Commentary: Good Old Boys Versus the Public Good

By Mike Lednovich

In the heart of Fernandina Beach, important decisions that shape our community’s future are often made within the confines of City Hall. As citizens, we place our trust in the hands of elected city commissioners and hope that they prioritize the greater good over personal interests.

However, recent developments involving Vice Mayor David Sturges raise important questions about the ethical dimensions of decision-making among city commissioners.

Vice Mayor Sturges is set to vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would annex close friend Roger Todd Bates’ property into the city. Sturges’ vote to annex would enable Bates to build more houses on the parcel, thus generating more profits. While it’s important to acknowledge that this endeavor is within legal boundaries, the optics of such a vote by Sturges demand a closer look at the ethical dynamics within our local government.

For decades, the term “good old boys’ network” has been used to describe the close-knit relationships among those in positions of power, often leading to decisions that benefit a select few rather than the entire community. This is a prime example of the good old boys’ network operating to the detriment of others.

In 2015, Vanneza Stubbs purchased a modest house just three lots west of Bates’ land on Kenneth Court. She has told both the city commission and the Planning Advisory Board that she carefully researched every detail before acquiring the 920-square-foot house. She sought a quiet street, and the 100-foot lot affords Vanneza and her husband lots of space.

Bates purchased the three lots down the street in 2022. In the county, normally, three homes would be allowed to be constructed. But Bates wants to be annexed into the city, which would allow six homes to be built. His friend, Vice Mayor Sturges, gets to decide if Vanneza’s dream of big spaces of 100-foot lots remains or if his buddy Bates can chop the land into six 50-foot wide parcels.

Again, it’s all legal under Florida Statutes, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to ethical decision-making. Shouldn’t the citizens of Fernandina Beach deserve a transparent and fair decision-making process that prioritizes the collective welfare over personal connections?

At the Feb. 6 city commission meeting, a public speaker asked Sturges about his relationship with Bates; Mayor Bradley Bean shut down the questioning as improper. When contacted by the Observer, Bates would not discuss his friendship with the Vice Mayor. Sturges also refused any comment on his relationship with Bates.

There potentially may be future decisions by Sturges as a city commissioner involving other parcels owned by Bates.

Last October, the city commission and the Planning Advisory Board held a joint meeting to discuss Sturges’ proposal to revise the Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan to make it easier for landowners to subdivide their lots. Two other commissioners are supporting the Sturges effort.

At that meeting, another long-time Sturges friend, Orlando Avila, spoke about his property on 14th Street. It has the potential to be subdivided into four lots. Under current rules, Avila would have to obtain a variance from the Board of Adjustment to subdivide the property. But under the changes sought by Sturges, he could just file papers with the Nassau County Property Appraiser that his parcel was being divided into four lots of record.

“Money is the motivator. You want to leave generational wealth,” Avila said at the meeting. “I hope you guys come to a consensus and make a decision so it’s easier on us as individual property owners to do what we want with our property with respect to the code and zoning and pass it on to future generations.”

Last April, Sturges voted to have the city buy two Avila properties for $25,000. Although the property was later converted to conservation land, Avila made a nifty $16,000 profit on the deal. Also of note is that Avila’s former co-owner of the land was Todd Ericksen, another Sturges friend who owns a building with the Vice Mayor on Beech Street. Ericksen signed over ownership for zero dollars to Avila after they offered the land to the city. Ericksen runs Amelia Sunrise Realty, which earns commissions from Sturges’ private property transactions. He is also a bartender at Brett’s Waterway Cafe. Sturges has cast votes to keep Brett’s in business despite a city consultant telling the commission the restaurant needed to be closed until repairs were made to the supporting structure over the river. Sturges called it a “witch hunt.”

So we have Sturges’ friends profiting from the Vice Mayor sitting on the commission. How many more friends are out there? We’ll never know unless Sturges tells us.

That’s unfortunate because city commissioners play a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of our neighborhoods and influencing the quality of life for residents. By his silence and actions regarding Bates and Avila, the vice mayor is catering to the needs of a select group of friends instead of serving the city with decision-making that reflects the best interests of the community at large. Sturges obviously doesn’t care or respect that the very essence of public service demands that elected commissioners rise above personal friendships and prioritize the common good.

To address these concerns about potential conflicts of interest, the City Commission should consider implementing stricter ethical guidelines. This might include recusal from voting on matters that directly benefit close associates, ensuring a more impartial decision-making process. Transparency and accountability are the bedrock of a healthy democracy, and it is crucial for our city officials to uphold these principles.

As engaged citizens, we must continue to hold our elected officials accountable and demand a city government that serves the interests of the many, not just the privileged few.

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rocknrobin12@gmail.com
Noble Member
[email protected](@rocknrobin12gmail-com)
1 month ago

This article says it all. Everything here states the obvious about Sturges. Using Trumps terms “witch hunt” is hilarious. This is a small town…not the national stage.
Sturges has been using his seat to gain profit. One wonders what he has going on in the background before his term is up.
Follow the money on this clown if you want to see what’s in it for him.

NatureBoy
Active Member
NatureBoy(@natureboy)
1 month ago

If it’s good for Sturges, it’s good for Fernandina….NOT

caccf1
Active Member
caccf1(@caccf1)
1 month ago

Although I don’t always agree with Mr. Lednovich’s commentary, this one is spot on regarding Commissioner Sturges and the other unnamed Commissioners who support him. Mr. Avila said it best – “Money is the motivator…” While I strongly support reasonable individual property rights, our planning and zoning rules are in place for a reason and Mr. Sturges seems to have lost sight of the “greater good”, or the people of FB and Nassau County, all of whom have a vested interest in the development of our surroundings. It certainly appears that Mr. Sturges went after a seat on the Commission as a business move. Good Old Boys is right.

Another issue that the commentary touched on is our Mayor shutting down uncomfortable discussions which has happened on more than one occasion. Sounds like he doesn’t want to hear from those who disagree with him. How on earth did he become Mayor??

This Commission needs to go.

lehartgreen
Noble Member
lehartgreen(@lehartgreen)
1 month ago
Reply to  caccf1

And it sounds like no reasoning for shutting down the discussion as “improper” was given. That is the least we deserve to hear from leadership. Solid reasoning, not personal opinion.

taina
Trusted Member
taina(@taina)
1 month ago

I found the lack of disclosure regarding Vice Mayor Sturges’ relationship with the developer troubling during the Kenneth Court hearing. Throughout the proceedings, Sturges consistently referred to the developer simply as “the developer,” without acknowledging their personal connection. This omission raises questions about transparency and accountability within our local government.
While I understand that there might not have been a legal obligation for Sturges to recuse himself from the hearing, a simple statement at the outset acknowledging his friendship with the developer would have been a gesture towards transparency. By openly declaring his relationship and affirming his commitment to fairness in the voting process, Sturges could have demonstrated a willingness to uphold ethical standards even in situations where no clear violation exists.
Transparency is essential in maintaining public trust, particularly in matters where personal connections may influence decision-making. Without disclosure, it can create the perception that pertinent information is being withheld from the public, undermining the integrity of the process.
As residents, we have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable and demand a government that operates in the best interests of the community as a whole, rather than serving the interests of a select few. Transparency should not be optional—it should be a fundamental requirement of public service.

lehartgreen
Noble Member
lehartgreen(@lehartgreen)
1 month ago
Reply to  taina

Well said. Thank you.

Betsie Huben
Noble Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
1 month ago

What we will allow is what will continue. There are elections coming up. We need people to step up and run and run this kind of stuff off the commission.

james brooks
Member
james brooks(@james-brooks)
1 month ago

If I understand the story, on one hand the city wants land owners to be annexed if they want water and sewer, but afterwards we don’t want them to follow the city land code?

If there is a group that finds certain commissioners actions egregious, they could file an ethics complaint, not vote for them when their term expires, run against them when their term expires or demonstrate their level of immediate concern by starting a recall effort. Otherwise just let the “good ole boys” be boys, within the law.

Douglas M
Noble Member
Douglas M(@douglasm)
1 month ago
Reply to  james brooks

James…..I was having the same conflict in my head reading the article! If Sturges didn’t know Bates in any capacity, would people still be upset if Joe Anyone asked to be annexed and then developed his property in compliance with the City land codes?

The issue appears to be only that Sturges needs to recuse himself from the annexation vote……in that case, it will still pass 3-1 and maybe even 4-0 as I’m not sure what grounds Ross would oppose it on. I’ll look forward to the video tomorrow morning.

So quite a dust storm of comments stirred up here……but I get the subtlety of trying to influence the August election. The obligatory dig at the Mayor was nicely woven into the narrative also.

georgiacambell40
Active Member
georgiacambell40(@georgiacambell40)
1 month ago

Hugely concerning that Bates did not get his way with the county so then goes to the city. This is terrible if the city decides to annex his property as it sets precedent for other developers. There are news articles about Bates renting foreclosed properties to families in Jacksonville. I pray he doesn’t pull the same on families in Nassau.

https://youtu.be/5D18ZVI9afw?si=LhXDIFX6G0yTXlPM

jfindlay
Noble Member
jfindlay(@jfindlay)
1 month ago

Good article! The distinction between what is lawful and what is ethical is very important. The city deserves ethical City Commissioners.

richie
Trusted Member
richie(@richie)
1 month ago

Yes, that looks and smells bad. I won’t trust a politician that won’t recuse himself in such a situation.

MyFernandina
Active Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
1 month ago

On the other hand—since both the Mayor and Vice-Mayor grew up here
they will have many friends in the community–not a crime and not a reason, in itself,
to recuse themselves unless advised to do so by the city attorney or
their own legal council.
Regarding the strong anti-development tone of these comments–
remember that stagnant towns wither and die. Is that what you want?

TAK
Trusted Member
TAK(@tak)
1 month ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

Wither and die? Is there an example of any beach town in FL that has? Our island has beaches, shrimp boat festival, the concours d’elegance Amelia (whatever it’s being called these days), the pétanque tournament, Dickens and 2 very high end luxury resorts. I grew up here and fondly remember commissioners pushing back on Super Walmart to go off island and putting in height restrictions for houses on the beach. The island certainly didn’t wither and die because commissioners pushed back on development back then and it’s not going to wither and die if people push back now.

MyFernandina
Active Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
1 month ago
Reply to  TAK

The resorts and car show you cite are not in the city.
Yes, the “island didn’t wither and die” as you state.
Heigth restrictions are a common practice.
Push back is one thing–outright denial another.
This commission is trying to correct years of anti-growth policies.

Betsie Huben
Noble Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
1 month ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

“Correct years of anti-growth policies”? Please recall this is a city located on a barrier island. It has finite limits. The city and the island’s history and primary claims to fame have been the beaches, marinas, trees, marshes and wildlife that are being eradicated one bad policy at a time. This commission (save one member) is putting dollars and exploitation ahead of any sense of place or good stewardship. Paving over Paradise to put up larger parking lots and smaller homes via proposed increased density is not what the voters hoped for.

MyFernandina
Active Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
1 month ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

It is no either-or……and did your (and we all) moving here not contribute to exploitation?
Don’t you think the two mills and port also contributed? The city itself?
So, let us be reasonable and find a balance–we can, we are, we will.
Nothing the current commission is doing disregards their duty of stewardship.

ggarner
Noble Member
ggarner(@ggarner)
1 month ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

Does ongoing development and overcrowding mean dying and withering to you? It seems that everywhere I go on and off the island, people initiate this very topic and are very unhappy about it. And why not? There are countless ways to generate revenue/preserve wealth without the undesirable consequences of overcrowding, habitat destruction, traffic congestion, loss of private and open space, exorbitant taxes, loss of natural beauty, etc. Back when Bradley Bean was running for Mayor, he talked about and promoted the quality of life for the citizens of Fernandina Beach. Well where is it? You want to talk withering and dying? Take a look around. It’s here.

christine
Member
christine(@christine)
1 month ago

City commissioners can be recalled for misfeasance defined as :

  1. Improper and unlawful execution of an act that in itself is lawful and proper.
  2. A trespass; a wrong arising from an overt act; the improper doing of an act which a person might lawfully do.
  3. Similar: trespass
  4. A wrong that arises from an action. The wrong can be actual or alleged. This word is often used in law, relating to the wrongful use of legal authority.

I do not know if Commissioner Sturges’ actions qualify for any of the above but I believe it is fair to say he often does not represent the wishes of his constituents. And, unfortunately, the same could be said about our other City Commissioners with the exception of Dr.Ross.

Albert Pike
Active Member
Albert Pike(@albert-pike)
1 month ago

It certainly appears that Vice Mayor Sturges lives rent free inside Mike Lednovich’s head! I’ve watched the last few meetings and Sturges barely said a word, but yet seems to be Lednovich’s boogeyman. Many locals have told me that Lednovich blames Sturges for recruiting James Antun to run against him and that is where the animosity likely began. Curiously I haven’t seen one word in print negative towards Antun from Lednovich…Maybe that’s because Antun has turned out to prove himself to be Commissioner Ross’s “yes man” and doesn’t speak up in meetings unless it’s to ‘second’ one of Ross motions. Or maybe the loud activists have scared the young man.

Regardless I’m enjoying the theatrics from the cheap seats and wonder how long these folks will continue to allow borderline slander.

Navy_vet45
Active Member
Navy_vet45(@navy_vet45)
1 month ago
Reply to  Albert Pike

His obsession continues to blur the lines of slander. He is clearly a biased “journalist” talking to a echo chamber of fellow leftist. He has not been gracious in his defeat. Its funny how so many people beat the drum of no more newcomers when they are themselves newcomers.

Last edited 1 month ago by Navy_vet45
JJC
Active Member
JJC(@jjc)
1 month ago

David Sturges grew up here, has been active in the Masonic Lodge and has been in business for near ever. To paraphrase Ron White – he’s met people. I’ve known Sturges since moving here and he was an adolescent. I have vigorously disagreed with hm on many positions he has taken AND HAVE TOLD HIM SO TO HIS FACE.
The Florida bar requires lawyers to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. I don’t believe that is the status of the law governing conflicts for elected officials. If citizens want that as the standard they need to enact codes that require it.
There are enough wrong approaches by Sturges and his fellow commissioners that can be attacked on their merits that you don’t need to try and concoct a conflict based on merely knowing someone. Get a life and do the right thing for the right reason but these stretches to get something started are a bit much!

OJAvila
Active Member
OJAvila(@ojavila)
1 month ago

As one of the subjects of this article I feel the need and obligation to respond. 

First, some facts. 

1.) The sale of the conservation land to the city was the culmination of several recurring discussions over the past several years with Chip Ross and the city. In other words David had no part in it other than casting a vote. Concerns over what the ownership history is (or was) is a nothing-burger and inconsequential. The city was able to acquire some nice conservation land in the Escambia slough at a price well below market value. 

2.) My comments at the joint PAB meeting were quoted somewhat out of context. 

If the full quote has been published and the correct nuance paid to my statement, it would make sense to everyone. Well at least everyone that have a lick of sense. Can anyone of you really sit there and bemoan someone wanting to leave a legacy for their progeny? My kids are growing up here. I want them to be able to always have a home in Fernandina. I own an oversized lot and one day may wish to divide it. If it is within the law, I should be able to provide that for my children without burdensome regulations and government intrusion creating a bureaucratic quagmire. 

3.) My long time friendship with David Sturges and Todd Ericksen. Yes, David and I are friends. Those people who know me understand that I value friendship immensely and do not throw the word “friend”around willy-nilly. We have been friends for more than twenty years; almost the entire time I have lived here. Anyone with family roots that run as deep as the Sturges Family does, (dating back to pre-Statehood for Florida) is going to know a lot of people. That doesn’t preclude him from making the best decisions possible when matters come before him. While some may disagree, I can attest to the fact that David’s ethics are above reproach. The Florida Ethics Commission agrees after they found no probable cause for a laundry list of dismissed ethical allegations that were put forth by one of his fellow commissioner’s spouses. 

Todd and I have been friends just as long as David and I have and he and David have been friends since infancy. You do business with friends you can trust. It’s not that hard. 

Bottom line is this: many people have already commented that David is “living rent free” in Mike Lednovichs head. It’s obvious that Mike has an axe to grind or ate some sour grapes, or whatever catchy colloquialism you want to use to describe it. 

Alluding to some ethical quagmire exists because someone has personal relationships and should be precluded from voting on practically anything is ludicrous! There are specific situations where a recusal is warranted and statute spells that out. 
The argument being made boils down to it being unethical and unusual to have personal relationships after living here or growing up here and doing business here for decades. The focus should be on respect for individual property rights rather than exercise of extra-government control. Suffice it to say that there is nothing “good ol’ boy” about application of legal standards as they exist. It would be unethical to do anything else. 
In my opinion, alleging that David made personal or illegal gain’s without proof is tantamount to slander and wholly unacceptable. 

Taking a jab at the Mayor for doing what was correct in the first reading and quasi-judicial hearing of Kenneth Court annexation is cowardly because it relies on the average person not understanding that those hearings have very specific procedures. As a former Mayor, Mike knows this and chooses to ignore it to suit his own purposes. 

The Fernandina Observer was once a reliable online journal that published public interest pieces, local political issues and interesting pieces written by locals for locals. This brand of jaded writing gives an unwarranted black eye to the real journalists who founded and worked tirelessly to make this a viable (and once believable) online publication. Regrettably, it has morphed into an electronic weapon for a select few people who use it to attack individuals or subjects they don’t personally like with their extremely biased agenda.