Sunshine Law violation? – An opinion

Submitted by Mike Lednovich
July 16, 2018 5:00 p.m.

Editor’s Note: In this opinion piece, Group 4 City Commission Candidate Mike Lednovich is responding to Friday’s “Weekly Comments from Dale Martin,” over the formation of the city manager’s Beach Committee. To view Martin’s comments click here.

There’s a problematic loophole in the Sunshine Law that’s allowing Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin to convene a Beach Committee that’s meeting behind closed doors.

Why should you care? Because the Beach Committee is considering a proposal to start charging everybody to park at the beach.

According to details being circulated publicly, in exchange for having to pay to park at the beach, city residents would receive relief through a lower property tax rate.

The Beach Committee is comprised of city staff, City Commissioner Len Kreger and a private citizen, Lowell Hall of Citizens For Public Beaches & Shores, est. 1973, which resides on Facebook.

How many times the Beach Committee has met, minutes of their meetings or agendas have not been made public.

The City Manager is expected to bring the “pay to park at the beach” proposal to City Commission by October 31.

The Florida Open Meetings Law states “that all meetings of any governmental body where official acts will be taken are public meetings.”

A city committee considering imposing “beach parking access fees” is certainly an official act.

The Open Meetings Law also requires that “The body must provide reasonable notice of all meetings” and “Minutes must be recorded at every meeting, and they are open to public inspection.”

But through a loophole in the Sunshine Law, the City Manager can convene a committee of city staff that can meet in private even though the committee includes a City Commissioner and private citizens.

To his credit, City Manager Dale Martin was quick to answer my email about the Beach Committee.

“Committees established by the City Manager are not considered open meetings: this facilitates discussion of concepts and options among staff and prevents preliminary public discussion of the topic out of context,” Martin’s email stated. “I believe that the City Commissioners, by the prerogative of their position, should be the first to consider topics and issues, rather than through piecemeal reporting that may be used to craft or shape the discussion for personal purposes.”

I strongly disagree. Imposing a tax on the people – like beach access parking fees – most certainly should be shaped by discussions with the very people it impacts.

Having to pay to park at the beach is a huge issue for city residents and non-residents alike, and even the seeds of this proposal should be discussed and vetted in an open forum, long before the topic is raised at a City Commission meeting three months from now.

The City is under enormous economic pressure given the expense of repairing and dredging of the marina. As discussed at its latest City Commission meeting, there’s also a long list of city capital improvements projects that keep getting delayed because of a lack of funds.

Maintaining beach facilities and infrastructure is also weighing heavily on city coffers.

Martin explains that beach parking access fees would “relieve the pressure on the General Fund and offer a viable funding alternative.”

He said: “(Beach) Parking fees would be uniform for all users: City, County, and visitors. A critical feature of this aspect is that all of the beach costs described above will be funded from the parking revenues, not General Fund (property tax) revenues, allowing, in all likelihood, for a small reduction in property taxes. The burden of providing funding for the beach components, therefore, will fall upon the users of the beach, not the general City population and taxpayers.”

That sounds reasonable. But how about engaging the very people you want to hit with beach parking fees? How about making your argument to the citizens and getting their feedback first?

There’s no justification for a “pay to park at the beach proposal” to be suddenly sprung on city residents as a City Commission agenda item.

A better approach is to have civil discourse and a transparent government. A better informed constituency helps create a better dialogue between residents and government officials and results in better policy decisions.

Here’s a forgotten statistic – 65% of Fernandina Beach residents don’t have “confidence in city government,” according to those who participated in the 2017 Citizens Survey. Also, 61% believe city government isn’t acting in the best of Fernandina Beach.

Closed door committees, like the Beach Committee, no matter how well intended, will always breed mistrust and erode confidence in city government.

Let’s have transparency in all government endeavors and rebuild trust.

Mike Lednovich will face Incumbent Roy G. Smith, and Bradley Bean in the November Group 4 city commission election.

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Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
5 years ago

Mr. Lednovich’s opinion piece is just that- his opinion. Not one based on law. In fact precedent is well established that such meetings are NOT governmental meetings. As Dale responded they are similar to staff meetings. Does Mr. Lednovich believe that any person should be able to sit in on a departmental staff meeting? My understanding and the process followed when I served on several such committees under previous city managers is that minutes are taken at each meeting and are available at the conclusion of the committee’s work as well as any documents produced by the committee.
The committee is ONLY making recommendations to the City Manager that he may accept, reject or modify when he makes his recommendations to the City Commission. Neither they nor the City Manager has the authority to impose new fees without approval of the City Commission. While I agree with a number of Mr. Lednovich’s points about the potential imposition of fees on city property owners / residents, the time for such discussion is when the matter is under consideration by the City Commission.
Let the committee do its work without interruption and once the matter is brought to the Commission let the open discussion begin.

Andrew Curtin
Andrew Curtin(@bkdriverajcgmail-com)
5 years ago

Just because you can does not mean you should. Given the subject, it would be far better to keep it in the open.

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
5 years ago

Mr. Scott – interesting point but I am confused and perhaps you can enlighten me – Lowell Hall is a citizen and not a department or staff member, correct? While he certainly is very knowledgable and has been very involved in beach issues, why is he the only person contributing at this time?

I live in the county here on the island. Is it a consideration that I too pay to park when I go to Main Beach to visit the Sand Bar? Shouldn’t a person who lives in a county pocket of Amelia be included?

My fear is that once this gets to the commission in whatever form or fashion this idea takes – there will be many more opinions expressed but not much in the way of adaptation, accommodation or consensus beyond what the committee proposes. I am mindful of the parking study that was done not too long ago where it was decided there is no parking problem downtown – and yet….

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
5 years ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

My apologies Mr. Lott. I need to slow down and watch the autocorrects!

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
5 years ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

No worries Ms. Huber. Any person can contact any of the people on the Beach Committee as well as the City Manager and provide their input – something I strongly encourage everyone to do and not wait until it is taken up by the City Commission. I don’t have a dog in this hunt directly since we no longer reside in FB; but we do visit often and part of the “bed tax” we pay when staying at the hotels goes to the TDC who is paying for the beach clean-up services for the entire island. Personally if a decision is made to charge I don’t believe residents should have to pay. Island residents are already being charged the sand tax as part of their property bill for theIr share of the renourishment projects. From research we did when I participated in other studies, my recollection is that it was extremely rare for the governmental entity administrating the program to charge a fee to its residents except perhaps a minimal fee to cover the cost of the residents sticker. I would hope this committee starts with a blank page and not be constrained by any predetermined directions; but instead looking at the pros and cons of every option.

Ed Boner
Ed Boner (@guest_51873)
5 years ago

Meeting to consider issues and then presenting recommendations is not an action. Any action would be discussed by a commission in public, then likely pass through at least two public readings….”IF” a commission felt convinced to take action.

Dave Scott
Dave Scott (@guest_51875)
5 years ago

May other candidates running for seats on the City Commission also contribute opinion editorials to the Observer?