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, whatwillmatter.com
Although 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.
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.
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.
How 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.
|Ed Boner, Mayor||(904) email@example.com|
|Johnny Miller, Vice Mayor||(904) firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Pat Gass||(904) email@example.com|
|Robin Lentz||(904) firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Tim Poynter||(904) email@example.com|
Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right. ~Oprah Winfrey
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.