Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
Spring must have been in the air. An informal atmosphere pervaded City Hall Commission Chambers for the March 19, 2013 regular meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC). Around two dozen souls attended the meeting, which lasted almost 3 hours. Applause rang out following many speakers; people spoke from the audience; commissioners often joked and smiled among themselves. Unfortunately, due to technical problems with live streaming, not all those who tried to watch the meeting from home were able to do so.
For the second year in a row, the City of Fernandina Beach received the highest level of audit possible. Ryan Tucker, lead auditor for the firm Purvis Gray and Company, presented the FBCC with the Annual Audit Report for the Fiscal Year ending September 30, 2012. Tucker reported that the city kept expenses flat and maintained a reserve equal to 3 months’ operating expenses. He said that revenues were up, reflecting sale of land at the airport, a one-time refund of money from the federal forfeiture fund, increase of $400K in ad valorem taxes and $150K in increased city fees. Tucker thanked city staff for their cooperation and concluded by saying, “There are no issues in the audit.” Both City Commissioner Arlene Filkoff and City Manager Joe Gerrity echoed Tucker in praise for City Finance Director Patti Clifford and her staff.
City resident Diane Eliason raised concerns about the appearance of the island, citing significant litter problems and failure of city, county and private property owners to maintain their property. She complained that an email to City Manager Gerrity had gone unanswered. Gerrity replied that he thought he had replied, and apologized. He also said that he had forwarded her email to Nassau County Administrator Ted Selby for action on county property.
Front Street Railroad Tracks and Sidewalk Problems
Jennifer Niles wheeled herself to the podium and accepted a hand microphone to speak to the FBCC regarding her concerns over the state of the railroad tracks and absence of a handicapped accessible walkway to the Salty Pelican restaurant from Centre Street. Niles, a Massachusetts resident who is spending a month in Fernandina Beach, recently underwent reconstructive spinal surgery. She recapped her efforts to bring attention to the accessibility problems earlier in her stay. Four days following her cordial discussions with City Manager Gerrity, her wheelchair got caught on the train tracks that she was attempting to cross in order to reach the Salty Pelican Restaurant. She was thrown from her chair onto the tracks (Click here for previous story). She reported that just as some concerned bystanders helped her return to her chair, she saw a train rounding the bend and headed in her direction. She expressed both gratitude toward those who helped her and concerns for others who might fall when no one was present to help.
Niles acknowledged that she understood that the city had taken legal action to determine title on the land that could provide public access to the Salty Pelican from Centre Street. But she was adamant in stating that a temporary solution must be found until that matter can be resolved. She told the FBCC that the current situation constitutes a violation of a federal law, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), adding, “I’ve never been any place where you can flout this law.”
City Commissioner Pat Gass indicated that she had been in touch with Wayne Parrott of First Coast Railroad, who said that he would be in Fernandina Beach this week to fix the specific problem, while other fixes would happen in 2014. Local attorney Clinch Kavanaugh said that he also had been in touch with Parrott and asserted that the railroad will not install ADA compliant crossings. His understanding is that they will just replace rotted, creosote-coated wood.
Trey Mills, attorney representing the Salty Pelican, said that his client wants to fund a sidewalk to his establishment from Centre Street. “He is willing to write a check to get it done,” he said. This offer perked Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett’s interest. Corbett asked, “Would he pay for it all?” Mills said, “Yes.” Mills went on to praise City Attorney Tammi Bach’s actions to resolve the issue.
Filkoff asked if the city could take actions now, before the judge’s ruling on the title complaint, to mitigate risk to the city. Bach replied in the affirmative, but later went on to say that absent agreement among all the parties possibly claiming title to the property in question, the city cannot do anything. She said the liability issue was unclear, but she would ask the judge to rule quickly.
Local resident Tony McAdoo brought up another incident in which a train had to stop while the conductor tried to locate the owner of car that was parked on the railroad tracks. He told the FBCC, “You sent back a million dollars [the F2 unspent loan]. You need to fix this problem to support local businesses.”
Jennifer Niles concluded her remarks telling the FBCC, “I am the face of future lawsuits. You cannot ignore federal law. I am not going to let the issue die.” Ms. Niles remained in Commission Chambers for the entire meeting.
The FBCC took about 15 minutes to approve unanimously four separate resolutions relating to work at the airport: rehabilitating T-Hangar taxiway pavement, engineering services, and Hangar “A” apron rehabilitation. Andrew Holesko of Passero Associates emphasized that he, McGill Aviation and city staff were working diligently to advise hangar owners of the upcoming work to minimize problems and disruptions and to insure that the work could be done over as short a time span as possible.
At the request of City Manager Gerrity, Holesko also updated the FBCC on the tree situation. He reported that the tree removal and tree trimming work at the airport was “100% complete.” He said that fencing and mitigation (replanting) were next steps, but that it is important that all that work come in on budget. Commissioner Filkoff asked about future needs to remove or trim trees. Holesko said that trimming should be done frequently, but from this point forward only an occasional tree would need to be removed. Gerrity thanked Holesko for the strong buffer left between the airport and Simmons Cove.
On first reading the FBCC unanimously passed Ordinance 2013-02 that would alter an existing city ordinance regulating street performances and art vending. The change would prohibit such activities in the Centre Street pocket parks and virtually ban such activities in the Central Business District. The existing requirement for a $300 license would remain in place. Licensed vendors or performers would also need to be covered by insurance. The ordinance, modeled on that of St. Augustine, prohibits the use of amplifiers. While the ordinance would crack down on those performers who are perceived to interfere with business access on Centre Street, it would allow street performers and art vendors on streets outside the central business district. Commissioner Pat Gass asked, “Would this activity be permitted at the Episcopal Church or outside B&B entrances?” City Attorney Bach said that it would.
Bobby Momarella, a professional musician, rose to speak against the proposed changes. He allowed that he uses the pocket parks as a way to advertise his music to those interested in hiring a musician or a small band. He did not agree that performing in the rear of pocket parks adversely impacted local businesses. He also said that by paying $300 for a license to perform, he wanted to perform in an area that would be most likely to generate more business for him, as opposed performing on a street in an area that does not generate much foot traffic.
Doug Bailey, a downtown businessman, rose to speak about past problems created by those claiming to be performers who congregate in groups at or near a business entrance. He said that these groups often intimidate people who would otherwise enter those businesses.
The ordinance will return for second reading and possible modification at the May 7, 2013 FBCC meeting. Public comment will be taken at that meeting.
At the request of the FBCC, City Attorney Tammi Bach drafted ballot language to amend the City Charter to convert terms of commissioners from three to four years and eliminate runoff elections. Upon reflection, some commissioners expressed second thoughts about eliminating runoff elections. Commissioner Ed Boner said that while he supported 4-year terms, he was opposed to extending the term of any sitting commissioner “automatically” should the measure pass. He believes that each commissioner needs to stand for election to a 4-year term. Considerable discussion ensued regarding possible ways to allow this to happen. The FBCC agreed to postpone further discussion on this topic until their May 21 regular meeting. City Attorney Bach will present some election options at that time.
Franchise Fee Reduction
Commissioner Filkoff asked the FBCC if they would rescind the portion of the electric franchise fee that was instituted to pay for the Forward Fernandina loan, since that loan has been returned. Commissioner Gass replied that she would absolutely support such reduction, once the principal is repaid in 6-7 years. She was prepared to make a motion to that effect until City Manager Gerrity reminded the FBCC that they cannot bind future commissions. Gerrity, backed up by city Finance Director Patti Clifford, said that the savings would amount to 5 cents per $100 of electricity used. Gerrity also asked the FBCC not to propose any reduction in the franchise fee until October 1, when the city will begin a new budget year. Clifford reminded the FBCC that franchise fees were raised last year to their maximum 6% allowed by current ordinance. Only 0.05% was dedicated to Forward Fernandina; whereas the remaining increase from 4.3 to 5.95 covered city operating expenses. Filkoff asked, “So when citizens ask me if this money will still be collected, my answer to them is yes?” Consensus was yes, with Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett adding, “It’s only a nickel.”
City Clerk Vacancy
City Commissioners agreed to discuss narrowing the field of applicants for the vacancy at their next meeting. Commissioner Filkoff asked City Attorney Bach if it was a requirement that the position be filled. Bach responded that the position is provided for in the charter, but that it could be filled with an interim or acting clerk. Commissioners were reminded that presently Deputy Clerk Kim Briley has not been designated as interim clerk.
- Commissioners offered positive remarks and feedback on recent events: Concours d’Elegance, St. Michael’s Fair, Hale and Hearty Run, Rib Cook-Off, Shriners Parade.
- Commissioners thanked California Pizza Kitchen for the variety of good works they are performing in the community during their annual meeting on the island.
- Commissioner Boner would like to introduce a resolution to ban synthetic drugs from the city “now and forever.” He suggested levying fines and/or revoking business licenses of those merchants who sell such drugs to children. Attorney Bach will research the matter.
- Commissioner Boner asked the FBCC to “think about helping to fund July 4th fireworks.”
- Vice Mayor Corbett informed the FBCC and audience that on March 30 there will be a welcome home ceremony for Vietnam Vets at the Veterans Memorial.
- Mayor Sarah Pelican learned that city commissioners are entitled to health insurance at city expense as part of their compensation package. Additional insurance to cover family members must be paid for by the commissioner.
March 20, 2013 4:36 p.m.