What’s the Rule on Quizzing a Commissioner? Stay Tuned


To understand efforts to codify the Fernandina Beach City Commission's Rule of Procedures, it's helpful to refer to the film "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the reference to the "Pirates Code." In the film, Pirate Captain Barbossa states, "The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."

For years, the city commission has applied rules that are nowhere to be found either in the city's Charter or the Rules of Procedure. So by definition, those rules appear to be arbitrary.

Last Tuesday, Commissioners James Antun and Chip Ross led efforts to change that on several fronts. 

By resolution, the pair sought first, to have the city commission conduct a 60-minute monthly town hall meeting where people could bring up any topic related to the city for a discussion with all five commissioners.

Another part of the resolution concerned the procedure for placing an item on the city commission agenda for a vote. Antun and Ross supported that any individual commissioner could place an item on the agenda.

Currently, the unwritten rule is that only the mayor or two city commissioners jointly have the authority to place items on the agenda. 

After nearly an hour of debate, those proposals were shot down by Mayor Bradley Bean and Commissioner Darron Ayscue. With Vice Mayor David Sturges absent, the 2-2 vote resulted in the resolution failing.

Instead, Ayscue moved to have two resolutions placed on the city commission's July 16 agenda that would be written into the Rules of Procedure.

"First, to place an item on the (city commission) agenda, the mayor can do it and two city commissioners can do it," Ayscue said. "My other suggestion is we hold the first Tuesday of every month a workshop, whether there is an item on the agenda or not. If the item that is on the commission workshop runs to 5:45, that workshop is stopped and public comment will be allowed for the last 15 minutes. Or, for the remaining time for the workshop be open to public comment. Those are two resolutions I would like to see placed on the next meeting's agenda."

There have been six monthly commission workshops thus far. July has been the exception without a workshop with one meeting remaining in the month. The January workshop took 46 minutes, February 30 minutes; March 40 minutes; April 32 minutes; May 54 minutes and June 62 minutes. That means the average available time for public discourse with commissioners would be 16 minutes per month.

Seven speakers urged commissioners to have more interaction with residents over issues that concern them.

"There's lip service about public comment, but you really don't want to engage your citizens," said Richard Deem, a frequent speaker at commission meetings.

City commission candidate Joyce Tuten told commissioners, "This city is filled with a really incredible number of really talented people that are involved and want to help. We all want to help and we want a nicer town. We want a better place to live. If more people can have an honest give-and-take (discussion with commissioners)."

Pete Stevenson maintained that mixing in a town hall segment in the final 15 minutes of a workshop was tantamount to "trying to run three railroads on one track. You're going to dilute the purpose of the workshop."

Prior to public comments, Ayscue argued that county commissioners and school board members rarely answer questions posed by public speakers. He stated that the county commission attorney or county manager and school board attorney or school superintendent step in to deal with public inquiries during those meetings.

"It's not because their school board or commissioners don't want to interact. They do it to answer those questions more properly. They also do it to a certain degree to keep us from saying something we shouldn't," Ayscue said. "One change that we need to happen tonight is that the city attorney and city manager sitting up here be able to cut some of those questions off that can put us in trouble."

Commissioner Ross detailed how he believed a town hall meeting differed from public comment.

"What I was envisioning in a town hall was citizens coming and asking commissioners questions. What do you think about this, how do you feel about that? What are we going to do about this? That's what I envision a town hall is to me," Ross said. "Apparently that's not what you (Mayor Bean) envision."

Bean retorted, "What you're describing as a town hall is that one of us goes to a place and is available to answer questions. I do that all the time at the Council on Aging," Bean said. "The public is always able to ask questions. It's just that we don't force people to answer questions."

Ross also objected to the mayor having the authority to place items on the agenda.

"The mayor has no more power than anybody else. The mayor can put something on the agenda, the mayor is elected as a city commissioner. You have the same rights as a city commissioner, except you run the meetings," Ross said. "Most of the items put on the agenda are put on by (city) staff. The Parks and Rec Chair can put something on the agenda. And why does the Parks and Rec have the authority to put something on the agenda and a city commissioner doesn't?"

The actual motion that was voted upon was to postpone approval of the resolution until the next meeting when all five commissioners would attend. The 2-2 vote meant that the motion failed and, with it, the consideration to have the resolution approved.

City Attorney Tammi Bach will now write two resolutions dealing with procedures on placing items on the agenda and setting aside time during workshops for public comment to be voted on at the July 16 meeting.