Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 3, 2020
In addition to dealing with the end of calendar years and the end of fiscal years, in even numbered years City residents also deal with the end of Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) years following November general elections. This year Fernandina Beach citizens will have elected two new City Commissioners, once the December 8 runoff is decided, in addition to re-electing one sitting Commissioner, Chip Ross. The new Commission will be sworn in and begin its work on December 15, 2020.
Although the departing Commissioners will attend the Reorganization Meeting on December 15, 2020 to be formally recognized for their service, their last official acts occurred at the December 1, 2020 FBCC meeting. The two departing Commissioners are Phil Chapman, who served one term and Mayor John Miller, the first City Commissioner to serve two consecutive terms following recent City Charter changes that lengthened the terms of Commissioners from 3-4 years..
Commissioner John Miller was first elected in 2013, having garnered over 61 percent of the vote in a two-person race against local political activist Andy Curtin. He assumed the seat vacated by Commissioner Arlene Filkoff who declined to seek reelection. Milller was reelected in 2016 with over 56 percent of the vote against former City Commissioner Eric Childers. He then won straw polls and election by his peers to succeed Robin Lentz as Mayor-Commissioner.
Mayor Commissioner John Miller has been widely praised for his skill in running City Commission meetings, often navigating through the shoals of clashing opinions of not only commissioners but also public speakers. Miller has deftly imposed decorum during contentious debates, often injecting a little humor to lighten the mood when tempers appear about to flare. He has always shown respect to his peers, City staff and audience members, while maintaining time limits on public speakers to move meetings along. And he clearly enjoys delivering City Proclamations at the beginning of FBCC meetings. His expressions of gratitude are heartwarming and sincere, whether welcoming the Humane Society’s Dog of the Month, recognizing non-profits’ efforts to improve the community, or celebrating special events like Shrimp Fest and the International Petanque Tournament.
Commissioner Phil Chapman was elected to the FBCC in 2017, having defeated incumbent commissioner Tim Poynter with 56 percent of the votes cast. A retired educator, Chapman had attended City Commission meetings for a year before deciding to run on a platform calling for greater involvement of commissioners with citizens. He has been a strong advocate for expanding handicapped access throughout city parks and facilities.
Although no one broke into song, the December 1 FBCC meeting ended with a non-musical version of Auld Lang Syne, as Charter Officers and Commissioners wished departing Commissioners well and thanked them for their work to make the City an even better place to live, work and visit.
At the end of the December 1, 2020 meeting, Charter Officers and Commissioners took an opportunity to say good by to Miller and Chapman. Although the differences of opinion among the five commissioners were apparent during discussions on the most vexing city problems, the record will indicate that most of the votes taken following their attempts to persuade each other were unanimous.
City Manager Dale Martin thanked Commissioner Chapman. “I enjoyed your simple and straight forward input on issues. I’ll miss our Friday morning coffee and your Friday morning doughnuts.” This generated a chuckle from Commissioners. Then Martin turned to Mayor Miller. With a voice heavy with emotion, Martin offered Miller his thanks. After a pause of several seconds he continued. “I still remember the night 5 years ago when you offered me this opportunity [to serve as City Manager]. Thank you.”
City Attorney Tammi Bach told told Miller that she would call him “Johnny,” because she considered him a friend whom she would continue to see in the future. “I’ve been here for 13 years and you’ve served as Mayor for many of those years. I’ve learned a lot from you and have appreciated all you do.”
Turning her attention to Chapman, Bach reminisced about the meeting prior to his election to the FBCC, when he brought a series of rubber ducks to illustrate the need he saw for the Commission to “get its ducks in a row.” Bach said, “Phillip, I have one special duck left from that group that I will present to you at the next meeting. You are also my friend and I will see you and [your wife] Marlene after you leave office. I hope I will continue to benefit from your advice.”
Bach ended her remarks by thanking all the Commissioners for extending the face mask mandate in the City. “We are getting toward the end of this [pandemic] with the vaccine on the way, but we must remain strong and keep on guard,” she said.
City Clerk Caroline Best thanked Chapman for his leadership and guidance over the past 3 years, adding that it had been an honor and privilege to work with him. “You were passionate and driven,” she said. She remarked that Miller was the only remaining member of the FBCC that had hired her as City Clerk 5 years ago. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity to work at a job that I look forward to every day,” she said. “I look forward to seeing you in the future, too.”
Commissioner Chip Ross, who admits that he does not always come across as a “warm and fuzzy commissioner,” made a point to list all the accomplishments of the FBCC over the last 3 years. Ross said, “I believe in people walking the walk, not talking the talk.” He recapped accomplishments to include: rebuilding the marina attenuators damaged by Hurricane Matthew and reconfiguring the south marina to lessen sedimentation problems; hiring a new marina operator; approving a plan for parking on the beach at the Sadler Road entrance; installling new beach trash receptacles and working with the TDC to improve beach cleaning; protecting wetlands and acquiring conservation lands; resolving the long-standing problems with downtown newsracks; limiting the height of beach buildings to 35 feet; finishing Phase 2 of the Main Beach Boardwalk; installing a sidewalk to connect Ash to Center Street along the railroad tracks; appointing a Marina Advisory Committee; passing a flood ordinance; passing a human rights ordinance; passing a tree protection ordinance; making significant contributions to local social services organizations to help citizens deal with fall out from the Covid Pandemic.
Ross thanked Chapman for his service and especially for his advocacy on behalf of the disabled. He said to Miller, “Johnny, you run a hell of a meeting, and I really, really, really appreciate that. You also do a great job with Proclamations. I’ve enjoyed working with you.”
Commissioner Mike Lednovich said, “We are 5 different people with 5 different opinions, but we share one common goal [trying to do] the best for Fernandina Beach. I am so honored to have sat here with Commissioner Chapman and Mayor Miller for the past 2 years. Those differences are what make us stronger. If we all agreed on everything, we wouldn’t reach the best decisions. Having those different perspectives is so valuable. Mayor Miller, I’ve only seen you get upset once in 3 years! I am just amazed at the collegiality, how welcome you make everyone feel and how organized things are run. Thank you for that.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said, “It’s been nice working with you guys. As Chip said, we’ve done a lot more, a lot of positive stuff.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman expressed his desire to thank all City employees, especially Department Heads. “Many times City employees are questioned,” he said, “and yet if you really get to know them, they are outstanding professionals who do their jobs well, sometimes with unbearable criticism, many times not justified. It has been an honor and a privilege to get to know them and work with them.” Chapman’s voice cracked as he continued offering special thanks to the Information Technology Department and City Clerk Caroline Best for helping him deal with the technological challenges of working online. He also thanked City Attorney Tammi Back along with the City Clerk for their regular assistance.
With respect to City Manager Dale Martin, Chapman said, “He has the courage to try things that the City has not done before. I know what can happen when you put yourself out there. But Dale, I most sincerely encourge you to keep taking those chances. Please keep putting those ideas out there, because the worst that can happen is that the Commission says no.”
Chapman went on to say that people watching the FBCC meetings have no idea how much work is involved in putting agendas together. He said that there were more than a thousand pages of back up material provided for the last meeting alone. “People think all we do is sit here,” he said, “but it is certainly a lot more than that.”
Chapman’s voice cracked again as he ended his remarks by thanking his wife for her support and for tolerating the criticism and attacks that seem to come from being married to a City Commissioner. He expressed gratitude to all the Commissioners, adding that it was an honor and a privilege to serve with them all. He joined other Commissioners in saluting Mayor Miller for his ability to run meetings.
Mayor Miller, who appeared overcome by emotion, said that he was at a loss for words. “I plan on saying good-by next meeting when I officially hand over duties to the new Commission,” he said. “But to my fellow commissioners’ remarks about my running meetings: they went well because you made it easy. I missed not being able to talk with you about issues outside of public meetings. It’s been hard not to be able to informally seek your advice and opinions. Although we’ve had our differences, we’ve always had such a civil conversation and I truly like all of you guys.”
“And I will never forget the words from the Charter Officers tonight,” an emotional Miller concluded.
The Reorganizational Meeting at which new Commissioners will be sworn in and departing Commissioners officially recognized will take place at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, December 15, 2020 in Fernandina Beach City Hall Commission Chambers immediately preceding the Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission.