January 10, 2019 12:00 p.m.
With thanks to the Nassau County Council on Aging, the first (of six) of my Government Academy sessions was held this week. The goal of the Academy is to offer insight to local government organization and operations. Participation was limited to fifteen so as to foster a conversational environment. The Council on Aging charged a minimal fee for the sessions- $3.00 per session for members, $5.00 for non-members (payment for the entire series of six sessions was required). Thankfully, enough people registered, so the series has commenced.
The first session was dedicated to the organization of the City, not simply the organization itself, but also the legal foundation of the City. As I prepared for the series, it was fascinating to learn the history of how the City of Fernandina Beach came to be and how Florida cities, prior to 1968, were critically dependent upon the State of Florida for most legal powers. In 1968, however, the residents of Florida amended the State Constitution and embraced the concept of home rule, providing significantly more latitude to municipalities in how they governed.
A common perception is that Fernandina Beach is a “small” city- the participants on Wednesday themselves often mentioned the “smallness” of Fernandina. I shared information from the Florida League of Cities that indicated that the City, in comparison to other cities in the State, is actually not small: of the 412 cities in Florida, nearly half of the cities in Florida have a population of less than 5,000 (including West Lake, population 5). Our population is over 12,000. The median population is approximately 6,000. We do have a “small-town feel,” which I believe is more relevant than simply population to most of our residents.
The participants are not all City residents (it was not a requirement for participation). When I illustrated the current boundaries of the City, most of the participants were baffled by the raggedness of those borders- how did those come to be and what are the ramifications of those borders. It was a very engaging conversation.
From the legal aspect of the City, we transitioned into the actual structural organization of the City. Plenty of questions were asked about the City Commission- the selection and responsibilities of the Mayor and the Vice Mayor, the length of terms, the confusion related to “Groups,” the relationship of residents to City Commissioners to staff, and the relationship between the elected City Commission and the appointed City Manager.
As with most professions, people become more and more specialized and focused on what they do. We are typically not generalists. Nonetheless, I still find it- pick the right word- surprising, frustrating, disappointing- that more people do not understand local government functions and operations. Local governments (and that includes City, County, and School Board) perhaps play the most significant role in your quality of life, and yet so few grasp how everything is supposed to work.
I understand that with standardized curriculum and the diversity of local governments that local government is rarely examined in school. I also understand that residents and families have other priorities and interests than learning about local government. With the dysfunction at the State level and the divisiveness at the national level, it is at the local level when government works best with residents.
We need well-informed residents to serve on our boards and commissions, to intelligently respond to surveys and outreach efforts, to understand the complexities (and frustrations) of local government operations. Informed and engaged residents are a “force multiplier” for our quality of life.
Next week, I’ll review municipal financing with the class, at both the City level and at the individual level. Subsequent sessions will highlight departmental operations, including public safety (the City’s most significant annual expenditure) and utilities.
At the end of the series, I’ll solicit feedback from the participants as to the highlights and lowlights of the series- what did I miss, what did they learn, how can I enhance the series. I’ll tweak the presentations following the feedback and figure out how to, in all likelihood, prepare another similar series later this year.
Thank you for your interest in your government and community. If interested, please contact the Council on Aging for additional membership information and educational offerings.