Weekly Comments from Dale Martin: City elections approaching

Submitted by Dale Martin
Fernandina Beach City Manager
September 11, 2020

City Manager Dale Martin

With the conclusion of the County primary elections, more local attention can be directed to the City Commission elections scheduled on November 3. The November 3 election also provides for voting for national, state, and county offices.

Key dates related to the November election, as posted on the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections website, are the distribution of vote-by-mail ballots (military/overseas, beginning Sep 19; domestic, Sep 24), the deadline to register to vote (Oct 5), and early voting (Oct 19- Nov 1), and Election Day (Nov 3). Since this is Ms. Vicki Cannon’s final election as the Supervisor of Elections, I would like to add my congratulations to her for her dedicated professional service to the City of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County.

Turning back to the City’s election, let me offer insight into the legislative roles and responsibilities of City government. For additional reference, please visit the City’s website, where the City Charter (the local “constitution”) is available for review through the City Clerk’s page.

The City is governed by five City Commissioners. The seats on the City Commission are designated as Groups- Group 1 through Group 5. Other than simply determining when a seat is subject to election, the Group designation has no meaning. It is often believed that the Groups refer to specific districts or parts of town, but that is not true. In theory, the City Commission could be a tight cluster of neighbors from one area of the City- the geographic distribution of the candidates is not a factor in qualifying or serving. Voters (City residents) are eligible to vote for candidates in every group. It is also important to note that City Commission elections are non-partisan (candidates do not officially declare a political party affiliation)

With the 2015 City Charter change from three-year terms for City Commissioners to four-year terms, this will be the first year that three City Commission seats are to be elected under the provisions of the amended Charter. Some observers have expressed concern that with the ability to elect three Commissioners, the potential for an organized majority to sweep into office and upset the balance of the City Commission is a troublesome prospect. It can be pointed out that the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners has operated in a similar format for many years with negligible impact. Thousands of other governments similarly conduct local elections with the same unobservable impact.

The three Groups on the November ballot this year are Groups 1, 2, and 3. Group 1’s Johnny Miller, currently serving as Mayor, is ineligible to run again due to the City’s two-term limit for City Commissioners. The candidates for the Group 1 seat, in alphabetical order, are Mr. Bradley Bean and Ms. Marian Phillips. Commissioner Philip Chapman, representing Group 2, has opted not to run for re-election and the candidates for that seat include Ms. Alexandra Lajoux, Ms. Genece Minshew, and Mr. David Sturges. Group 3 is currently represented by Commissioner Ronald “Chip” Ross who is running for re-election, with Mr. Wendell McGahee a candidate for that seat, as well. Thank you to all of the candidates for the interest in serving our community.

Although the election for Groups 1 and 3 will be determined on Election Day, it is likely that the Group 2 election will proceed to a run-off election in December. If none of the three candidates achieves a majority of votes cast on Election Day, the two candidates who received the most votes will be on a run-off ballot in December.

The ballot will also contain the City’s mayoral straw poll. The Mayor is actually elected by the City Commissioners, but voters have the opportunity to influence that decision through the straw poll. Since the City Charter restricts straw poll candidates to those not running for election, this year’s straw poll candidates for the two-year mayoral term are Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Commissioner Mike Lednovich. The City Commission is not obligated to reflect the straw poll results, but has typically done so. The City Commission vote for Mayor will take place as part of the City Commission’s organizational meeting in December.

Once elected, the Mayor serves as the facilitator of the City Commission meeting, but retains the same voting rights as a City Commissioner. In my opinion, Mayor Miller has served exceptionally well in this capacity: he respectfully allows for dialogue, from participating audience members as well as among the other City Commissioners. He gets both the “last word” and the last vote (most of the time which is meaningless- over ninety percent of the City Commission actions considered at a meeting are unanimously decided). He serves as a moderator, not from a “bully pulpit” due to his title and office.

If not registered to vote, please register. City Commission races are often decided by few votes. Your vote can truly make a difference. Study the candidates- forums have been offered by the Chamber of Commerce and more forums are scheduled to be hosted by other organizations. Many candidates attend the City Commission meetings, so you can meet those candidates if interested.

Voting is the key duty as an American. Do not shirk from that duty. As was famously said (and we are constantly reminded), “Elections have consequences.” Please vote.