“Christmas list or not” – An opinion

By Chip Ross
Fernandina Beach
City Commissioner
December 29, 2020

Four days before Christmas I received an e-mail from an unhappy City resident. Instead of extending wishes of Christmas good will and cheer he wanted me to fire the City Manager. He identified “numerous actions and inactions” by the Manager who he deems “ineffective in his role” and actually put “the City in a worse position then (than) when he got here.” There was no mention of the twelve days of Christmas, instead he listed the twelve “issues” that caused him to recommend hiring a new City Manager. Most of the accusations were either inaccurate or misdirected. The resident offered no solutions to the City’s problems other than to fire the City Manager.

If anyone believes the City is in a worse position than it was 5 years ago – then it needs to be blamed on me and the City Commission. A City Manager, under our system of city government, only implements what the City Commission instructs him to do. During the last three years, those instructions were usually passed by a unanimous vote on all the issues that came before the Commission.

The litany of “issues” enumerated included the mismanagement of the Marina, Golf Course, capital projects, City finances, trash pickup, and beach cleaning. The City does face significant challenges to remain financially viable and still maintain its current levels of services. However, multiple City Commissions, extending back many years, failed to adequately fund the maintenance of the marina, golf course, recreational equipment, beach walkovers, and the renovation and the replacement of City infrastructure. Multiple Commissions failed to deliver on 20 years of promises to provide a viable downtown waterfront and act upon preventing the flooding of the historic downtown.

If you need to blame someone for the current “distressed position” of the Marina, blame me and the previous Commissioners. When I first came into office 3 years ago the Marina had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Matthew and unusable. It had a poorly designed layout and was full of mud. It had a non-responsive Marina management company and was approximately six million dollars in debt. With the full support of the community, three years later, the storm-ravaged Marina has been replaced with a new dock layout and the mud removed. The Marina operator has been replaced and a plan has been crafted to pay off the old and new debt. All the steps to accomplish these improvements and the marina’s funding were approved by a 5-0 City Commission vote with two exceptions that were 4-1. The Manager did what he was instructed to do. In addition, every Commissioner either met or had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Martin on a weekly basis to have any question or concern addressed.

There was one “spot-on” accusation in the citizen’s 12 issues for Christmas. The beach “walkovers have never had a renovation/replacement plan” and “the City shut 14 [the real number was 12] walkovers at spring break [March 2019]”. It is true that for decades the City Commission has failed to adequately fund beach walkover repairs. Rather than fund walkover repairs from the General Fund, over the years they consistently voted to build new walkovers with Impact Fee Funds (Impact Fees can only be used for “new” capital improvements, not for maintenance.) To put together a maintenance plan, and to put to rest the number of walkovers in actual need of repair, the City Manager (with Commission approval) had the good sense to order an independent engineer to evaluate the structures and their safety. The engineer recommended twelve (12) beach access boardwalks be closed based on structural deficiencies. Once a report of dangerous and unsafe beach walkers was received, it was imperative to remove them because of their poor condition. The City does not need another law suit, nor does anyone want to see someone injured falling through an unsafe beach walk over. Since the previous Commission could not agree on a plan for funding for their repair or replacement, the City Manager tasked a citizen committee to develop a plan for accessing all 50 beach accesses. Accepting the recommended plan and agreeing to its funding will be up to the new City Commission.

Three years ago, the five previous City Commissioners directed the City Manager to go out for bids on the City trash service. Four Commissioners chose Advanced Disposal. Advanced Disposal and the City agreed to a contract that specifically stated yard waste was to be collected by “bagging and bundling”. All five City Commissioners agreed to the contract. None of the City Commissioners objected to the “bag and bundle” provision. For a period of time, Advanced Disposal kept picking up the yard waste “as was done in the past” with a grapple truck (which costs more). However, recently, Advanced Disposal was bought out by another company, Waste Management. Waste Management is demanding the City pay for the more expensive grapple truck yard waste removal service, or they will discontinue picking up the piles of yard waste that are not “bagged and bundled” as stated in the contract. It is disingenuous to blame the City Manager when all five previous Commissioners [myself included] agreed to the current contract that required yard waste to be “bagged and bundled”.

In the past three years, the City Manager, at the direction of the City Commissioners, implemented a consensus plan for on-beach parking, added new beach trash receptacles that now allow reliable (no overflowing trash cans) and cost-efficient trash pickup, and a beach cleaning service to assist the volunteer beach cleanup personnel in keeping the beaches clean. (The volunteers can’t do it all.) The Tourist Development Council (TDC) now funds the daily, paid beach clean-up service. At the direction of the Commission’s votes, a 35-foot building height limit was placed on properties at the beach, the rental of accessory dwelling units was permitted to assist with affordable housing, multiple parcels for permanent preservation of environmentally sensitive land were added to the Future Land Use Map, the City Charter was changed to preserve conservation lands in perpetuity, a Human Relations Ordinance was passed, many flood ordinances were added to protect City residents and businesses from flood damage. These ordinances also had the added benefit of significantly lowering residents’ flood insurance premiums. Multiple other actions were taken to preserve and improve the quality of life in Fernandina beach. These actions were taken by the City Manager at the direction of the Commission.

It’s easy to blame a City Manager for any of the City’s perceived failings. Perhaps that is why the City has historically had so many City Managers in the past. The blame for unpopular decisions or actions or inaction taken by Commissioners can be easily shifted to the City Manager.

Instead of firing Mr. Martin as the unhappy resident requests and spending the next 6-12 months searching for a new City Manager, I believe the current Commission should give Mr. Martin the support, direction, funding to implement the City Commission goals. My job as a City Commisioner is to set, in conjunction with the other Commissioners, the goals and policy and then give the City Manager and staff the support and funding to accomplish those goals. I am confident in Mr. Martins’s ability to accomplish the will of the City Commission.

Happy Holidays to all, and may I express my great hope that a New Year brings unity to our City Commission to resolve our City’s critical issues.

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