Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 6, 2019
On December 3, 2019, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and the City’s Charter Review Committee (CRC) convened jointly in a workshop session to clarify goals and expectations for the final CRC report, anticipated in June 2020. City Charter Officers also provided their input to the CRC.
The City Charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. The charter is the most important legal document of any city. Charters should be reviewed every 5-7 years to make sure that they are up to date and conform to current state law. The Fernandina Beach City Charter was last reviewed by a Charter Review Committee in 2007. Following that review voters approved several recommended changes, including lengthening the term of commissioners to 4 years and holding elections every two years in November.
CRC Chair Arlene Filkoff explained the committee’s communications strategy designed to gather as much input as possible from citizens on where the existing Charter was unclear or otherwise needed to be modified. As a result of discussion, it appears that future meetings of the Charter Review Committee will be recorded and available for public viewing via the city’s website, along with closed captioning which will follow,
Filkoff identified four primary areas of deliberation for the CRC:
- Election issues, to include discussion of “seats” and run-off elections;
- Roles and responsibilities of the FBCC and Charter Officers;
- Whether specific departments should be cited in the Charter;
- Whether to add new sections, i.e. a Preamble, Code of Ethics, Bill of Rights, recall provisions.
One of the issues needing clarification was whether the FBCC would allow all the CRC recommendations for Charter changes to be presented directly to the voters via referendum or whether the FBCC would edit the recommendations first to eliminate those that they did not favor. Consensus among City Commissioners was that the residents should be able to vote on all major changes proposed by the CRC.
However, various commissioners suggested that proposals for significant change needed to be weighed carefully and fully discussed to ensure that citizens understood the rationale for the change. Vice Mayor Len Kreger suggested that the CRC should review the results of the latest Citizens Survey to better understand the community’s position, as opposed to listening to one or two people.
Both Kreger and Commissioner Phil Chapman stressed the need for greater clarity on roles and responsibilities of elected commissioners vis-a-vis the Charter Officers who oversee the day-to-day operation of the city.
Charter Officer Dale Martin, who as City Manager is responsible for implementing policies adopted by the FBCC, said that from his perspective, “The existing Charter is a wonderfully functional document.” He said he does not see commissioners interfering with the running of the city. He cautioned that adding a Code of Ethics to the Charter might not accomplish what the CRC intended, noting that there is already a Code of Ethics under state statute. “In this day and age,” he said, “a local Code of Ethics can be used and abused to distract the FBCC from its business.”
City Attorney Tammi Bach seemed to agree. She said that currently ethics complaints are handled by a state agency independent of local personalities and issues. Should the City draw up its own code to be even more restrictive, the City would also need to set up a mechanism for investigating, hearing and ruling on complaints.
CRC Chair Filkoff said that along with ethics, she would like to see issues of civility discussed. She added that both these matters might best be handled outside the City Charter.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that based upon his conversations with citizens, “95 percent of the people think this is a great place.” He cautioned the CRC to “be careful what you wish for.” He said that Fernandina Beach is a highly successful city and expressed his position that all the City needs to do with respect to ethics is follow Florida election law. He did acknowledge that it might be helpful to include a section in the Charter on recall. Although this topic is covered under state law, he suggested that a reference to that law in the City Charter would help citizens better understand the concept of recall, how and why it can be initiated.
Mayor John Miller said that most younger citizens do not choose to get involved with their local government and appear fine with things the way they are.
Both Martin and Bach stressed that many citizens don’t know or care much about how government works. Martin said that statement is borne out by the lack of interest in how the budget is prepared each year. Bach said that when there is an issue that sparks public interest, commissioners will know immediately by the volume of emails they receive and the speakers at public meetings.
“Don’t over think it,” Martin advised. He also reminded Commissioners that while they use the term “democracy” to describe local government, the system is really a republican form of government because the citizens elect five people to make important decisions on their behalf. He said that commissioners need to be mindful of the best interest of the community.
Commissioner Phil Chapman said that each commissioner is supposed to represent the best interests of the City’s 12,000 residents. In order to do that, commissioners rely on professional staff for their input and recommended direction. “Why pay them if you don’t follow their advice?” he asked.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that he had a different perspective. He said that he views his responsibility to those who supported his election. He views staff recommendations “with healthy skepticism.” Ross invoked the Russian saying used by President Ronald Reagan: trust but verify.
Kreger, Chapman and Miller all indicated the need to read staff reports and recommendations in order to make informed votes. “We don’t just rubber stamp staff recommendations,” Kreger said.
The meeting participants discussed briefly the 2020 election and its potential for major change, because three commission seats will be up for election. Martin said that starting in January he will begin copying all City Commission candidates on information packages that he sends to the FBCC and local media to allow them to better understand ongoing projects and priorities.
“There is no spring training for new commissioners,” Martin said.
For more information on the Charter Review Committee and to learn how you may keep up with their deliberations, click here.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.