Commentary: A Topsy-Turvy Year at City Hall

By Mike Lednovich

Now after more than a year in office, how did the 2023 version of the Fernandina Beach City Commission perform? Let’s count the ways by starting with January through Dec. 31.

Commission moves city elections to August Republican primary

Less than a month in office, the new Republican majority city commission voted to move the city elections from the general election in November to the primary election in August of election years. In Nassau County, the August primary is a dominant county-wide Republican primary. Florida primaries are closed elections meaning that you can only vote for those offices within your party unless there is no opposite party candidate for the general election. Then the primary does become the general by default. And, there is a smaller voter turnout than in November.

City Manager Dale Martin fired without cause

Even more astonishing is that in their fourth meeting since being seated, Vice Mayor David Sturges took advantage of a near-empty city commission room and made a shocking motion not on the agenda – the termination of 8-year City Manager Dale Martin. Two weeks later, the commission terminated Martin in a 3-2 vote. Sturges had made a motion to terminate Martin’s employment with the city at its Feb. 7 meeting. Sturges produced a laundry list of reasons he believed Martin should be fired, citing what he termed a lack of leadership in handling the Brett’s Waterway Cafe lease; Martin’s forced retirement of long-time Road Department Manager Rex Lester and Martin’s alleged statement of “make it look ugly” when speaking to department heads about a presentation by Commissioner Ross detailing how a 10% budget reduction would impact each city department.

Teddy Bear Park Playground a huge success

The good news in February was the opening of Teddy Bear Playground at Central Park. The massive collection of kids’ playground equipment replaced an older playground that had to be removed because of safety concerns. The dedication of Teddy Bear Playground honored the late David Berkman on his birthday. The playground was made possible when Berkman’s widow, Betty Berkman, donated $500,000 to build a new playground. It’s been a big success with locals and visitors alike.

The City Manager search three-ring circus

In the wake of Martin’s firing, the commission could not agree on the process to find a replacement. Mayor Bradley Bean opposed spending money on an executive search firm to recruit and vet potential candidates. “People (city managers) who are looking to work in such a job are aware and ready to apply and we don’t need to spend the $50K on a hiring firm,” Bean claimed.

The commission agreed to appoint a five-member citizens committee to review applications and make recommendations to the city commission. Vice Mayor Sturges at one point said he had two advisory professionals that would serve – one was the city manager of Ft. Lauderdale for 35 years plus and the other was another former city manager. Turns out Richard Sala had been city manager of North Ft. Lauderdale for just four years. Sala never responded to Sturges’ nomination. The other candidate, Jim Hanson, a highly experienced former city manager of several cities for more than 30 years, was appointed as advisor. But when contacted about the appointment, Hanson said he knew nothing about it.

Several meetings later, in an effort to reduce executive search firm expenses, the commission voted to approve an “a la carte” package of services. The selected search firm said it would not accept the proposal. It wasn’t until April that the citizens committee told the commission to fully hire a search firm and the city commission then approved Colin-Baenziger for the job.

Months later, more than 60 candidates stepped forward for the position, many of whom had never been a city manager.

The field was narrowed to four finalists in September and Ty Ross (more on him later) was eventually hired.

Outlandish proposals that went nowhere

In May, two projects were brought before the city commission that would destroy pristine maritime forest city-owned parcels. A disc golf course was put forward that would require an acre per hole and would be located on undeveloped land on the south end of the Simmons Road Park parcel. That plan met its demise after disc golf representatives conducted a tour of the site for members of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee and members saw the destructive ramifications of the disc course on the land and surrounding neighborhood.

The other proposal that had residents in an uproar was a proposal by the Amelia River Golf Course leaseholder and Florida Public Utilities to build a solar array field on 77 acres of forested property adjacent to the airport. Meeting vocal opposition, the commission said bring us more information but nothing has happened with the plan since the May meeting.

Vice Mayor Sturges involved in two state ethics investigations

As the owner of a residential building contracting company and owner of numerous properties in the city and county, David Sturges has displayed a disregard to recuse himself from voting on issues that could benefit himself.

He voted to lower storm-water/wastewater capacity fees charged to builders despite a city consultant telling the city commission that the fees needed to be raised by a significant amount.

Sturges voted to ignore the city’s Land Development Code and allow the construction of townhouses on the Tringali property that under the code, prohibited the building of townhomes. The city was sued and lost over that decision.

He also voted to lower various building permit fees, which his company is required to pay on projects, for the 2023-24 city budget year.

Currently, Sturges is pushing the Planning Advisory Board to rewrite sections of the Land Development Code that would remove restrictions and allow for the division of underlying property lots, a move that would significantly increase density in numerous neighborhoods. Sturges also wants the words “flood plain” removed from a formula that determines the number of units that can be built on a parcel. Again, such a revision would allow for greater density.

Sturges claims the changes to the Land Development Code would not benefit him.

The March 6 Sturges ethics complaint likely involved Sturges participating and voting on issues impacting Brett’s Waterway Cafe. Sturges’ business partner works at Brett’s.

Pride Festival permit stands as majority unites in support of June 10 events

The city took no action on the permit for the upcoming Pride Festival and Parade in response to a campaign by the Citizens Defending Freedom-Nassau group to have the event’s permit rescinded.

“What I want to say is that this permit has already been approved. I will support the staff’s decision to support it. There is not going to be a kids zone,” said Mayor Bradley Bean in starting the public comment about the issue. “Here in Fernandina Beach we take our freedom of speech and freedom of assembly very seriously.”

City finally gets the County to help pay for recreation fields

In June, the city commission agreed to partner with Nassau County to purchase 10 acres of airport property now being used as softball fields to build a new soccer complex. The current soccer fields at the Ybor-Alvarez Complex are on what is defined as aeronautical obligated property controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. There is a proposal by a private company to construct airplane hangars and storage units on the soccer field land. The FAA says aviation use of airport land is the priority. The FAA land use mandate means the soccer fields must find a new location.

The estimated cost of buying the property is $1.8 million and the estimate for design and construction of the new soccer complex is $1.3 million. The soccer program has about 700 youth participants.

There had been no progress report on the status of the joint project since June.

A new city welcome sign

The gateway to Fernandina Beach at the intersection of Eighth and Lime streets got a makeover in June with the installation of a new welcome sign. The city had the original sign structure re-stuccoed and workers added dimensional lettering and the city seal. “We are thrilled that the sign is finished,” announced Main Street Executive Director Lisa Finkelstein.

Commissioners give a thumbs down to $1 million of potential revenue

Mayor Bradley Bean, Vice Mayor David Sturges and Commissioner Darron Ayscue ignored expert advice and voted to reduce new user water/wastewater hookup fees by 9%, thus costing the city almost $1 million per year in potential revenue. The vote to lower the fee to $3,000 from $3,280 defied the advice of several experts, including the city’s own Utility Director Andre Desilet, to raise the fee to $10,040.

The city previously commissioned a $70,000 study by the Florida Rural Water Association to determine how much the city should be charging new users. FRWA Consultant Katherine Van Zant in July told city commissioners the city was not charging enough in fees and was unfairly placing the burden of upgrading the system on current users. She recommended raising the fee to $10,040.

A hotel guest bridge over dunes and heavily wooded corridor is approved

Championed by Mayor Bradley Bean and Commissioner Darron Ayscue, the city commission in October approved a proposal to build a connector walkover over a 17-foot-high secondary dune on a heavily wooded strip of land that would accommodate guests from one hotel being able to access the amenities of an adjacent hotel.

“It is a good plan that increases walkability for our city and it increases different ways that our citizens and guests to our community can enjoy our environment and that’s what we’re doing,” Bean said in support of the hotel plan.

At issue was the possible damage to a mile-long strip of city right-of-way on First Avenue starting at Sadler Road. The strip leads directly north into the Egans Creek Greenway.

Majestic oaks and historic pavers saved as city staff coordinates with FDOT for improvements

City staff gets the credit for working with the Florida Department of Transportation in working on improvements to take proactive steps to save a towering cluster of oaks at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Eighth Street from being damaged by pending construction. The plan also includes replacing historic-era pavers on sidewalks with the same type of pavers.

Unlimited-sized malls and commercial buildings get the green light from commissioners

By votes of 4-1, the Fernandina Beach City Commission paved the way for the construction of future unlimited-sized commercial projects and unlimited expansion plans for existing shopping centers by removing all size restrictions previously in place.

Commission OKs rollback tax rate, cuts projects, then is saved by Dale Martin’s foresight

Mayor Bean used Fernandina Beach’s poverty level as justification for the city to use the “rollback rate” for the city’s 2023-24 budget. The plan cut $2.5 million for sidewalks, lights, roads and beaches. But in an odd turn of events, the city found $800,000 in unused cash that was stashed away by former City Manager Dale Martin in a reserve fund and its underestimating of anticipated state contributions of $350,000 in revenue for the city that now made the budget more palatable.

Mayor Bean refuses to recognize transgender victims

The emotionally charged reading of the Transgender Day of Remembrance Proclamation brought to a head weeks of tension between Mayor Bradley Bean and Fernandina Beach Pride. Bean had previously said he would not read the proclamation at the city commission meeting. That resulted in days of backlash from Pride President Jordan Morris and the organization’s supporters. Bean attempted to have the proclamation changed to Victims of Crime Remembrance but that was quickly rejected.

Commissioner Chip Ross stepped up at the eleventh hour to read the Transgender Day of Remembrance Proclamation which began uneasily with Mayor Bean stating, “Now Commissioner Ross will read his proclamation.”

At the end of the reading, Commissioner Darron Ayscue said he did not support the proclamation, which drew an immediate chorus of howls from Pride supporters leading Mayor Bean to recess the meeting until the supporters had left the room.

Let’s cram 1,000 more houses, apartments and townhouses in the city

The city commission spent hours upon hours in meetings on annexations, rezoning of property and rewriting the city’s Land Development Code (LDC) dramatically impacting the density of the city. During public comment sessions, residents estimated the potential for 1,000 more housing units as a result of the commission’s votes and proposed revisions to the LDC. A change in the LDC on how lots are subdivided would mean an additional 200 homes in one neighborhood, a resident told commissioners.

Commissioners raise their pay by 50%

It was an early Christmas for city commissioners when they finalized in November a 50% pay increase for themselves from $12,000 to $18,000 yearly. The hike cost taxpayers another $30,000 in the 2023-24 budget. Part of the reasoning behind the hike was as an incentive for people to run for city commission seats.

Gigantic Atlantic Seafood replacement planned for the riverfront

In 2022, the previous city commission told new Atlantic Seafood leaseholder Ernie Saltmarsh that he could not exceed the footprint of the existing building at 1,200 square feet.

But six months later, under this new city commission, Saltmarsh got the green light for a seafood market/restaurant building of 3,040 square feet and two stories. The current building will be demolished in order to finish the flood wall up to the marina boat ramp.

Five city managers in a single year

Dale Martin then Mark Foxworth then Charlie George then Ty Ross and now back to Charlie George.

This absurd revolving door began with the ambush of Martin late in February and two weeks later Martin was fired by a 3-2 vote. That brought in former police chief Foxworth as interim, who lasted only 60 days. He was succeeded by George while the city’s executive search firm vetted candidates. Reportedly when the four finalists were picked, George threw his hat in the ring, but behind the scenes, he was ultimately rejected. Then came Ty Ross who lasted nine weeks in the job. Now we’re once again with George, a very steady hand who guided the city through the budgeting process and other important initiatives.

The $50,000 bicycle crash and shortest City Manager tenure in history

Just two weeks into the job as the city’s new city manager, Ty Ross decided on a Sunday afternoon to ride his bicycle downtown and then began drinking to win friends and influence people. In the darkness of Oct. 29, Ross attempted to ride his bicycle back to a home he was renting. He crashed the bike near Atlantic Avenue and Eighth Street and was found sprawled on the lawn of a nearby house by witnesses. Police were summoned and Ross appeared confused and incoherent on police video of the incident. He was driven home by police and was not subjected to a sobriety test. Ross never reported the incident to city commissioners. The accident was reported following a public records request by the Observer which published the story on Nov. 30. The video was made available a week later. Ross resigned as city manager, marking the shortest term as city manager in the city’s history. He left town and was awarded $50,000 for his nine weeks of work.

Tringali and ignoring the Land Development Code

By a 4-1 vote, the city commission last May ignored the city’s Land Development Code (LDC) blocking subdividing property deemed as a combined lot and approved the construction of townhouses downtown on Third and Fourth streets known as the Tringali property. Local neighbors sued the city and Tuesday a judge ruled the city had “no plausible explanation for the City’s erroneous interpretation” of the Fernandina Beach (LDC). The judge ruled only the Board of Adjustment could grant a variance to the LDC requirements.

Mayor Bean declares media coverage is “fake news”

If you reached this point of our review of 2023 we end with this. Everything reported by the Observer regarding the city commission is available to be viewed on video on the city’s website.

Despite that fact, Mayor Bean unleashed an unvarnished criticism of local media outlets as “fake news.”

Here’s what Bean said during his staunch support of raising his and other commissioners’ salaries by 50%. Bean spoke about the hurdles facing future potential city commission candidates.

“There’s another hurdle, there’s all this fake news now. There’s fake news out there, in our community, it’s here too.” Bean said. “There’s people who are watching this meeting right now. People who are thinking about running (for office) in the future are seeing they would have to deal with this, what they try to do is constantly, being attempted to be sideswiped by different fake news outlets.”

Later Bean doubled down on his claims with, “I wish the fake news would stop fake newsing.”

11 Comments
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Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
4 months ago

Mike’s article probably will be characterized as biased, and it is somewhat, but I think he shows a lot of restraint when writing about the ineptitude, self-centeredness, and greed of the majority commissioners. One thing he leaves out is the very apparent illegal backroom meetings these same commissioners engage in. Kudos to the city staff for keeping the city running more or less smoothly while the majority of commissioners stumble over themselves attempting to make their positions profitable for themselves. And thanks to Chip Ross for being the only level-headed commissioner working for the rest of us.

Sailorman
Member
Sailorman(@sailorman)
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

You are so right.

dman
Noble Member
dman(@dman)
4 months ago

This bitter old man’s sour grapes about not being reelected are both old and kind of sad. I hope Mr. Lendovich finds a way to move on and find happiness in the new year.

karen
Active Member
karen(@karen)
4 months ago
Reply to  dman

Don’t worry Dave. Your time is coming. That Trengali vote will most likely earn you another ethics violation for dereliction of duty fir not following the law.

dman
Noble Member
dman(@dman)
4 months ago
Reply to  karen

yet again Karen I am not Dave, you are not the brightest bulb on the tree, are you?

Navy_vet45
Active Member
Navy_vet45(@navy_vet45)
4 months ago

Another article lacking context by a bitter ex commissioner. The Observer really needs to hire a less bias more objective writer. A very unhappy man.

nmd8960
Member
nmd8960(@nmd8960)
4 months ago

I’m delighted Mike continues to call out the incompetence of this city council. Let’s not forget the meeting at which public comment was placed last on the agenda after a highly controversial vote! Self-interest rules the day, not acting in the best interests of the city!

Sailorman
Member
Sailorman(@sailorman)
4 months ago

I wish Mike Lednovich was still a commissioner. I applaud his professional and excellent reporting of the decisions, voting record and misjudgments of the three new city commissioners. I feel sad that we have to endure them until the next election. Mr. Ross is a commissioner that I would like to see re-elected. Mike, please keep up your excellent reporting. We need it for the next election.

jfindlay
Noble Member
jfindlay(@jfindlay)
4 months ago

My biggest concern is that the majority of city commissioners are very pro-development and support increasing density in the city. Voting to increase their own salaries was highly unethical.

julie ferreira
Active Member
julie ferreira(@julie-ferreira)
4 months ago

Thank you to the author of this article. It’s helpful to remember the mis-governance that underscores our City which unfortunately stimulates a general lack of public confidence.

Hopefully residents will retain this info so we are no longer stranded in topsy-turvy-town where everything is the opposite of normal when August rolls around and we’re able to vote for better municipal management and reform. 

ggarner
Noble Member
ggarner(@ggarner)
4 months ago

I think the best governing leaders of integrity and sincerity are less motived by a salary increase and more encouraged by an unrelenting desire to serve the community selflessly.