Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 17, 2020
The agenda item generating the most discussion during the December 15, 2020 Regular Meeting of the new Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) was Ordinance 2020-21, which detailed a series of proposed amendments to the City Charter that will go to the voters for approval in a Special Election to be conducted by mail in mid-2021. This is a lengthy ordinance, with the title alone taking up a full page of the meeting agenda.
The recommended changes had been approved and forwarded by the FBCC-appointed Charter Review Committee (CRC), which met over the past year under the chairmanship of Arlene Filkoff to examine the current language of the City Charter to identify sections or language that needed clarification, expansion or elimination. [Note that the first of their recommendations — amending Section 10A of the City Charter to prohibit sale of City-owned conservation lands and restrictions on sale of recreation lands — has already been approved by voters on the November 3, 2020 City general election ballot.]
While early on in the CRC’s deliberations, City Commissioners agreed that all final recommendations would be sent to the voters for up or down votes, they stepped back from this agreement when a late modification was adopted by the CRC on a split vote. The proposed change to Section 9 of the Charter that caused them to renege on their original agreement would have included City Elections in the State Primary Election in August in years when more than two candidates contested a specific FBCC group. The two top vote getters would then advance to the November General Election, thus avoiding a December run-off election.
The specific language raising objections appeared in Section 9 of the CRC report and appears below:
(c) If there are no more than two (2) qualified candidates seeking the same seat, then the election for that seat will be held at the general election in conjunction with county, state, and federal elections. If there are more than two (2) qualified candidates seeking the same seat, then an initial election for that seat will be held at the primary election in conjunction with county, state and federal elections (the “Initial Election”). The two (2) candidates at the Initial Election who receive the highest number of votes for a seat will advance with the election for that seat to be held at the general election in conjunction with county, state, and federal elections. For each seat, the candidate receiving the majority vote in the general election is elected for that seat. No candidates can qualify for more than one (1) seat in any initial election or general election in any election year.
The 2019-2020 FBCC objected to this change for a variety of reasons.
Commissioner Bradley Bean, who served on the CRC, objected to dropping the provision that would have included multiple candidate city elections in the August primary. He moved and Commissioner David Sturges seconded considering the full recommendation of the CRC, and disregarding the FBCC’s modification approved on First Reading.
Bean said that the proposed change to the election cycle was one of the most important changes the CRC recommended. He reminded Commissioners that they had told the CRC that they would let all recommended changes go to the people for a vote. “We were comforted that the entire Commission said that they would let [the recommendations] go forth for a vote of the people. That’s why I was confused when [the recommendation regarding Section 9] was dropped during discussion two meetings ago.”
Bean argued that the premise of the CRC recommendation was to parallel other elections conducted in the County. In looking at the numbers from the last two elections, Bean expressed the belief that such a change would increase voter turnout due to factors like early voting and “get out the vote” campaigns. He said that the current system works against citizens who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day because of work or child care responsibilities. He also acknowledged that not all the CRC members had been in support of this recommendation.
“We need to make sure that every citizen in our town has the opportunity to vote,” Bean said, “and this new system provides that. … I ask the Commission today to stay true to the promise of letting the citizens voice their opinion on all the CRC recommendations.”
Commissioner Chip Ross thanked Bean for his explanation and provided his rationale for opposing the recommended change. Ross said that he made the promise when the original CRC had decided not to bring that provision forward. He said that the CRC had then asked for some additional time to do clean up changes. The FBCC agreed, Ross said, with the proviso that no major changes would be added during the clean up process. After CRC personnel changes, the CRC completed its work with two major changes, of which the provision in question was one. He said that the original CRC vote on this provision was 4-4, meaning that it failed.
Ross continued to explain his opposition on the merits. He spoke to the importance of the fall candidate forums for informing voters, claiming that citizens do not tune in to City elections until then. “No one will come to forums in July,” Ross said. He also maintained that the August primary attracts partisan voters, leaving out independent voters. He said that in the last election 1,100 City voters who submitted ballots did not cast votes in the City races (the “under vote”), which are posted at the end of the ballot.
Ross also expressed concerns about changing the qualifying period for City candidates with the proposed change. He argued that while there is no early voting for run off elections voters have the option of casting mail ballots if they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day.
The final point Ross raised related to the nonpartisan nature of City elections. He argued that many people believe the August primary is a Republican primary because there are relatively few Democrats running. This perception would discourage many people from participating in the election.
Commissioner David Sturges, who faced an opponent in the run off election, said that “about 500 people” told him that they thought he had already won the November election and therefore would not vote in the run off election. He disagreed with Ross’ arguments, citing the lead time citizens would continue to have to decide to seek office. He agreed on the importance of the candidate forums, but believed that they would simply be held earlier. With respect to the partisan nature of the primary election, Sturges reminded Commissioners that party affiliation is not a constant, and at one time Democrats were the dominant party in Nassau County. From personal experience he noted how difficult it is to run campaigns after the General Election and into the holiday season. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “and that’s why I am supporting Bradley’s motion.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said he would not support the motion. “Our elections are unique, nonpartisan, and they work,” he said. “I think that nonpartisan elections are one of the outstanding traits of our City.”
Bean thanked Commissioners for their discussion but stressed that his motion would not change the City Charter; it would just give the people the opportunity to decide if they wanted to make the change. “We are already sending out a ballot with 9 questions, so why not make it 10?” he asked. “[The decision] deserves to be made at people’s kitchen tables, not up here.”
Before calling the vote, Mayor Mike Lednovich said that he had already eaten crow at changing his vote. “I am a strict traditionalist that these are nonpartisan seats,” he said. “There was a time when these elections were held in the spring, not attached to any partisan election. I still support that because I believe in the purity of the Commissioner seat: that it is not driven by Democrat or Republican or independent votes. It’s driven by the citizens of Fernandina Beach.”
The motion failed on a 2-3 vote with only Bean and Sturges in support.
Ross moved and Kreger seconded approving the proposed Charter changes minus the recommendation to eliminate City runoff elections by incorporating the initial election in the primary election. The motion passed on a unanimous vote.
The proposed Charter Changes will be converted to ballot language and sent out to registered city voters in a mail only election in June.
Mayor Lednovich thanked members of the Charter Review Committee for their work.
To see the approved Ordinance, click here . In reading the Ordinance, keep in mind that new portions are underlined; language to be removed is struck through.