FOpinions_WordpressSubmitted by Suanne Z. Thamm Reporter – News Analyst
August 10, 2015 1:00 a.m.

[Suanne would like to remind readers that Friday, August 14, is the last day for candidates for the fall city commission elections to qualify by petition.]

if you always do

It’s that time of year again. Fernandina Beach residents turn their attention toward tax-free back-to-school shopping, Jaguars pre-season football, and upcoming city commission elections. These three activities seem to be characterized by lots of hype, big spending and questionable return on investment. We as voters can’t do much about the first two, but as the electorate that decides who should represent us for the next 3 years, we have lots of power, if we choose to exercise it.

The truth is, many voters don’t really care about local elections. Their reasons are many and varied, but I believe much of the apathy and cynicism surrounding elections relates to what the voters see as the all too often transformation of decent, civic-minded candidates into ineffective, bickering commissioners who seem more interested in promoting their personal causes, hammering opponents, vilifying past commissioners and, when all else fails, blaming everything that goes wrong on the city manager.

While the commissioners obviously bear lots of personal responsibility for this state of affairs, the fault is not all theirs. In what other position of authority would an individual be hired and not given any targeted training on the most important aspects of the job? Would you expect a new police officer to be given a gun and a car and just told to get to work? Would you want a lawyer who had no knowledge of legal process to argue a case before a judge and jury to represent you in a lawsuit?

Equally ridiculous is expecting a newly elected city commissioner to be prepared on day one to do the job s/he was elected to do without some formal training on legal requirements set forth in the city charter, code of ordinances, ethics law, Sunshine Manual, and other pertinent law; administrative and procedural requirements to set an agenda, conduct business, run meetings and keep records; public finance and budgeting; and the nature of commission-manager government and the difference between the job of the commission (setting policy) and that of the city manager (running the city according to policies set by the commission). [For a good explanation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbZlrXW2BJg ]

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Almost anyone is qualified to run for city commission, provided that s/he is eligible to be a registered voter and can prove local residency. People who serve as city commissioners are expected to make policies that promote the health, safety and welfare of the people who live here. The nature of a democracy is that the electorate chooses what it determines to be the best candidates to represent their views, interests, and aspirations. Beyond that, there is no knowledge, experience or skill test required.

The successful candidate must just convince the voters that s/he is a better choice than others contesting for the position. I can only imagine how stressful it must be for newly seated commissioners to be expected to make decisions on behalf of the citizens at their very first meeting, when they have little or no background on the items before them. Just because they were given copies of the Sunshine Manual, the City Charter and the City Budget does not mean they understand those documents.

In speaking with both current and former commissioners, I have learned that other than a very basic overview of the city, new commissioners receive little or no formal training or assistance to help them get up to speed quickly on matters like the city charter, public records and Sunshine Law, public finance and budgeting, and myriad other topics.

The city of Gainesville appears to have addressed this problem head on with a proactive training program https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbfnBFx0Ukk.  Here is another module of that program, this one on Florida public records law: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q01myJHhXBM.

The city of Fernandina Beach has many citizens who could be tapped to provide content and presentation material for such a training program. backwardsA former commissioner once told me that in previous times, new commissioners learned what to do by watching the more experienced commissioners. The passage of term limits more or less guarantees that there will be a greater turnover among commissioners and an even greater need for training.

A comprehensive, in-house training program during that period between winning an election and taking the oath of office would be beneficial to new commissioners as well as being a refresher for current commissioners.

Since such sessions would take place in public meetings, they could also serve as a valuable education for citizens who might be interested in running for office in a future cycle. Such a training program, supplemented by the Florida League of Cities’ programs and conferences, would better prepare our commissioners for the difficult job they face.

While commissioners may choose to follow different philosophies and strategies in serving the city, they should at least be given the same tools to begin their work.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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.

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Nora Bruce
Nora Bruce(@rebrucecomcast-net)
7 years ago

Please give a list of candidates as of today and, if possible, information about each. Thanks!

Len Kreger
Len Kreger (@guest_42446)
7 years ago
Reply to  Suanne Thamm

I have submitted my petitions and have received my Certification of Qualification.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_42442)
7 years ago

Excellent article. This is reality, today. Not tv. This is local. This is how we become informed, discuss, resolve together – and hopefully make a difference that is not determined by extraneous economic forces or their sponsored ideas. Either we make up our own minds with reasonable information, or they will be made up for us. We have a good, working government in place in this unique little town. March on.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_42448)
7 years ago

Robert, it is said that local politics effect us more than national politics. I think there is a lot of truth to that. You mentioned that we have a good working government. That may be an over optimistic view. To be honest, I have only been here 17 years and haven’t heard our City Government described in those words very often. We have many hard and dedicated employees in our City and from day one they have impressed me with their kindness and work ethic. I would go out on a limb here and say should you ask the present commission or many of the past commissioners or city managers if they feel we have a good working government they would have a slightly different opinion. 25 years to get a waterfront park is not a shinning example of a good working government. My point is simple here. Election day is approaching and It really doesn’t matter who you vote for. What matters is you go out, talk to the Candidates and get a feel for what they stand for. Please don’t just go by what the Observer may say, the News Leader may say, or your friends may say. Do the homework and than go out and get as many as possible to do theirs and get to the poles to vote. Frankly, too many of us complain about who is running the City the day after election day . You are absolutely right, we have a unique town here and everyone needs to get involved as much as possible to keep it that way.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_42449)
7 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

Yep.

Nora Bruce
Nora Bruce(@rebrucecomcast-net)
7 years ago

Thank you Suanne for your quick response. I look forward to learning more in the coming weeks.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_42529)
7 years ago

While I believe that such a fully scoped orientation program would have immense value, I also believe that a good candidate is going to do an intense amount of homework, especially regarding core issues. Meeting minutes and videos are readily available for candidates to see what has transpired before them. I am sure that requests for meetings with the City Manager, City Clerk, City Attorney and their staffs would be easily accommodated for them to get the lay of the land. Yes, it would take a lot of time but the candidate should realize before entering the race that the financial payback of compensation for the time spent works out far below the minimum wage.
And as Suanne points out, an informed voter is just as important as an informed candidate.
Best wishes to those candidates that have thrown their hats into the ring as well as any future candidates.

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