Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 8, 2015 1:00 a.m.
The Labor Day holiday is upon us. Fernandina Beach residents begin to shake off those lazy days of summer and turn their attention toward fall activities like football, preparing for winter holidays, and renewing their volunteer efforts on behalf of the city’s many worthy non-profit organizations. The kids are back in school; the snowbirds have begun returning to their winter nests. Routine is beginning to take shape once again.
An important part of Fernandina Beach’s fall routine is city commission elections. This year we get to select two city commissioners, who will represent us and help determine city policies on many important issues for the next three years. Not easy choices for us citizens; not easy work for the candidates who win election.
How do we determine the candidate who will best serve the city? Do we vote for the person we know best? The one who goes to our church? The one we’d feel most comfortable having a beer (or tea) with? Or maybe the one who promises to fix everything that is wrong with the city and fulfill longstanding community wishes while cutting the size of government, lowering taxes and eliminating fees?
With each election voters must choose between what they want in commissioners and what they need. Sometimes these factors overlap, like ethics, honesty, respect for their peers and the citizenry. But at some point these two lists diverge, presenting hard choices. I would like to think that most city voters have outgrown Santa Claus and any belief that by merely clicking the heels of those red slippers they can go back to the days of no bridge from the mainland, beach driving and a thriving shrimping industry. No matter how tempting the thought, all city problems cannot be blamed on tourists and newcomers—or the mills and the port. Nor will the solutions to city problems come without costs, changes to the way government operates, and without commissioners making hard choices that may cost them friends and political allies. In short, we the voters may need to take that spoonful of medicine without the benefit of sugar or Mary Poppins.
We the people need to close the scrapbooks and put away the home movies to elect leaders who will chart a course to the future that will guarantee a decent living for working people, a reasonable tax rate, and a decent return on investment for businesses and investors while working diligently to preserve what many call the “home town feel” of our city. Anyone who thinks this is an easy job that anyone can do has traded in our little corner of paradise for a fool’s paradise.
A winning smile, a strong family presence in the city, membership in civic organizations, churches or advocacy groups are proof of affability, community spirit and core beliefs. But what voters must ask themselves is this: are such attributes indicators of leadership, an ability to manage inevitable growth, and a commitment to overcome the community’s fears and natural reluctance to change in order to preserve the community over the long haul?
My ideal candidate is forward, not backward, focused. As somewhat of a local history buff who has devoted many volunteer hours to activities dealing with Fernandina Beach’s rich heritage, I get the importance of this community’s past and all the people who worked to preserve it during the many challenging times in its history. But I don’t want to go back to the days when grass grew on Centre Street. I expect that today’s and tomorrow’s elected officials will keep past city chapters (good and bad) in mind while charting the city’s future path. Fernandina should not be just a playground for wealthy retirees and our many visitors. We have a duty to care about the plights of young families and those less fortunate both health-wise and economically. We must find ways to manage growth, not eliminate any possibility of growth. If we can’t do this, we will find ourselves with an ever-aging population burdened with ever-growing taxes to maintain the level of city services we have come to expect.
I want to see candidates who have a demonstrated track record of contributing their time, effort and expertise to benefit the city and its residents without any expectation of compensation. What many people describe as the “home town feel” of Fernandina Beach comes from the many people who give of their time to volunteer to help in areas that improve the lives of our residents (two-footed and four-footed), add to the city’s cultural richness, and put the city’s Christian values into action.
And while many of us have our personal causes ranging from political to environmental, cultural and beyond, I want elected officials who will listen fairly to all sides of an argument and make decisions in the best interest of all. I seek independent thinkers who are not afraid to stand up to vocal opposition in presenting their programs to benefit the future of the city and its residents.
Novice candidates or newly elected commissioners cannot be experts on all city policies and procedures or authorities on all major issues of the day. We voters, however, should expect that the candidates and commissioners will be able and willing to seek out information from the charter officers and give their input more weight than any Tom, Dick or Harriet who offers unsubstantiated opinions. The city has a wealth of professional qualifications and expertise in its staff. Surely their recommendations should carry more weight than the fortune cookies that some of our past commissions seem to have relied upon.
And lastly, I seek city commissioners who can work effectively as part of a team, even when their views do not prevail. While I hope to see commissioners argue their positions with both facts at hand and passion in hopes of prevailing on specific actions, I want to see them concede graciously if they lose and work to support the decision of the majority. Overturning decisions of previous commissions, end runs around the city manager and the city attorney, rumor campaigns against other commissioners: these are actions unbecoming of the people who represent us.
In the weeks ahead the city commission candidates will be hard at work to convince you that they are the best option in the fall election. You will receive calls, mailings and maybe even some visits from them. Take the time to listen to everyone, even those whom you think you won’t support. Ask them about the current and future benefits their agendas would produce—and how they would pay for them. Follow the candidates’ responses to questions posed by the Fernandina Observer in the weeks ahead. Watch the Fernandina Observer Candidates Forum in October.
And when you have seen it all, heard it all: VOTE on November 3. The city’s future really is in your hands.
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.