By Dale Martin
October 22, 2021
“Fernandina Beach government, in addition to the elected City Commissioners, also includes approximately two hundred full-time employees who, for the most part, make this community seamlessly and wonderfully function. Residents will likely never meet many of these public servants, but those employees are dedicated and proud to serve.”
The City Commission, as described earlier this month, often presents a variety of proclamations at the start of each City Commission meeting. These proclamations recognize individuals and events of noteworthy accomplishment or interest. A recent proclamation recognized and celebrated Florida City Government Week, which concludes this weekend.
According to the Florida League of Cities, “Florida City Government Week, held annually in October, is a time for cities across the state to celebrate, showcase and engage citizens in the work of municipal government. Municipal government is the government closest to the people and generally receives higher approval ratings than other levels of government. Yet, many residents are unaware of how city services impact their lives. 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Florida City Government Week. Through 30 years of celebrations, Florida’s 411 cities have reached thousands of residents in bringing awareness to the role city government plays in enhancing the quality of life for Florida’s residents.”
The thirty years of Florida city government celebrations is a little bit longer than the twenty-five years that I have served a variety of local governments. I started my local government career through a circuitous route, completing my public administration graduate degree and then serving as an active duty infantry officer. After completing my brief four-year military service, I began to seek local government service.
Despite the education provided by my graduate degree and the leadership provided by my military service, it was a frustrating challenge to obtain a local government management position. In the infrequent opportunities for which I was able to secure an interview, the inevitable and obvious question of “What is your budget experience” would be posed. My answer was always, “None.” No one ever asked about my M2A2 Bradley gunnery scores or my ability to coordinate airstrikes.
Until what can only be described as a fluke opportunity in Lexington, Michigan, a small (really small- 800 residents) Lake Huron waterfront community that is ironically similar in many ways to Fernandina Beach. I was somewhat familiar with Lexington as my family had a small cottage in the vicinity of that village, so when the Village Council posted the position for Village Manager, I submitted an application, was surprised to be called for an interview, and even more surprised when I was offered the position.
It was only after beginning my service to Lexington that I learned “the rest of the story.” I discovered that of the seven members of the Village Manager search committee, I wasn’t ranked in any of the members top five candidates. When the recommendations of the committee were presented to the Village Council, though, one Village Councilman, Mr. Ernest Jackson, an aging World War II Army infantryman, advocated on my behalf for at least an interview due to my military training and experience. Mr. Jackson has long since passed away, but thanks in large part to him, my local government career began in April, 1996.
I have found this profession to be incredibly rewarding. Local government has introduced me to a great collection of people who have sought to improve their communities and were willing to offer their experience and time for that effort. The amount of time required to functionally serve as an elected local government official is often underestimated- preparation, meetings, phone calls, special events. I have worked with some elected officials whose personal businesses have directly suffered due to their willingness to serve their communities and make tough decisions.
Most often overlooked, however, is the concept of governing. Training and classes are available everywhere on how to organize, finance, and conduct a campaign for local government offices. But what happens after a candidate wins? Not many courses provide insight into the transition of governing- that usually develops over the course of service.
The communities that I have served have varied greatly in size, in governance, and in levels of service. What is common to all despite those differences are many of the challenges. Prioritizing and funding projects- each with its own collection of champions and detractors- requires a delicate consensus of the key decision makers, the governing body. It is the “governors” who need to make decisions that have long-term ramifications (often not necessarily politically popular) rather than worry about the next social media comment.
Fernandina Beach government, in addition to the elected City Commissioners, also includes approximately two hundred full-time employees who, for the most part, make this community seamlessly and wonderfully function. Residents will likely never meet many of these public servants, but those employees are dedicated and proud to serve.
We do have our community challenges, but we also have a remarkable series of daily and long-term successes, in large part, the direct result of City staff training, experience, and service. I hope that you do have the opportunity to meet more of the City staff.