Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 1, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Whether we want them or not, the New Year will bring new challenges; whether we seize them or not, the New Year will bring new opportunities. ~Michael Josephson,

DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough the new Fernandina Beach Commission is still trying to get its bearings, my hope is that they begin the New Year by taking the input they have received from citizens and businesses during the last election cycle, dusting off the previous community visioning exercises (Vision 2000 and Vision 2020) and reaching some consensus on long range goals for the city.   And then – the hard part – identifying what it will take to achieve those goals.

This last part is not just about money, although money is always a factor. It is about leadership, communication and commitment to policies that may take years to come to fruition. Its success relies on an understanding of the form of government we have, how it functions, and the role of the commission, the charter officers, city staff and even the public. Without an understanding and acceptance of the responsibilities and limitations of all the moving parts that make up “city government” writ large, we will only continue to substitute the wants and needs of one special interest group for another as successive commissions come and go. This leads to a surefire path of counter productive actions and wasted tax dollars.

Original City Hall building
Original City Hall building

So what constitutes “leadership” in our form of government? First off, commissioners need to understand their role under the city charter. The charter charges them with the role of policy making, while the city manager’s job is to run the city. There is a world of difference between these two roles, and many commissioners over the years have failed to comprehend the distinction. The parallel exists in the corporate world, where the Board of Directors (city commission) sets policy on behalf of the stockholders (city residents) and hires a Chief Executive Officer (city manager) to execute that policy.

City Hall today
City Hall today

As leaders, the commissioners should be focusing on making policy that strengthens the community today and positions it to successfully meet economic and social challenges on the horizon, all the while being mindful of the values of its residents and the needs of its businesses. This is a tough job, making it all the more important that the commission stay out of running the city, which is the city manager’s turf.

What makes this even more difficult is that many city residents don’t understand these roles very well either. We are a small city, and for the most part, all of us like it that way. But that means that personal relationships make it difficult for elected commissioners to pass along a complaining neighbor or business to the city manager for solutions to problems. And once a citizen knows that s/he gets faster action by talking to a commissioner friend than going to City Hall, such behavior becomes the norm, regardless of what the charter says. In these days of social media, the problem becomes even worse when commissioners decide to raise Facebook or Twitter complaints and conversations to the level of policy making.

PrintHow can we break this cycle and get our local city government back on track? A new year and a new commission present new opportunities. There are many resources available to assist the commission in educating themselves, city staff and the community on how the commission-manager form of government works. The Florida League of Cities comes to mind first. A series of video streamed public educational sessions for commissioners and charter officers, conducted by someone not associated with any local interest, might be a good start.

Our city needs to return to the concept of strategic planning. Too often the planning that is done is limited to a single budget year. While that is necessary also, the first priority should be big picture planning that looks 3-5 years down the road. That keeps us from wasting dollars on projects that will be overtaken by other projects in 1-2 years’ time. I do not recall during my 20 years in this city that commissioners and the charter officers have ever scheduled a multi-day retreat off site with an outside facilitator. Perhaps the time has come to do so. Once a framework can be established, the fashioning of an annual work plan/budget plan will hopefully be less contentious.

As the 2015 Fernandina Beach City Commission makes its first tentative step toward a legislative agenda for the year ahead and beyond, I urge all commissioners to keep the following points in mind:

  • While 60 percent of the city’s registered voters cast votes in the November general election, only 28 percent of the city’s registered voters cared enough to vote in the runoff election. Robin Lentz won election to the Group 3 city commission seat during the general election with 2,979 votes, or 303 more votes than the sum total of votes cast for both Group 2 candidates during the December runoff election. Tim Poynter, the successful runoff candidate, won his seat with 1,448 votes. Such low voter participation does not reflect well on the electorate. But it does reflect the support of those who are politically engaged and who care enough to vote. Of course it is each commissioner’s duty to represent all of the citizens, regardless of how they voted, or whether they voted at all. But to give more weight to the opinions of those who place a higher priority on complaining than on voting would seem to send the wrong message.
  • As elected officials, commissioners have a responsibility to communicate with the electorate often and directly, not just through video streamed public meetings. You must find ways to meet with community groups regularly to keep channels of communication open. You must avoid the temptation to stay inside “The Bubble,” where you spend your time exclusively with people who think like you. People who disagree with you challenge your convictions. Their arguments may cause you to modify your positions or at least better articulate those you embrace.
  • Understand and respect the work done by our very dedicated and talented city employees. Just because someone has a complaint, it does not follow that “someone” is smarter, better or should be more powerful than a professional, knowledgeable city staffer who has been trained to do a job.
  • Keep in mind that city commissioners are elected to represent the interests of the City of Fernandina Beach, not Nassau County or the Port Authority. While it does not follow that there needs to be an adversarial relationship between the city and any other elected body, there are also times when our interests may not coincide with theirs. The citizens want to be reassured that in times of conflict you are on our side.
  • Find more ways for the city to benefit from the work of the many volunteers who staff city boards and committees, as well as those volunteers who toil behind the scenes helping the city manager or city staff on special projects. You should avoid the temptation to substitute your judgment for theirs when these volunteers have devoted hours of study to a particular problem or study. Conversely, if you lack confidence in a particular board or committee, find the courage to do something about it, rather than enduring recommendations (or personalities) that you cannot support.
  • Understand the costs of both doing and not doing various projects. Examples of this include supporting efforts of social non-profit organizations to serve the neediest parts of our community, speeding up stormwater drainage projects, and infrastructure improvements throughout the city. Find ways to say yes to positive changes as opposed to devoting your energies to finding ways to kill them.
  • Stop chasing grants for the sake of chasing grants. That practice landed us with the strings attached to the infamous Big-P project, including the marina welcome center that every commission seems to drag out as a bad idea. The recent example of the deck on the welcome center, apparently a priority because there is grant money available, seems to be yet another example of putting a cart before the horse… or lipstick on a pig.
  • Demand consistent and comprehensive staff work on items that appear on your agendas. Commissoners need to understand background, costs and options completely before moving forward on major actions. And along with this, meet regularly with the city manager in advance of your meetings so that he can iron out any of your issues or possibly pull an item from the agenda if it needs additional work. And please: remember that your CEO is the city manager, not the City Attorney or the City Clerk. You cannot govern effectively if you avoid the city manager to seek information through other means. Such actions reveal a lack of understanding of the City Charter and just plain disrespect for the city manager.
  • And above all, remember that you were elected to make the tough decisions.   That’s what representative government is all about. Not every Tom, Dick or Mary knows or wants to know all the details that go into your votes. Throwing major decisions to the electorate in the form of non-binding or binding resolutions is an abdication of your responsibility. The voters will make their binding decision on your fate at the next election. That’s why it is so important for you to tackle the role of salesman for the initiatives you support. If you believe it is a good idea for the city to take certain actions, you should be eager to explain how you reached that conclusion. Too many elected officials at all levels hold up a moistened finger to see which way the winds of popular opinion are blowing before they act. Settle on what you as a group believe to be the city’s best interest and SELL IT.

It is time for city leaders to put past elections, grievances and personality conflicts aside and focus on the future and the opportunities they present to make Fernandina Beach the best small city in Florida. It will not happen quickly, easily or without some hiccups along the way. I hope you, the Fernandina Observer readers, will join me in sending out best wishes to all of our 2015 Fernandina Beach City Commissioners for a productive new year.

DSCN3741To reach commissioners personally, their contact information is listed below:

Ed Boner, Mayor (904) 556-7554
Johnny Miller, Vice Mayor (904) 556-3299
Pat Gass (904) 277-7987
Robin Lentz (904) 206-0122
Tim Poynter (904) 415-6533 

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right. ~Oprah Winfrey


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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Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_25922)
7 years ago

Let’s get back on track for the future of our community. One of the first priority’s for the Commissioners should be to reinstate gifting to our local Charities. It was a sorry day for this community, when the Commissioners voted to stop funding to these charities. The charities lost a considerable amount of moneys in matching funds from the State and Federal Govt.

Stumpjumper (@guest_25967)
7 years ago
Reply to  Steve Crounse

Well, I believe you can place the blame on one particular commissioner for withdrawing the charitable giving.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_25924)
7 years ago

Suanne, You bring out many good points. I think you pointed out one of the best things this commission can do is work on better communications and much better marketing. As you said ” SELL IT. ” I am sure Tim will once again hold his monthly meetings as well as make himself available to all of us at his restaurants each day. I would hope that each Commissioner will take steps to encourage the input from all of us. This could be done by meetings or a monthly e mail from each Commissioner to all who are interested to have their voices heard. Former City Commissioner Childers had such an E mail set up which gave his views on all topics and encouraged your input. I also feel a monthly letter from the City to it’s citizens could be set up through the News Leader to help inform us of what they are planning and help us understand issues from their side of the fence rather than read opinions of others or the New Leader itself.
I have always felt the original Forward Fernandina Plan should have been sold and marketed to the public in a much better way and it was due to this lack of salesmanship that many Commission seats were lost. Issues such as downtown parking should also be addressed and solutions found at a cost effective and common scene level working with the local merchants and the Police force. It is also rather obvious that many issues should never get before the Commission and be handled by the person who runs the City, The City Manager. One that comes to mind is the whole Horse Crap issue, which is basically just that—Horse Crap. Suanne, you also mentioned the new deck. That may be water under the bridge at this point, but it is pretty clear that we should set up a more effective way to inform local contractors on up coming projects and do all we can to not only inform them but to help them negotiate the paperwork to qualify to issue a competitive bed. A little extra work by the City to help these guys out just may go a very long way in saving the City considerable money in the future. Seems like a good business practice. The key to all this boils down to two simple words–Better Communications.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_25929)
7 years ago

Tony, for its bid projects the City not only advertises in the News-Leader but the projects are included in a state and national dstabase thst contractors can access and set a bunch of filters so they omly see the projects of interest to them. I’m sure someone in the Finance Dept or Marshall could point them in the right direction.
Suanne, excellent points

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_25935)
7 years ago

Dave, 100% right with your comments. I have talked to a bunch of local contractors and to be honest most don’t know about a State/National data base and filters and many don’t read the News Leader. Hey –many City Commissioners don’t read the News Leader lol. This in itself isn’t the City’s fault. I have suggested that a bulletin Board be placed in City Hall by the permit desk so local contractors could view upcoming projects when they come in for permits. My point is that when the City only gets one bid on a deck, someone may ask the question– why? and what can we do as a City to get a better competitive system that could save us money in the end. Still boils down to the magic word—- Communication. The City needs to reach out to all local contractors and see who is interested in bidding, possibly get an e mail list and notification system in place and in the end will get more than one bid. A bit of work on the City’s part may save us a whole lot of money in the end and help support our local contractors.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_25981)
7 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

I understand some of your points to increase the contractor audience for bids, but there is so much that the City can do and it is the responsibility of the contractor to look at all possible ways to look for new business opportunities. I know the bids offerings are posted on the City website (or have been in the past) and I thought they were posted on the bulletin board at City Hall where other legal notices are posted. If not, that certainly is an excellent way to help spread the word. Maybe there can be a “marketing” campaign through various channels including local trade associations (Nassau Builders Council, etc.) about how to get on the various bid lists.
One other factor in the cost on small projects are the various City requirements as to insurance and bonds. Often the smaller businesses don’t carry the limits required by the City; although it was my understanding that they don’t have to show proof of the coverage until the contract is signed, but again I could be wrong as the City doesn’t want to award a contract with this as a provision and then the winning contractor can’t get the insurance and the bid has to be rejected. The bid process is a very regimented, formal process and having to go to a subsequent bidder can be time consuming (and expensive). As Eric noted, the City used to have a full-time purchasing agent and the position became a casualty of the budget cuts in 2012 although Finance Dept. staff are sharing that responsibility. I’m sure there can be improvements in the process, but there has to be an effort by all the stakeholders.

Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_26154)
7 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

Tony Crawford is hitting it right on…..everything he says has been done, should be done. Why don’t we stand by our commissioners now & get our city going. I have great expectations from this group that we have elected & wish them all the best of 2015 for our city.

Eric Bartelt
Eric Bartelt(@ericbarteltgmail-com)
7 years ago

Just a point of clarification, Suanne. The Welcome Center deck was proposed a few years ago by Architect Randy Rice and was then incorporated into the Waterfront Park Conceptual Plan by the Waterfront Advisory Group (of which I am a member) at least two years ago. A grant was sought to build it because it is part of the plan, not because a grant was available, and therefore we should build a deck with it. Cart is not before the horse and the deck, or “lipstick on a pig” as you call it, will increase the usefulness of an otherwise limited use building. And, like it or not, it’s part of the Park Plan approved by multiple City Commissions.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_25938)
7 years ago

Eric, I am sure those are very valid points you have made. My question is how much of the cost of the deck was paid for out of grant money, how much of the deck was paid for out of tax payer money, and how much in a competitive market the deck is actually worth? Another question is how did the City come up with a budget number of $50,000 for the top number of construction. I haven’t heard too many complain that this wasn’t a good idea or a needed improvement, but the bidding system and the budgeted cost may need improvement to save the City money on further projects.

Eric Bartelt
Eric Bartelt(@ericbarteltgmail-com)
7 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

Tony, I’m not directly involved with the deck project so I don’t know the exact amount that will be paid out of the grant, but I believe it is a little less than half. Realistically, the deck should probably cost no more than $39,000 instead of the $47,500 bid. The $39K is higher than a typical deck would cost because the Welcome Center deck has certain requirements that have to be met – it has to conform to the building’s architectural style and have the same type of support pillars, railings, and lower screening as the rest of the building. It has to have all stainless steel hardware. It includes an awning with roll up side curtains and a removable railing for performances. And the contractor has to provide engineering. And working with the city on a relatively small project like this isn’t easy – there are a lot hoops to jump through. I don’t know how the city arrived at the $50,000 budget figure – I’m not privy to that – but I believe it is possible for a bidder to look up what the city budgeted and then prepare a bid based on that amount. Complicating this is the fact that the city no longer has an engineer or a purchasing agent in its employ. If the city had those two positions, the deck project would likely have been reviewed by them.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_25960)
7 years ago

Eric, Thanks for the information, points well taken. I do know a typical deck of approx 650 square ft should cost less then $10.000 for material alone. ( that is being very generous ) You can add on a week or so worth of labor for a few men $5000 ( generous again ) the cost of plans and engineering another $5000 and in the end come up with about a $20 to $25,000 project. I think that the point of the whole matter is not so much justification for this project but how in the future can a better system be built to assure the taxpayers they are getting the best price for future projects. As I asked, why can’t the City contact local contractors, get an e mail notification system going, place a bulletin board at City Hall, and set up an easy path for helping to filling out the paperwork. This would encourage the bidding system to work to our advantage, and help local contractors increase their business.

margaret howard
margaret howard (@guest_25962)
7 years ago

Many thanks, Susanne, for your sane, on-point, and insightful columns articles. They keep me on track, and I hope all the city commissioners read them thoughtfully. You and your readers’ comments educated us. Critiques and objective thoughts are more important than praise.
You touched on, but I’ll address our voting public – a city privilege. It was a group of interested, dedicated, city-loving citizens that halted Forward Fernandina and most everything else. I do thank Charlie Corbin for supporting the Library. That was a very good thing he did for the city.
In the same way and with the same concern for our city, the electorate reversed its prior stance, showings its dissatisfaction and disapproval at the polls. This is how the system is works.
Communication to this electorate is vital, and they are a tough group. If a long-range plan is to be crafted, the electorate, the citizens, must onboard. This is what sunk earlier plans.
Have a city-wide focus, a feeling of inclusion, a sense of purpose. For the commissioners, I suggest respect, an “it doesn’t have to be invented on my watch” attitude, and a continuity between successive commissions having a sense of good will… if we are going to get anywhere.
Now a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of the new commission. Thank you for standing up, for being willing to undergo the slings and arrows of adversity, the criticism, the misperceptions and feelings of not being appreciated. You are. I appreciate you.

Stumpjumper (@guest_25968)
7 years ago

Great comments Ms. Suanne!

Lynn Williams
Lynn Williams (@guest_25979)
7 years ago

Actually, the BIGP grant came only with the proviso that the city, in accepting the grant, keep the marina operational for 20 years thereafter. This was eagerly accepted by the commission at the time.
The Welcome Center was proposed by the city in its grant application, it surely wasn’t pushed on us by BIGP. The grant helped put the marina back in usable condition after 20 years of almost total neglect. Where the trouble came from was the $5 million loan that the city took out in support of the grant which came to be treated more as a ready cash reserve; and in the additional $1.5 million loan to finish the project after the 5 million melted away.
The BIGP project was organized, lead and monitored by the City’s engineering firm at the time (although it was experienced in airport operations). The debts were taken on without any clear notion as to how they would be paid back, It was known at the time that Marina revenues would be insufficient.
The final BIGP work, which included the Welcome Center, was completed under direction of the City Manager’s office. The present Welcome Center was the fourth design effort for us of a Jacksonville architectural firm. And it wasn’t until the third iteration that it gave allowance to the special requirements of construction in a flood zone. The City paid design fees approaching $150,00, which, when added to the construction cost, put the the Welcome Center price over $400,000 or nearly 6 times the cost per square foot of the proposed deck addition.
All involved were fully accredited in their professions, though inexperienced in the projects at hand. This, coupled with our City’s hands-off approach to project definition and management proved terribly expensive. Hardly the fault of BIGP; and the notion that it was a grant taken for “the sake of chasing grants” couldn’t be further from the truth.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_25989)
7 years ago

Dave, Good points. I think if the City put out the extra effort they may be able to save some money in the long run. It is hard to understand how we don’t have a purchasing agent. One would think that a good purchasing agent could easily save the City their salary over time. I would think any business that spends as much as the City does would have a person who actively seek the best price on everything from paper clips to $50,000 projects. The City is after all still a business at the end of the day. I could be crazy in my thinking, and have been accused of that before, but just seems like common sense. Thank you for you input, your a welcome resource.

John P. Megna
John P. Megna (@guest_26112)
7 years ago

Question that I have is – does the City have such a thing as a “purchasing department” OR purchasing agent (somebody for contractors to go to?) How do they get the information on bidding process out and what are methods they have in place? It seems that now everything is done thru city manager. Having been in sales, I went to the establishment purchasing method, I called on our City and County Purchasing department for over 20 years.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_26124)
7 years ago

John, Those are great questions. I had to work through a purchasing dept my whole life. It was their job to simply save the company money and still maintain a quality standard. There is a system, as Dave pointed out, for contractors to use. Problem is most contractors, at least those I have spoke to, know nothing about it. Would it be cost effective in the long run to make the bidding system more user ( contractor ) friendly? Would it save the taxpayers money? Would it help local contractors who employ local help? Those are questions that can only be answered by the word”yes”. There are solutions to this problem. The key is better communications. The City needs to reach out, go the extra mile, adjust some policy issues and get with local contractors and help them navigate the system. In the end, it would seem, only positive results would be achieved.

Louis Goldman
Louis Goldman(@lgoldmngmail-com)
7 years ago

Suanne, I absolutely agree with you that one of our top priorities for the City is a strategic plan. Not having a plan is like driving from here to Seattle, WA without a roadmap or GPS. You may get there eventually but a more direct route would have been quicker and probably less expensive. Some of the projects may take more than 3-5 years so I would suggest a 10-15 year strategic plan. Any plan may be modified by future commissions but at least we’ll have a forward looking plan.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_26240)
7 years ago

Louis, you hit the nail right on the head when you said “any plan may be modified by future Commissions”. That in itself is the problem. The waterfront I would guess has been modified by the last 20 or so Commissions. At times that is what we do as a City, we plan, we talk, we review, we have workshops, we re-review, and hold more workshops. If by some miracle we get to fund a plan and start the engineering and permitting, guess what happens? A new Commission is elected and we get to start all over again. This has been happening with the waterfront for about 20 years. I wish I knew of a solution. Lets hope that this Commission can set some goals, agree on certain projects early on. Sell those projects to the voters, get the funding, and get them started well before the next election cycle where it is too late to stop them. Everybody is not going to agree on the goals, the funding, or the design aspects, that would be like asking the state for the next wining lotto numbers. The elected commissioners have to actively seek and hear the taxpayers input, both pro and con, than cut to the chase and make the decisions. Long term planning is good, but short term achievable goals may be the answer

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