By Mike Lednovich
The clock is ticking with just four months remaining for candidates to qualify for the August 2024 city commission election that will decide three commissioner seats.
So where are the candidates?
The current city commission moved the 2024 election to August 20 instead of early November. With the change, the qualifying deadline is now May 17.
Three commission seats are up for election. Commissioner Chip Ross is termed out in Seat 3. The four-year terms of Mayor Bradley Bean (Seat 1) and Vice Mayor David Sturges (Seat 2) are also up for election. Neither Bean nor Sturges has indicated if he will seek another term.
Just two candidates have filed as of this writing.
The first to file was former City Commissioner Tim Poynter (2014-2017), a high-profile downtown business owner with restaurants, a putt-putt facility, a duckpin bowling establishment, and two other projects in the works.
Poynter said he will be running for Ross’ Seat 3 and filed late this week. Poynter lost re-election to Phil Chapman in 2017 when city commission terms were at three years. threw his hat in.
And a few hours later, Commissioner David Sturges threw his hat into the ring. Sturges is another businessman who owns scores of rental properties, many of which his construction business has upgraded and added to his holdings.
By comparison, with four months to go in 2022, there were eight qualified candidates for two city commission seats.
So why aren’t more people stepping up?
Many blame the sea change 2022 election for those non-partisan commission seats on local Republican Party politics that poured money and support, including GOP-leaning but undisclosed Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions, to the election of now sitting commissioners Darron Ayscue and James Antun.
Reportedly, the GOP loyalists poured $20,000 of PAC money into the final week of the runoff for direct-mail flyers and automated phone calls rallying party voters.
Potential candidates now face the daunting task of having to raise a minimum of $30,000 for a small city election. By contrast, in 2017, Chapman raised just $1,400 to defeat incumbent Poynter.
There was also an ugly, anti-gay attack from local religious far-right groups with campaign smears and threats against two commission candidates.
There’s little doubt local Republican Party officials will embrace that same winning formula in the 2024 commission races.
“I think it’s sad that people are so hesitant, and it’s so difficult to run for city commission,” said Genece Minshew, who made unsuccessful bids for a commission seat in 2020 and 2022. “It’s too bad that the politics have gotten nasty, and it’s so expensive to run for city commission. That needs to change.”
She will not run a third time in 2024.
In 2020, Minshew was a hair’s breadth away from winning, missing by 40 votes in a runoff against Vice Mayor Sturges.
Then came 2022 and the aforementioned GOP involvement. Opponents honed in on Minshew’s leadership of the local gay rights PRIDE group to marshal voters to back Ayscue. She lost by 211 votes in another runoff.
Part of the effort against Minshew was led by a new right-wing group, Citizens Defending Freedom (CDF), led by Jack Knocke. Before the election, CDF put out a questionnaire to commission candidates asking such questions as should a transgender person be allowed to use a restroom of the gender they are identifying as, and would candidates support a local ordinance supporting a woman’s right to an abortion.
The personal attacks and threats leveled at Minshew can be attributed to CDF’s supporters as well as segments of the religious right.
“The 2020 race was very friendly and congenial. That changed dramatically in 2022 with the stepped-up Republican Party involvement and the national temperature (regarding gay issues),” she said. “I’m not willing to subject my family and friends to that abuse again.”
Knocke of Citizens Defending Freedom declined to comment on the 2024 election, but indicated there might be a CDF-backed city commission candidate. “We need at least one, right?” Knocke said before Tuesday’s city commission meeting.
Another factor in play is the new state financial reporting requirements for public officials, those serving on government boards, and candidates. The law requires them to file a Form 6 to disclose their net worth, the value of each asset and liability, and income sources over $1,000 per year.
Sheila Cocchi, chair of the Nassau County Democratic Executive Committee, said there are no plans for the party to adopt the election tactics of the GOP in the upcoming city commission election.
She said “The Nassau County Democratic Executive Committee (NCDEC) will continue to abide by the Fernandina Beach City Charter, which requires city commission elections to be non-partisan. This means candidates cannot campaign based on their party affiliation or issue political advertisements that state their party affiliation.
“However, we can endorse candidates, even those of the opposing party. Also, we will ask our county Republican Executive Committee to follow the city charter rules.
Former Vice Mayor Len Kreger, who was termed out in 2022, had planned to run but then ran into the restriction of the city charter, which states a city commissioner who has served two consecutive terms must wait four years before seeking a seat on the commission. Kreger was highly critical of the tactics of Republicans in 2022 and has urged a return to non-partisan campaigns.
That brings us to retired firefighter Chris Nickoloff, who is considering another run after losing in 2022. He says he is conflicted because he serves on the city’s Marina Advisory Board and is a trustee on the city Fire and Police Pension Board.
“The trustee position has a long certification process. I am about one-third of the way through. I really enjoy applying my skills to help our first responders. I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into becoming a trustee and would hate to have to give that up,” Nickoloff said.
But he still is mulling whether to run for a commission seat.
“I am still evaluating my options, however, and may consider throwing my hat into the ring. I really enjoy serving my community. And am looking for that path to be most effective. Having said that, I view it as an honor to serve the citizens of Fernandina Beach. It is a position (commission) I view as representing everyone in the city regardless of political affiliation or special interest,” Nickoloff said.
In 2020, city commission candidate Marian Phillips lost to Bean. She blames the loss on the “Bean Machine.” Mayor Bean is the son of Republican U.S. Congressman Aaron Bean, who served many years in the state legislature.
During two elections for the commission and one as mayor, Bradley Bean raised a staggering $62,584 in campaign funds, out-raising Phillips $33,000 to $10,000 in that 2020 race. In his 2020 successful bid to become a commissioner, Bean received $16,500 in contributions from Tallahassee-based organizations.
“With the help from his dad’s political donors, who have no clue about Fernandina, he (Bean) managed to raise $30K in funds. I raised quite a bit of money for my campaign that was a grassroots effort. Never before had any race in Fernandina history received this much for a little city election,” Phillips said. “I did not let this scare or deter me. I knew exactly what was going on. I was a threat to the plan to allow developers to continue to destroy our small-town atmosphere. There was a political agenda at hand. Now everyone can see that.”
Phillips, who sits on the city’s Marina Advisory Board and often speaks at city commission meetings, is not sure whether she will run again this year.
“Currently, I have contemplated running again. I’m active in the community. I see and I hear that citizens are not happy with the outcome of the election or the last election. Even those who supported those who are now sitting on the commission are not happy with what is taking place,” Phillips said. “Am I perfect? No! But as a city commissioner, you must listen to those who elect you. You must not have a hidden agenda or political favors for those who seek to take over our island. I’m truly sorry that things have turned out like they have. If I were to run again, I would need a promise from every citizen that they would support me, get out and vote to make sure that I win. At this juncture, our city is in trouble.”
Another 2020 candidate, Alexandra Lajoux, is not considering running in 2024.
“The year that I spent campaigning for city commission may very well have been the most fulfilling of my life because it was both intellectually and socially rewarding beyond measure. My campaign was mostly self-funded, but it was deeply gratifying to get endorsements and contributions from those in the community who knew I would fight to preserve our environmental and historical assets. Although I lost, I do not regret it for a moment. I do encourage motivated candidates to step up and give it a try,” she said.
“I don’t plan to run again because, since losing, I have made other commitments in the community, such as the Fourth Circuit Guardian ad Litem program and Daughters of the American Revolution, among others. I do hope that elections remain nonpartisan, and I pledge to support any candidate who through words and actions shows a commitment to environmental conservation and historic preservation.”
Rumors persist that Faith Ross, wife of termed-out Commissioner Chip Ross, will run for her husband’s vacated seat. Mrs. Ross has city experience, having served as chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee and currently serves on the Board of Adjustment. But she will not be a candidate. The Rosses now spend some weekends in a Jacksonville area apartment and may relocate off the island in 2025.
Other civic leaders like Victoria Robas, the city’s Planning Advisory Board chair, are declining to be a candidate.
Tom Camera, chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, frequently attends city commission meetings. When asked last Tuesday at the commission meeting if he would consider running for a city commission seat, he flashed a wry smile and had a two-word answer. “Hell no!” he exclaimed.