Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 20, 2014 11:00 a.m.
We are almost through the 2014 election cycle. On December 16, less than a month from today, we will be swearing in a new Fernandina Beach City Commission. My hope for them—and for us—is that they put the campaigning aside, stop nursing petty grievances, leave partisan politics to other levels of government, and concentrate on establishing policies that will make our city as good as its people.
Fernandina Beach is a gem of a city, blessed with outstanding natural beauty, a mixed economy that many small cities could only dream of, and residents who care so much about their fellow citizens and the community that they volunteer countless hours in a wide range of volunteer activities. We are a community of faith with a multitude of churches. We are patriotic and take pride in our active and retired military members. We like to show our community spirit through supporting our high school, college and regional sports teams. We love to show off our community to others as well through an incredible array of festivals. We welcome tourists because we want them to envy our special place, not just because we want them to spend their tourist dollars with us. We LIKE to help people; that is part of the Fernandina Beach charm.
So why then, with all these positive things going for us, does anything involving local government become so rancorous? We may work together to help our church or club, but doing so to help our city seems to be much more difficult. It’s not just that we disagree; after all, we all come with different perspectives gained over our life experiences. It’s that we become so disagreeable. Instead of approaching problems for the purpose of solving them, many of us seem to prefer not solving them and demonizing those who would dare say otherwise. It is not necessarily a clash of ideas about how to solve them. Rather it is a statement that some people have grown accustomed to these problems, relish complaining about them, and resent anyone making them go away – especially if by doing the latter public money will be spent, someone else may get credit or those who said it couldn’t be done might have to eat crow.
The crux of the problem always seems to be money: whose money is being spent, who stands to benefit most, and most importantly, how will I personally benefit. While many of us talk about wanting to preserve our hometown for our children and grandchildren, the bottom line is that truly it is all about us. And when times get tough economically, we are looking for someone to blame. Putting a name on “someone” often becomes difficult, especially when part of the problem could well reside within our own family or even worse, our own personal decision making. So what do we do? We blame government. The irony is that in our system, the government is the people.
What many of us fail to recognize is that failing to invest in our city is akin to killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Our special hometown “feel” will not survive if the city lowers its standards for police and fire protection, street maintenance, utilities and parks. A shabby looking city is both a magnet for crime and a turn-off for tourists who account for almost 40% of our local economy. And what about those so-called Forward Fernandina projects? Can anyone honestly say that the riverfront is attractive or usable in its present state? Or that the appearance of 8th Street presents a welcoming entrance to our city? Centre Street has not been improved since the redevelopment project in the 1970’s, and our historic Post Office building is gradually falling down due to inadequate maintenance by the USPS. Neighborhoods that border 8th Street and the historic districts need attention to correct drainage problems. Don’t all of us share in the responsibility to make our city a little better for those who come after us, whether they be our children, new businesses or new residents?
Some of the statements I’ve heard most often locally from those who oppose city actions with price tags include:
- Nobody ever asked me what I think. An idea that has come before the City Commission for action has generally traveled a long and winding road first. There are first multiple publicly noticed meetings where commissioners or city committees welcome citizen input; many of these meetings are televised. Rarely do more than a handful of people attend any public meeting.
- Government needs to get smaller and cut taxes, not find new ways to spend money. How small do we really want government to get? This is a legitimate question that could use some serious thought. Do we want to go back to the days of the Roman Empire, when the homeowner negotiated with the fire brigade to douse his house fire? Or maybe adopt the emergency response policy adopted by Tracy, CA in 2010: charge each household $48 for 911 service. The fee automatically rises to $300 if the service is actually used. There are always ways to improve efficiency and there are always ways to cut taxes. Unfortunately, these two actions do not automatically work in tandem. Sometimes it costs money to improve efficiency, and cutting taxes can work against efficiency, causing longer response time for police, fire, street repair, trash pick-up and even permits.
- This is all part of a conspiracy to benefit a specific person or business. True conspiracies to defraud the public are criminal offenses. Despite many colorful conspiracy theories that make their way around town with some frequency, I’ve never seen any charges brought or evidence produced. But since it is all but impossible to prove a negative, those who constantly see black helicopters circling the city have a field day here. They also keep the City Clerk’s staff busy with public records requests as they try to “investigate” their theories.
- That’s not how we do it in Fernandina. That’s probably true on its face. The real question is: could there be a better way than the traditional Fernandina way? And how will we ever know if we close off all discussion?
- Borrowing money to fund projects without a bond referendum constitutes taxation without representation. Each year the city and the county adopt annual budgets in the millions of dollars without a citizen referendum. The city and the county (remember the renovation of the Historic Courthouse?) can also legally borrow money without a citizen referendum as long as the money will be repaid with non ad valorem revenues. A public referendum must be held if a bond is to be issued. The five county or city people who vote to spend money on projects are representing citizens because they were elected to do this job. You may disagree with their vote, but it is all legally part of representative government.
There are so many talented and thoughtful people in our city. Previous generations overcame many hardships to build this special place for us to enjoy. Surely we can carry on in that tradition if we commit to work together in positive ways to benefit not only ourselves, but also those who will come after us. Can we change the public debate to be more focused on issues and alternatives as opposed to attacking any new idea and the people or group who advance it? Can we approach our problems more like a barn-raising than like the Jerry Springer Show? Or have we become a city of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing? We can only become a city of excellence if we strive to respect all elements of our community and accept that positive forward movement means investment, accountability and hard work by our citizens, our business and property owners and our government alike.
In order to advance a positive agenda, we must have positive leaders. Let’s hope that our new commission understands that and commits to work together to make us proud in 2015.
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.