City Commission discusses public access to meetings, beaches

  • Personnel with Design It Wraps & Graphics in Fernandina Beach placed graphics on a new lifeguard tower at Main Beach. The tower, and another at Seaside Park, were installed Thursday. They were purchased from the National Park Service.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    Personnel with Design It Wraps & Graphics in Fernandina Beach placed graphics on a new lifeguard tower at Main Beach. The tower, and another at Seaside Park, were installed Thursday. They were purchased from the National Park Service. Julia Roberts/News-Leader

Many Fernandina Beach residents are involved in their city government, sometimes packing City Commission meetings to offer comments on hot-button topics, but since the city adopted online meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, residents have been limited to submitting their comments by email or phone.

Commissioner Mike Lednovich read one of those emails at the commission’s Tuesday, May 19, meeting. In the message, Paul Lore, who has spoken at many past meetings, complained all the public’s comments have not been read aloud and there has not been interaction with those submitting comments like at the Nassau County Board of County Commission meetings.

Lednovich said technology exists to allow for more interaction between the City Commission and residents and that it’s being used by some city boards and committees to accomplish the interaction required during quasi-judicial procedures.

“We have had four meetings with no voice from the public other than the emails commissioners will read,” Lednovich said. “We cannot continue with this. It is not fair. It is not right. It’s not the way to govern. I ask for consensus to get this straightened out and that we involve the public.”

Lednovich said he wants to know why the City Commission hasn’t been using it; a decision he thought was made by City Attorney Tammi Bach. But Bach said it was not her decision to use, or not use, the technology for City Commission meetings. She said she provided information about it along with the procedures for doing so.

“It is not my role with regard to City Commission meetings, which the mayor, city manager, and city clerk are ultimately in charge of,” Bach clarified. “It is not on me that we didn’t use the tools, and I’m a little miffed that I am put in that position because I had absolutely nothing (to do with it), and as soon as I absolutely could – and I’m not going to name names – but at the objection of some, I went ahead and put these rules on the May 5 agenda and got them ready within two days and they were ready to be used. ... I have taken blame for others, but I’m not doing it this time. It is not my fault that we don’t have this.”

Lednovich insisted on knowing who made the decision not to have the technology in place for the City Commission meeting. Mayor Johnny Miller said the decision to use technology allowing for interaction in quasi-judicial procedures was made after a discussion between him, Bach, and City Manager Dale Martin.

Miller went on to say that the public comments period of City Commission meetings is designed to allow the public to address the commission and isn’t a soapbox for people to express their opinions.

“Public comment sometimes is perceived to be comments from the public to the public … that the whole world can hear what they have to say in a public setting,” Miller said. “Public comments … are from the podium to the dais. They are not from the podium to the chamber or the internet or channel 246.

“I do allow people to face the audience and go back and forth. We have pretty famous people that are repeat customers that tend to preach toward the people in here and get reaction. That’s not public comment. If you want to get people’s opinions and get it back and forth in the community, that’s what Facebook is.

“You stand on a carton in the middle of Central Park and express yourself.”

Miller continued, “This is a meeting and we get people’s input to the commission. There is public comment via email. The City Commission meeting is not set up (so) people can talk to the world. Public comment is not the public talking to the public.”

Public comment will return to City Commission meetings, though, on June 2, when the next public meeting will allow for people to be present in the Commission Chambers. Commissioners, staff, and the audience will be distanced as needed.

The commission also discussed the beach, the crowds last weekend, and how the city can prepare for the Memorial Day weekend.

Both Lednovich and Commissioner Chip Ross said they visited Main Beach and the beach at Seaside Park, where an area allows for on-beach parking, noting those beaches and parking lots were filled to overflowing May 15-17. In addition, they noted vehicles becoming stuck and issues with alcohol and littering.

Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley has suggested some solutions, which he explained to the News-Leaderin an email.

“Because of safety concerns and the high number of vehicles getting stuck within the narrow entrance/exit to Sadler Beach we are going back to 4WD/AWD vehicles only, which should help a lot,” Hurley said. “We also plan to reduce the number of cars on and off the beach by limiting the total to 125 vehicles at a time, which will help with social distancing and reduce the logjams. Although very early in the beach season, we have already seen an increase in alcohol on the beach and we have been vigilant in addressing it. We will continue to address this issue over the long weekend and we plan to supplement the beach rangers with sworn police officers to cite violators where appropriate.”

The beach was also at the heart of a discussion about new north end walkovers meant to protect the dunes. The new walkovers do not have ramps, so some residents have complained they cannot get their gear over them and that small children, older individuals, and the disabled cannot easily navigate the walkovers.

Ross said the walkovers need to provide easy access to everyone and accommodate wheeled carts and other beach gear. He added there is no one on city staff who has the expertise to develop a plan that would provide that access while protecting the dunes. Ross suggested leaving the walkovers and walkthrough beach accesses as they are until such a plan can be developed. The commission took no action.

Lifeguards will have a better view of the beach from two new lifeguard towers the city purchased from the National Park Service. The towers cost $2,000 each and the city paid $1,500 to transport them. They will provide shelter for lifeguards, allow a 360-degree view of the beach, and give lifeguards a location to store gear. The towers have been placed at Main Beach and Seaside Park.

The commission approved spending $172,000 for Passero Associates to design a new fire station at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport. Lednovich cautioned against spending the money since the city’s revenue is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but other commissioners said the old station, located in the vicinity of South Fletcher Avenue and Sadler Road, is out of date and unsafe. Ross also said having a substandard station would affect the city’s efforts to recruit quality firefighting personnel. The resolution to pay for the design work passed 4-1, with Lednovich casting the dissenting vote.

Lednovich and Commissioner Phil Chapman also cast dissenting votes against an increase in the rate the city pays Advanced Disposal, which operates the city’s trash and recycling services. Commissioners agreed the service the company has been providing is “substandard,” but said the contract signed by the city says the rate the city pays Advanced will increase according to the Consumer Price Index, which means a 2.95% increase. The ordinance passed 3-2 on first reading but will require a second reading to be final.

In other business, the City Commission:

• Recognized May as Mental Health First Aid Month;

• Approved the contribution of matching funds of $20 to city-based businesses that, through the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce, purchase supplies and equipment to provide safe and sanitary conditions for their staff and customers;

• Authorized the submittal of a historic preservation grant application for $500,000 to help fund repairs to Peck High School;

• Amended the Land Development Code by setting limitations on building height encroachments for properties located within the landward and seaward sides of the Coastal Upland Protection Zone;

• Approved a voluntary annexation petition and the extension of water and sewer services to property located at lots 5 and 6 on Bonnieview Road; and

• Amended the Land Development Code by changing the makeup of the Planning Advisory Board from five to seven members and making appointments to the board in the same way members of other city boards are appointed.