Our City’s digital democracy leaves the public ‘virtually’ silenced – An opinion

By Mike Lednovich
City Commissioner
Fernandina Beach
April 23, 2020

Our City’s Digital Democracy leaves the public ‘virtually’ silenced

Public comments are a vital component of city government where citizens have a voice in the decisions their elected officials are about to consider. It’s called the right of self governance.

Now the public’s right to be heard has been dealt a severe setback with the Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting virtually via Zoom as a result of the restrictions caused by the pandemic.

City Commission Meeting during the Coronavirus pandemic. (File Photo)

The April 7th meeting featured City Manager Dale Martin reading emails marked as “Public Comment” into the record. Unintentionally, several of those emails were missed and left unheard.

The April 21st meeting was even more restrictive. This time, the City Manager shared all email comments received by commissioners and left it up to each respective commissioner to read those emails they deemed noteworthy into the record.

Guess what,? Only one email was read into the record by Commissioner Chip Ross.

I had received 69 citizen emails during the two weeks between the meetings, the majority of those dealt with the debate over reopening of the City beaches. Most were in favor of reopening. As a commissioner, I was challenged by how was I going to determine which emails to read into the record while fairly reflecting both sides of the argument? The conclusion I arrived at is that I couldn’t without reading all of them.

It’s now obvious that this solution to hear the public is even less effective than the first attempt.

At the heart of this issue is the relationship between citizens and their local government. That relationship cannot be nurtured in “one way” communication where people cannot be heard or seen. Communications experts will tell you that 80% of all communication is non-verbal — the crossing of arms, a raised eyebrow, a smile or a scowl.

Imagine how many citizens would have showed up at City Hall to voice their concerns over the closed beaches.

Let’s face the facts, our current City Commission’s “Digital democracy” is merely propping up our traditional governance processes, but after two sessions we know it’s not a long-term substitute. Authentic democracy demands civic participation, engagement and relationship building. Online governance is a very ineffective and a poor replacement.

City Commissions and City Councils across the U.S. are wrestling with the same public engagement pitfalls as they meet digitally — causing concerns from a group of 100 media organizations in a letter to state governors.

“Government bodies should not opportunistically take advantage of the public’s inability to attend large gatherings to make critical decisions affecting the public’s interest if those decisions can reasonably be postponed.

“Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential travel and errands, so should government agencies defer noncritical policy-making decisions until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed,” the letter stated.

Consider our two virtual City Commission meetings. About $600,000 in non-essential spending was approved, including $120,000 to fund Main Street even though the organization had City funding through the end of the year 2021.

Because of the limitations of the digital meeting, citizens did not hear from Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff on why the organization was asking for funding thru the year 2024. She also did not have the opportunity to demonstrate the value of the Main Street program to the public. On the flip side, opponents of Main Street were also not heard publicly.

That’s a considerable communications vacuum.

Under the current virtual meeting format, citizens are unaware of the contents of emails received by commissioners and how those emails might impact our decision making.

Now the City Attorney is researching how various City Committees like the Planning Advisory Board and the Historic District Council can also leverage virtual meetings. The problem is with these committees is they hold Quasi Judicial Hearings that require public testimony. That’s a legal minefield that is rife with problems.

Many cities are taking advantage of Zoom’s ability to have citizens participate in their meetings via the application’s audio feed. It’s a step forward, but still not ideal.

Not matter what solutions are found, many folks are technology challenged or don’t have access.

These are difficult and challenging times we’ve never faced. We’re all trying to figure things out as we go along as best we can. Here are some solutions.

In early 2019, I raised the possibility to my fellow City Commissioners of following the City of Miami Lakes in using teleconferencing software to allow citizens to participate in meetings from home. The cost of the application was $500 a year. Only Vice Mayor Len Kreger saw the benefits of the technology, especially for the handicapped. The idea went nowhere.

We can reduce City Commission agendas to the bare essentials. That means making decisions that keeps the City running and providing essential services.

Or, invest in more advanced online meeting applications that are designed for large groups of guest speakers. The City has a crack IT Department and they should be able to identify the best application to accommodate the public.

As it currently exists, our City Commission meetings aren’t ‘public meetings,’ they’re television and that’s not good enough. On important issues, the people need to be seen and heard.

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Nicholas Velvet
Nicholas Velvet (@guest_57380)
3 years ago

Ah, a wonderful step into The Future with Zoom. Send in your emails…..feel better….we are here to listen to you(not)…please do however also send in your money….. we will do what we want with it but you had your chance to “speak” so feel better. The Little People(us per another presidential hopeful amongst the missing) know not what they want. Please line up sheep.

As of yesterday folks with the “official” unemployment is at 16.2 % per the “news” media and less than 1/3 of the actual unemployed yet compiled, with over 50% of private business just attempting now not to go bankrupt(a nice civilized term for vanishing) what do our City and County officials do here? Business as usual, pass thru the those budget line items 100% hell it’s a grant based line item spend it or loose it, move forward with a budget that there is “nothing to cut”(one commissioners comment a few months back)!!!!Really you should be XXXXX!!!! (Can’t print). The ONLY thing you should be “managing” is essential services PERIOD. What do you not understand about spending money that is no longer there?

I now realize our local gobernment folks here have a real issue with Webster’s Dictionary word meaning. They could not even get a resolution of beach use in the last month to include a simple term called “limited use” instead Dispatch The Dune Police to shoo those pesky Seniors away!!!! Quickly now they should be on the streets, on the bike path, on the Greenway!!!!! Obey the Rules someone more knowledgeable than you has decided! And yes, investigate “Storm the Beach”. Meanwhile the foxes raid the henhouse enacting Administrative Proclamations and directives from the Commissioners all in the name of “The Public Good”. Just keep moving those line items thru as they will cost more tomorrow. Sad, gobernment just does not see what has happened in The Land of AC-1….The money Mr. Commissioners as you knew it is gone. $1,200.00 stimulus checks will go to food and medicine not new parks, not main street hanging flows and new trash cans, not to new firehouses, not to new trucks. You just do not see “the new normal”.

Think the above is not where we have gone/come to? Tune in tonite at 5pm on your TV, I-pad or smart phone to watch how to inject bleach to cure The Corvid. Think this is craszy or not? I have a great Fairy Tale for you to read……..

Tom Smith
Tom Smith(@tom-s)
3 years ago

Mike Lednovich,- well said. I watched the last two meetings on line and I was appalled at several items that were approved. You referenced then in your piece. I for one, am in 100% agreement.

Thanks for all you do for our city

Tom Smith

Frank Quigley
Active Member
Frank Quigley(@frank-quigley)
3 years ago

The City of Fernandina Beach had a number of vexing financial issues prior to the COVID-19 crisis which has decimated the local economy. So added to the already problematic enterprise funds (marina, golf course) local businesses are shut and the real estate market is essentially at a standstill. No tourist dollars are flooding in. And the airport traffic is down 95%, so that goose isn’t laying golden eggs right now.

Economists warn that the “V-shaped” recovery may not happen – it might be a “U” or an “L”.  Not good for Fernandina Beach, which due to our reliance on tourism and the second-home crowd has always lagged the nation in recovery.

Historically the city has raised taxes (real estate, business taxes, fees) as opposed to cutting costs – to get out of spending holes. There are no signals, currently, that growing costs are being addressed or that there is any tamping the brakes (even temporarily) on non-essential spending. Commissioner Lednovich attempted to address this topic in the April 7 commission meeting, but the conversation went nowhere. So the only other option for filling financial holes is raising more money – raising taxes.

Are you okay with that?

Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
3 years ago

Thank you, Mr. Lednovich, for your concern about citizen participation. Just as everybody is asked to restrict their outings to only essential activities, so should governments restrict their decisions to only essential ones. Budget items that can wait should be postponed until all citizens have adequate access to the meetings and elected officials have adequate access to hearing from the constituents.

Jack Knocke
Jack Knocke (@guest_57412)
3 years ago

Bravo Mike. I really hope that the other commissioners are listening to you. While my voice may he “heard” at the podium or in emails, votes continue to go forward to spend on wasteful items. The commissioners need to give Dale Martin clear direction to stop discretionary spending immediately, focus on providing essential services, and give the 2020 and 2021 budgets a critical review on substantial reductions. April hospitality revenues are forecasted to be down 90%, unemployment is at record levels nationally and locally, businesses are suffering and considering closing – our city needs to act more responsibly.