Fernandina Beach City Commission – Venture Capitalists R Us – An opinion

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Suanne Z. Thamm Reporter-News Analyst
Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter-News Analyst

Reporter-News Analyst

At Tuesday night’s FBCC meeting, Mayor Pelican called local citizen Lyn Williams to the podium to explain his latest scheme to improve the waterfront. Williams, who has been a fixture at City Commission meetings and has served on various committees dealing with waterfront improvements, has presented the FBCC with many ideas over the years. He regularly makes pronouncements regarding building projects or engineering needs for the waterfront. I’m not sure what his overall track record is with respect to saving the city money. But he is always interesting, colorful and sincere. And in addition to being persistent, he can be very persuasive: the Pied Piper of Front Street.

PrintWilliams, it seems, has hit upon an idea, sparked by an ATM recommendation, to save the city thousands in dredging fees by a technique known as water injection dredging, used widely by the Dutch, he claims. It sounds a lot like the technique that shrimpers used in the old days before the Department of Environmental Protection banned it. In the pre DEP days, shrimpers would rev their motors to create a turbulence to lift the silt from the bottom that would be carried out with the river currents and tides. Obviously, if the technique is not approved by the state, it cannot be used to solve siltation problems in the City Marina. But wait …

Williams’ good friend and purported partner in this enterprise is David Cook, a highly respected local shrimper, who owns waterfront property south of the City Marina. Cook, unlike most downtown waterfront property owners, actually owns the submerged lands associated with his property. Williams proposed that he and Cook build a prototype and try it out on Cook’s property. Once they refine it and get it to complete the test, they will modify it to work in a bigger area like the City Marina. What a concept! And saving the city $100K per year in dredging fees! How could there be any problem with this?

In response to questions from Commissioner Filkoff, Williams acknowledged that he has no experience in building anything like this but that he has been “a keen observer” of dredging that has taken place here over the past two years, and that he did a lot of dredging in Michigan. He also said that David Cook can build anything. He acknowledged that the state has not approved this technique, but that DEP representatives have expressed “keen interest” in studying its effectiveness, but they would not be involved in the test.

The consensus of the city commissioners (ABF—all but Filkoff) was to give Williams $8,000 to do this. Some of the commissioners seemed downright giddy over this idea. They thanked Williams and directed him to City Manager Gerrity for payment.

Since this item had not been placed on the FBCC agenda, I made a public information request to determine what kinds of information Williams had provided regarding engineering drawings and costs. Nothing has surfaced to date. During the meeting even Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett had questioned the need for $8,000 when originally Williams had apparently told him it would cost $4,000. Williams explained that he needed the extra money in case modifications were needed for the original design, which as yet doesn’t seem to exist. There was no discussion regarding potential liability issues for the city should anyone get hurt or any property sustain damage during this test.

The lesson learned from this episode seems to be if you have an idea that might or might not work, that might or might not be legal, but on the surface looks like it might save the city money, don’t risk your money developing it. Just come on down to a city commission meeting with a good story and your hand out.

Funny how things work. It seemed like only yesterday – or last week – when Commissioner Gass criticized a potential developer who wanted to discuss his infrastructure needs with the city before following through on a planned and permitted multi-million dollar project in the CRA. During that discussion she said, “The city isn’t here to help an individual business.” But what a difference a week makes. This time she led the rounds of thank-you’s to Williams, highlighting his idea as “a prime example of people working together to solve problems.”

It sounds like there is at least $5,000 of unspent F2 interest money left, once you subtract Williams’ $8,000. The city seems to be open for business in a brand new department called “Show me the money and maybe I can build it.” Any citizen with an undocumented, unproven idea (not to mention illegal, according to the DEP) need not assume any personal risk to test this idea. Just come on down to 201 Ash Street and ask for money. If the Williams idea works but the state won’t approve it, at least one private citizen’s dock area will have been dredged at city expense. And if it doesn’t work … oh, well.

But when you head on down to city hall to get your money, be mindful that you don’t fall on the railroad tracks.

Editor’s Note:  Suanne 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 impacting our city.  We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

March 10, 2013 9:58 p.m.