By Arlene Filkoff
Chair of Charter Review Committee
April 9, 2021
We understand that there is quite a bit of frustration in the Community with respect to the special election mail ballot to determine Charter changes. This is in response to some of the issues we’ve heard.
The City of Fernandina Beach has a Charter, pursuant to the Laws of Florida. That Charter defines the way we – the voting citizens of the City – want our government to work. The charter is reviewed periodically to bring it up to date, correct errors, and better reflect the sentiment of the community. Over time, communities change. Issues change. Needs change. Since the last Charter review was conducted 14 years ago in 2007, it was deemed by City Government to be time to review our Charter for currency of language, consistencies and discussion of any newly identified issues in government which should be addressed. This has been happening since the first Charter was written and voted upon in 1921.
In the fall of 2019, each City Commissioners and Charter Officers were asked to identify a citizen of the City to represent them on a Charter Review Committee on a voluntary basis. Reviewing the language of the Charter is not the most exciting task in your day, but it is gratifying for those who truly understand how our City works and want to ensure the best is done for our City and its citizens. Over an 11 month period our 7 member board met 17 times to go over the existing Charter with a fine tooth comb and to discuss and debate any changes that should be put to the citizens for their vote on each issue.
It is important to recognize that the Charter Review Committee members are from varied backgrounds, representing a broad continuum on the political spectrum. And while we may have differing opinions or ideas, we listened to each other with respect and made compromises when needed; received, discussed and listened to citizen comments; reviewed current charters governing similar Florida cities; and turned in a body of work we were proud of. So these amendments are proposed by fellow citizens (not City staff or Government) working diligently over many, many hours. The focus of the majority of the proposed changes is to actually increase ethics and accountability in our City’s government as well as give citizens more input into the process.
Equally important is that the committee of 7 (consistently 7, with one leaving and one coming in) sometimes had a unanimous agreement, but that was most typically on basic language changes. On bigger issues, we did not always agree, but we did always listen to each other. Not all of the 7 members will vote yes to all the recommendations. And no one coerced any of us to recommend the changes. The ultimate decisions lies in the hands of the citizens, in the green special mail-in ballot.
Two areas of difficulty admittedly lie in the complexity and length of the charter language, and how amendments get distilled into a short question on a ballot that can only contain so much information. A special link has been set up on the City Home page under Special Election Info where the full proposed language changes for each amendment, along with an in depth Powerpoint link that displays side by side existing and proposed language and most importantly the rationale behind the proposed changes is readily available. This Charter Review Webpage will greatly aid those with questions and can be accessed here: https://www.fbfl.us/984/Charter-Review-Committee.
In a more perfect world, we would not have had the constraints of Covid during 90% of this process so we could have received even more Citizen input along the way; a sample ballot could have been posted for early questions and clarification, ensuing in more robust, factually correct citizen engagement and discussion of major topics; and citizens would feel comfortable, confident and knowledgeable about how they choose to vote.
And in short, this is a request from each of us who served on this Charter Review Committee for your involvement in assessing each amendment. Please access the tools provided for more detailed descriptions of the amendments, or contact any one of us if you have questions. We are not here to solicit “yes” or “no” votes; we are here to explain and provide background information and to help make your input, and our time, worthwhile by aiding in the understanding of what you are voting for or against.