[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.]
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 ]
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. A 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.
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.