission has done “a fairly decent job.” However she believes that certain Commissioners have not spoken “very nicely” to constituents when they speak before the Commission. She would work to build relationships and “trust” with constituents. Phillips maintains that buying property for conservation purposes would maintain “our small town life style.” She suggests that the City should have purchased property adjacent to and near Main Beach upon which hotels and Salt Life now stand. She asserts that those parcels could have provided parking at the beach.
Phillips believes that the Commission should listen to its Advisory Boards, whose members have “expertise.” She commented that attending Advisory Board meetings can be a “learning experience.” With regard to the City’s relationship with the County, Phillips maintains her Union negotiations experience would be of benefit in achieving common goals and improving relationships.
In closing, Phillips suggested that “modern day pirates” want to “take away our small town atmosphere.” She pledged to resist any further “attacks.” She reemphasized her promise to keep taxes low and protect our small town life style and values.
The specific questions asked related to the candidate’s first priority as a new Commissioner; inadequate beach parking; Marina and Golf Course debt and examples of effectively working as part of a decision making team.
Alexandra Lajoux is seeking election as Commissioner for three (3) reasons: to protect “our town; our trees; our taxes.” She “pledged before God and the community” that she “will never vote for any project that will change the character of our town.” Lajoux assured that she would protect our tree canopy and conserve taxes. She expressed her belief that the “roll back rate” should be applied to City taxes “year after year.”
Lajoux’s first priority would be to enforce and update the City’s Comprehensive Plan to protect our “small town environment,” and to further protect trees, dunes and wet-lands. With regard to parking at the beach, she would preserve the “traditional right” to free parking and parking on the beach and negotiate with adjacent hotels to offer parking. She would explore the opportunity for shuttle service to the beach by van drivers, volunteer organizations, with the possibility that such service could be paid for by the City.
Lajoux believes the Marina’s immediate debt obligation, approximately $52,000, is not a critical issue, and that its next debt obligation of $4,000,000 should be refinanced. The Marina debt obligation in 2026 is an issue that, she suggests, can be approached over time. Lajoux will continue support of the Marina, the “gateway to Florida” and Golf Course, part of our “environmental paradise.” Addressing decision making, Lajoux pointed to her work for the National Association of Corporate Directors, whose focus is on group decision making and her efforts with “a group of 12” to “track-up” the Comprehensive Plan for revision.
In closing, Lajoux pointed to a “lock pendant” around her neck with a combination of 1,2,3, which she said represented her commitment to “Town, Trees, and Taxes.” Lajoux would not vote for a waterfront park and would opt for a “working marina.”
Genece Minshew is running to make Fernandina “a better place to call home,” to strengthen the Comprehensive Plan and to be a good steward of the City’s finances, particularly on behalf of our low income and retired citizens. She serves as Chair of the Planning Advisory Board. Minshew promises to listen, to seek the best outcome for all and to make Fernandina a better place to live, work and visit.
Minshew’s first priority would be to seek to improve and create efficiencies in the functioning of processes and activities of City Departments with particular emphasis on Parks and Recreation, the Department with largest budget. She would focus on budget planning and development. With regard to beach parking, Minshew would first seek an assessment of the parking issue, including review of the impact new hotel construction has had. She would make decisions based upon these findings. Minshew would consider shuttle service from hotels as an option, but suggests that various methods of transportation to and from locations in the City should be studied.
Minshew views the Marina and Golf Course as two separate issues. Minshew believes that the Marina is on the right track and that cash flow will be positive in the near future but will explore opportunities to refinance its existing debt. Minshew would do a “deep dive” into the finances and operation of the Golf Course and believes the addition of “Top Tracer” is a mistake. Addressing decision making, Minshew called attention to her 30 years of business experience and her work at Bell South in supporting Hurricane Katrina recovery. She noted her role in advocating for the City to adopt a “Human Rights” ordinance and her work on the Planning Advisory Board revising the tree ordinance.
In closing, Minshew said she believes that elections are about the future. She made a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and promised to create an environment for businesses to thrive. Minshew will rely upon “fact based” decision making and pledges that growth and development will be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
David Sturges, has owned a business in Fernandina Beach for over 20 years. He is a lifelong resident, who supports a “common sense” approach to City governance, wants to ensure a business friendly City administration, will “protect property rights” and “speed” resolution of issues associated with the Marina and waterfront. Sturges promises to keep taxes low.
Sturges’ first priorities would be to keep City spending under control, to create a “pro-business” environment and to improve and expedite City procedures, particularly in the Building Department. Sturges would open up green spaces at areas adjacent to the beach during peak times, particularly for golf carts, mopeds and bicycles, to alleviate parking issues. Sturges would explore instituting shuttle service to the beach.
With regard to the Marina, Sturges supports its new management and believes that it will be fully operational soon. He would explore restructuring the Marina’s debt. Sturges supports Top Tracer at the Golf course. He wants both the Marina and the Golf Course with the Top Tracer amenity, marketed, advertised and promoted. Sturges underscored his experience on advisory boards and his commitment to “common sense” solutions and decisions.
Struges points to his family roots in the community and his desire to make Fernandina a welcoming, safe place to live, work and play. He would preserve “our history,” and plan for the future. He believes that “common sense” solutions will serve the City well for years to come.
The specific questions asked related to the downtown waterfront; City assistance to charitable organizations; the role of the City and taxpayers play in keeping downtown “healthy,” and overcoming animosities between the City and Port Authority.
Wendall McGahee is a seventh generation native of Fernandina Beach who loves his home town and wants to serve, promising “always to give my best.”
With regard to the waterfront, McGahee believes the redevelopment of the waterfront can wait based upon his concern about the tax burden the project would place upon City residents. McGahee, however, believes protection against flooding at the waterfront should be addressed and is a priority. He supports the use of City taxpayer funds in support of charitable organizations, and pointed to his belief that City contributions can help leverage contributions from other agencies and governmental entities for these organizations.
McGahee would work to ensure a healthy and vibrant local business environment. He would make sure that downtown is “safe and well kept” which he maintains is a key to attracting people to local businesses. With regard to the Port Authority dispute with the City, McGahee believes that clear communication by and between each governmental subdivision is critical to resolving the disputes between the parties.
McGahee emphasizes his support for diversity and inclusion and that “we are one community together.” He wants to ensure there are youth development programs that will support and involve young people in our City’s life. He promises to monitor growth, keep taxes at a minimum and preserve our unique small town “for our children’s children.”
“Chip” Ross is running for a second term having been first elected in 2017. Ross says he made a conscious decision to live in Fernandina Beach which he calls a “great place to live.” He maintains he reaches out to all citizens and respects all points of view. He “shows up” in the community and attends most Advisory Board meetings and serves on the Tourist Development Council. He is running on his record which includes, voting against the Amelia Bluff zoning change, the Simmons Road Park, and his opposition to the Atlantic Avenue hotel project. Ross voted to preserve conservation land, the tree canopy and wetlands and to preserve the Historic District and voted to repair the Marina and revitalize the waterfront.
Ross describes the waterfront as a “sandwich.” One piece of “bread” is flood protection from Rayonier to the Port of Fernandina, the second piece is making Front Street pedestrian friendly and in between is to create a park similar to the park at St. Marys, Ga. Ross asserts that grants, FDOT support and the use of “impact fees” allow for responsible funding of the project. Ross recounted his support, together with other members of the Commission, to fund the Council on Aging, Barnabas, Micah’s Place, Nassau County Mental Health Services and the Salvation Army each a part of a community safety net that provides services the City does not or cannot provide. He pledged to redirect any CARES monies the City receives to charitable agencies. Ross underscored that homestead property taxes have been reduced this year.
Ross maintains that the historic downtown is essential to the City’s economy. To promote essential foot traffic for downtown businesses, he believes it is a City obligation to ensure that it is clean, safe and physically inviting. Ross again emphasized the need for downtown flood protection. As to issues with regard to the Port of Fernandina Authority, Ross suggests that the Port has not been a “good citizen,” has not paid its obligations to the City, not provided an updated Master Plan, and has not followed applicable rules that are adhered to by the mills and City residents. Ross, however, looks forward working with newly elected Port Commissioners.
Ross concluded by quoting “one of his critics” who recounts that Ross thoroughly researches issues and reaches out to the community. Ross stresses he will continue to protect the environment and environmental land. He submits that his record demonstrates that he is an experienced, well prepared advocate. Ross says is committed to devoting his time and effort to make the City a great place to live and work and will listen to, be responsive, and collaborate with all citizens to that end.
Vicki Cannon Tribute
During the Observer Forum, Larry Myers, former City Manager and County Administrator, who moderated the Candidate Forum, read a tribute from him and Susan Hardee Steger, the Observer Editor, to Vicki Cannon who is retiring from the position of Supervisor of Elections after 20 years. Myers and Steger praised her unparalleled public service in that position and her prior service as City Clerk. On a personal note, in 2008 I was designated by the national campaign staff of a Presidential candidate as a “Florida Voting Rights Attorney.” During that election I regularly reported in on what an exceptionally fair, efficient and courteous polling operation there was in Nassau County. Vicki Cannon will be missed.
Editor’s Note: Adam Kaufman is a graduate of the Northwestern Pritzker Law and is a retired attorney, mediator, and arbitrator. He is a City resident.
View the Forum
“If you don’t vote, you lose your right to complain.” George Carlin
October 5, 2020, Deadline for New Voter Registration
October 19 – November 1, 2020, Early voting
Atlantic Recreation Center 9 am – 6 pm
November 3, 2020, Election Day
7 am – 7 pm
Mail Ballots and other questions:
Supervisor of Elections web site: https://www.votenassau.com