A Commentary on Inconsistent Public Comment Rules

By Mike Lednovich

Corrine Garrett led off the public comment segment of the May 7 city commission meeting with a question.

“I would like to know if Fernandina Beach city commissioners are in line with the law?” Garrett said.

Five seconds of uncomfortable silence followed. Then Mayor Bradley Bean mandated “Miss Garrett, this is not a question and answer time … this is not a comment period.”

However, just 15 minutes later, Bryn Bryon went to the lectern and inquired about an outside legal opinion about RYAM’s plans for a bioethanol plant – she had asked a question.

Guess what? Bean proceeded to answer.

The optics of exchanges like this are not positive for the sitting commissioners.

Bean had previously invoked this same rule in a March 19, 2024 meeting when a speaker asked commissioners about the RYAM plan. Again, Bean declared “this is not a question-and-answer time.”

So, what exactly are the rules regarding public comment? When can you ask the city commission a question in a public meeting?

Commissioner Darron Ayscue last week on social media said, “Public comment is reserved for the public to make comment, not for there to be an open discussion between citizens and commissioners.”

Ayscue evidently is suffering from short term memory loss.

It was only six months ago when Commissioner Ayscue chose to respond to a public comment at the Dec. 5, 2023 city commission meeting. The speaker had read a statement questioning the city police department’s handling of former City Manager Ty Ross’ alcohol-related bicycle accident. Ayscue responded with, “Mayor, can I make a comment real quick?” Ayscue continued and praised the work of police officers.

That meeting also included three other instances of commissioners and city staff responding to various public comments.

Briefly, one speaker raised the issue of selective enforcement of code violations regarding a parked boat. That drew responses from Commissioner Ross and a comment from Mayor Bean. Also at that meeting, another speaker made remarks about RYAM possibly making a presentation to the city commission, which had City Attorney Bach responding and Bean declaring he was recusing himself from any discussion about RYAM. Vice Mayor David Sturges also made statements regarding the comments concerning RYAM.

Then, a fourth speaker questioned David Sturges’ possible conflict of interest regarding Brett’s Waterway Cafe and voting on density issues. The Vice Mayor responded to those statements.

What’s clear is that rules regarding public comment and commission responses to them are left to the vagary of the commissioner running the meeting – the mayor.

There are two important points to make regarding public comment.

First, the mayor’s rulings are in fact, arbitrary. As mayor, Bean holds no defined authoritative power to make those decisions. The mayor conducts the meeting according to the aforementioned “rules of procedure” and Robert’s Rules of Order.

Second, in the city commission’s “rules of procedure” defining public comment there is no prohibition of commissioners not being able to make comments about what has been stated. There is also no prohibition against speakers asking commissioners a direct question.

If public comment is intended for people to share their opinions with commissioners and not ask questions without commissioner comment, then the “Rules of Procedure” need to be revised.

More importantly, commissioners then need to follow the rules.

The other side of this debate is, do citizens have the right to hold city commissioners accountable during a public meeting for their positions on critical issues facing Fernandina Beach? If a city commission meeting isn’t the appropriate setting to have commissioners queried collectively, where is? A city commission meeting is the only time all five commissioners are participating in a public forum.

There is a position to be made that city commissioners responding to specific questions or concerns raised during public comment facilitates clarification on certain issues and fosters better communication between the public and our elected representatives.

For example, an issue addressed during public comment at the Jan. 16 city commission meeting took place when Jackie Stevenson raised concerns about the planning of the beach walkover at Seaside Park and how it expanded into the 600-foot parking on the beach zone.

After she spoke, Interim City Manager Charlie George and Commissioner Ross provided details on how decisions were made about the walkover design and construction. They both provided details previously not known to the public.

A solution may be for the city commission to conduct quarterly workshops devoted solely to Q&A from the public. Limit speaker comments to two minutes and commission comments to three. That allows for 12 questions/answers in a one-hour workshop.

The commission needs to find an answer to end the frustration on both sides and implement a solution that meets the needs of citizens of Fernandina Beach.

The Observer reviewed every public comment session of the current city commission from Dec. 5, 2022 to May 7, 2024. Here are the findings excluding the examples mentioned above.

  • At the city commission’s April 16, 2024 meeting, Jack Imber spoke about the RYAM proposal. When Imber finished, Commissioner Chip Ross jumped in and said, “I’d like to say something,” in response to Imber. Ross went on for two minutes explaining the city government process on RYAM’s effort to bring bioethanol production into the city.
  • At the Feb. 20 city commission meeting, Bean commented on remarks made by Imber again on the RYAM proposal.
  • Dec. 19, 2023 – a comment on numerous city annexations prompted questions by Commissioner Ross and discussion with City Attorney Tammi Bach.
  • During the Sept. 5, 2023 public comments, Mayor Bean responded to a statement about preserving oak trees and replacing historic sidewalk tile on Eighth Street by the Florida Department of Transportation.
  • At the Aug. 15, 2023 meeting during public comment a speaker asked questions regarding paying city utility bills. City Attorney Bach, Vice Mayor Sturges and Mayor Bean responded with Bean concluding “did that answer your question?”
  • Mayor Bean responded to public comment regarding affordable housing on Aug. 1, 2023.
  • July 18, 2023 Vice Mayor Sturges addresses a public comment regarding the management of the city’s enterprise fund.
  • June 20, 2023, Mayor Bean talks about a public comment regarding spending and taxes.
  • Feb. 7, 2023 Mayor Bean, plus Commissioners Ayscue and Ross made statements on public comment concerning the legality of city impact fees and an Auditor General’s review of how those fees were spent by the city.
  • Jan. 17, 2023 Mayor Bean requests the city manager answer questions regarding access to natural gas in the city following a public comment that included several questions about the issue.

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Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
5 days ago

An obvious but uncomfortable solution for the mayor would be to allow commissioners to respond to public comments and questions in the “outside of agenda” public comment period. This will facilitate communication between the public and the commissioners, allow the commissioners or staff to clear up misunderstandings, provide new information for the public, and point to future agenda items where there needs to be enhanced discussion. By the way, as a former parliamentarian and enforcer of meeting protocols and rules with a variety of organizations, my experience shows that nobody really follows Roberts Rules of Order, especially the section on how motions are made. RRO have much more strict and a very cumbersome, although fair, process than what most organizations follow. We usually called them “Bob’s Suggestions,” instead.

Richard Lamken
Trusted Member
Richard Lamken(@ralamken)
5 days ago

This is also about who is asking the question. Certain individuals, usually those perceived as agitators or chronic critics, rarely get their questions answered. Don’t expect the solution to be either that the commissioner will always or will never answer an attendee’s question. Cherry-picking is a hallmark of public bodies approach to “Public Comments”.

SnappyClam
SnappyClam(@joesnappyclam-com)
5 days ago

I want to express my continued heartfelt laughter.

Douglas M
Noble Member
Douglas M(@douglasm)
5 days ago

Can a majority of the Commission decide to delete the comment period? That would certainly solve your “arbitrary” issue…..

The meetings are long enough already. Your work shop idea on another evening makes sense….

Curious…..how did you handle this period when you were mayor? Did you answer every question?

As Mark points out, strict following of Robert’s Rules is a little loose at the FBCC (misinterpretation of “tabling”, etc), however in all deliberative bodies, if a majority (or super majority if required) want to change their rules of procedure, or temporarily suspend them, they can do so….things are not rigidly set in stone for good reason.

I don’t consider this comments issue a big deal. I’ll vote accordingly if “action”, NOT words, are not taken to stop the petroleum production in our city limits. Talk is cheap, so this comment period really doesn’t matter to this voter in the long run. I know what they will do if they are re-elected…..that’s the only solution I see to this problem…..vote the incumbents out.

lucyp74
Noble Member
lucyp74(@lucyp74)
5 days ago
Reply to  Douglas M

Problem is, it seems that the folks that keep running for office are just recycled over and over again. No one wants to deal with the debacle of it. I’m a county resident, but the county isn’t much better. The state legislature has passed so many laws stripping the power from the citizens and local government it’s disgusting. I’m fed up with all of it. I can’t imagine actually being a part of the local legislature. If I were, I WOULD vote the will of the people and I WOULD reach out to Tallahassee to tell them what they are doing is DESTROYING our state. Excessive growth IS ruining EVERYTHING! But, as long as “they” get their $$$, they don’t care. Until a philanthropist comes in and starts buying up land, we the people are screwed.

Bob
Noble Member
Bob(@bob)
5 days ago

nit, nit, pick

Albert Pike
Trusted Member
Albert Pike(@albert-pike)
5 days ago

So no one is going to address Ms. Garrett’s condescending tone when speaking to the commissioners? She clearly wasn’t there for answers but rather to try to make herself look good to the “cool kids” aka the wannabe activist crowd. Who can blame any of those guys from not taking her bait to risk being caught up with some “gotcha” comment. Maybe someone should enlighten her and let her know she may catch more flies with honey than vinegar…

mick
mick(@mick)
5 days ago
Reply to  Albert Pike

Yes, inconvenient truths and “uppity” women are irritating, aren’t they? /s

Simple questions. The City Comp plan is the law. The law/legal opinion states the Comp Plan cannot be circumvented. The Comp Plan states NO CHEMICAL PLANTS in the city’s jurisdiction. RYAM’s property is in the City.

Honey? RYAM’s flies are collecting the honey. The board of county commissioners meeting at 9am Wednesday will consider reimbursement of a portion of taxes to LignoTech for property owned by both RYAM & LignoTech. The county commission has the authority to approve the grant reimbursement amount up to $335,970.40 using Nassau County tax dollars. The grant is to assist with construction of a new 275,000 square-foot facility for advancing manufacturing high purity, natural lignin-based products at its Fernandina Beach location. Coversheet (novusagenda.com)

Stand with the uppity women vs. the good old boy’s system because the inconvenient truth here is RYAM/LignoTech/Rayonier wants you to pay their tax bill. That is condescending and being played.

Douglas M
Noble Member
Douglas M(@douglasm)
4 days ago
Reply to  mick

Yes, they were simple questions and you articulate things much better (I wish you had been at that microphone instead).

I have a question that I’m not sure what the answer is……why has Tammi farmed this out to an outside legal firm (at some expense) when the answers seem so simple to a 3rd grade reader? Your second paragraph distills the issue into a nutshell of simple logic. Is it politics? More complex than we see? What?

Like the “pause” on changing the Land Development Code, this obvious delaying tactic (IMO) is designed to just get two people past re-election……then watch! I’ll say it again….there is only one solution…..vote the incumbents out.

MyFernandina
Active Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
4 days ago
Reply to  mick

And what–exactly–is a “chemical plant”?
Not legally defined in the Comp Plan, so subject
to interpretation by lawyers–too many city “laws”
use vague terms leaving the doors wide open.

Concerned-Citizen
Trusted Member
Concerned-Citizen(@concerned-citizen)
4 days ago

I had a good chuckle with this article. The former mayor spent a lot of effort on this?

Lois
Lois(@lois)
4 days ago

“A solution may be for the city commission to conduct quarterly workshops devoted solely to Q&A from the public. Limit speaker comments to two minutes and commission comments to three. That allows for 12 questions/answers in a one-hour workshop.”

Quarterly w time limits wouldn’t work because
1. issues would lack immediacy,
2. some commissioners would duck out for fear of being held accountable, and
3. four times per year for constituent Q+A is miniscule window.

Ms. Garrett asked a legal question. The way Bean evaded that question sure makes it look like he did not know the answer or did not want to say it. The project looks bad when Bean cannot or will not engage.

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