Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 3, 2017 2:30 p.m.
If the first meeting of the New Year can be considered predictive of future meetings, it is going to be a long year. The agenda for the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Regular Meeting on January 2, 2018 contained a 3-item Consent Agenda, one Resolution and Third Reading on the newsrack ordinance. There were no proclamations or presentations. At the request of the City Attorney, the newsrack ordinance was postponed until the March 15, 2018 meeting. Yet the meeting lasted an hour and a half – on top of an hour-long workshop to brief commissioners on the City Charter and Administrative Procedures that immediately preceded the meeting.
Few members of the public (none of whom spoke) attended the meeting, no doubt due to both the inclement weather and the paucity of agenda items. Fully an hour of the meeting was devoted to reports and comments of the City Manager and the individual Commissioners at the end of the meeting.
Discussion was dominated by new commissioner Chip Ross, who attempted to obtain a sense of the FBCC for proceeding in some ongoing initiatives, such as repairing the South Basin Attenuator and opening the Alachua rail crossing. Ross explained to the audience that because of limitations of the Sunshine Law, the only time he could ask for input from fellow commissioners was at a public meeting.
Ross also raised new topics for discussion, including changing the format of monthly budget reports, adopting a revised Port Element in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and pursuing grant opportunities for removing abandoned or sunken boats from the Amelia River and islands west of the city marina.
City Manager Dale Martin indicated that on January 12, the city would review proposals submitted from among 26 solicited firms to provide design criteria that will form the basis of going out to solicit either full design and bid to build or a design/build project. Both Commissioner Roy Smith and Vice Mayor Len Kreger supported going forward as the next step with a design/build project as the quickest and most economical path toward restoring functionality to the attenuator.
Kreger and Smith attempted to explain why the city could not legally follow Ross’ idea for contracting out marina design and repair work in one step. However, Ross did not appear to be buying their explanations, despite asking them to help him understand their positions. Following the meeting, Kreger said that the procurement process for services such as the marina repair is fully outlined in state statute and city procurement procedures.
With respect to moving on to the next step in opening the Alachua rail crossing, Ross cited an 1886 ordinance that he claimed stated that the railroad would pay for the opening. He also cited a 2009 title opinion on who owns Front Street. Ross said that getting answers to many questions and determining the roles of the various actors will be determinative in deciding whether to open Alachua to vehicles, pedestrians, or not at all.
Kreger agreed with the need to meet and consult with the railroad and FDOT in charting a way forward, citing other concerns with stormwater and shore stabilization. He reminded commissioners that the railroad is the party that would design and build the crossing.
City Manager Dale Martin said that he has already asked FDOT’s Laura Regalado to facilitate a meeting with the railroad “to start asking questions and solidify the process” going forward.
Commissioner Phil Chapman agreed that many items need to be explained and addressed before moving forward to open the crossing, citing major issues on Front Street and plans for the waterfront. Chapman said, “This is a big ticket item. I need to have all the answers before I can sit here and vote to open [Alachua Street]. It’s a small piece in a very big puzzle.” He wanted to know what the payback of this project would be and how it would benefit the whole city.
Ross said he agreed with commissioners’ comments but wanted to know what the next step would be. He offered his idea: putting together a delegation from the city consisting of the city manager, city attorney and possibly a commissioner to meet with the railroad officials within the next month on their requirements and position on costs and land ownership issues before spending money on drawings or plans.
Kreger agreed, adding that FDOT needed to be a party to the meeting as well. “FDOT is the level to get this done,” he said. “We need to be proactive.”
Chapman raised concerns with future direction of the Port of Fernandina and whether increased rail traffic would lead to blocking intersections more frequently.
Commissioner Roy Smith became increasingly aggravated with items that Ross brought up that he considered to be outside the scope of the meeting, such as removing boats from the river and updating the city comprehensive plan with a revised port element. During his comments he said, “For our new commission we’ve set two records, I think. Tonight we had a 15-minute meeting that pretty soon will have run an hour and a half; our last meeting was 3.5 hours. We can’t keep dragging [the meetings out] with crazy things and questions and such. We have work we have to get done. We’re going to have to start shutting these meetings off at 8 [o’clock] and continue where we left off at the next meeting, because we are wasting too much time on things we shouldn’t be talking about.”
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.