A City Commission candidate forum hosted Thursday evening by the Fernandina Observer, the leading local source for news and opinion (www.fernandinaobserver.com), was long on polite commentary and short on details on how best to improve the community – and pay for the polish.
While the five candidates, who are competing in two groups for two available spots on the board in the Nov. 7 election, agreed that the marina, which was significantly damaged last year by Hurricane Matthew, needs to be repaired, the two-minute time limit on responses hindered thoughtful discussion.
For example, incumbent Tim Poynter said the city has room to make improvements but he couldn’t offer specific information because the timekeeper in the back of the commission chambers at City Hall—where the forum took place, waved a red flag to indicate it was time to stop talking.
Additionally, candidate Medardo Monzon could not say how he would return the municipal golf course to profitability because he timed out while discussing how to return the marina to profitability.
Candidate Ronald “Chip” Ross said the community has a broad talent pool but it can’t be effectively tapped when speakers at public meetings are given two or three minutes to offer ideas or share concerns about complex and pressing issues.
Candidate Phil Chapman has made listening central to his campaign platform and he underscored this commitment in his slogan: “I will listen to you.”
Candidate Orlando Avila said he would hold “coffee shop” discussions with constituents, if elected. But he also said there can be too much discussion. According to Mr. Avila, the city “workshops issues to death.”
While candidates acknowledged that the current board has taken major steps forward on big projects, including redevelopment of the downtown waterfront along the Amelia River, there has also been a long delay in activity as the city waits for federal funding to support marina repairs.
Mr. Poynter said the city was expected to receive $7 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and chose not to “gamble” on making repairs that may not have qualified for funding.
“No one was going to risk $7 million,” he said.
Mr. Poynter did not offer information on how much the community has lost in economic activity over the last year as the marina, including the fuel dock—a major revenue stream for the facility—languished. Without this information, it is impossible to know if the city would’ve been best served by moving forward without help from Washington.
Mr. Chapman, who is Mr. Poynter’s sole challenger in Group 2, also did not offer any detail on lost revenues. Downtown business owners and charter boat captains have repeatedly complained to officials about their financial losses due to the marina’s closure.
Mr. Chapman called the city marina “the gateway to the world” and said it should be the community’s “crown jewel.”
“Unfortunately, our gem is a little tarnished,” he said.
None of the candidates mentioned a position on the city’s Main Street program, a three –year effort to improve the downtown business district. It is in turmoil. The organization’s enthusiastic and well-respected executive director Jeff Kurtz has recently announced his resignation effective Oct. 27 with a year left on the agreement. The program required commission approval and their okay of spending $120,000 of taxpayer money to fund the program. Mr. Kurtz routinely offered forward progress reports to the board with feedback that largely amounted to, ‘Thank you Jeff’ – at least in public meetings. Former City Mayor Arlene Filkoff, who serves on the Main Street board, will serve as interim director, according to an announcement she released Thursday afternoon.
Mr. Ross criticized city spending of $11,000 on a consultant, who met privately with commissioners about their thoughts on waterfront redevelopment–a move that ultimately led to the consultant’s professional plans to be scuttled. Questions were also raised about whether the meetings were appropriate.
In addition to Group 2 candidates, including Mr. Chapman and Mr. Poynter, the forum featured Group 3 candidates who are running for the seat being vacated by Mayor Robin Lentz, who is not seeking re-election. The Group 3 candidates are Mr. Avila, Mr. Monzon, and Mr. Ross. Voters will have opportunity to select one candidate from each group to represent them on the board.
Larry Meyers, a former government administrator who worked as a legislative assistant to State Senator Aaron Bean, served as the event moderator.*
Another candidate forum is planned for Oct. 26 at the city golf club at 2800 Bill Melton Rd. at 6:00 p.m. The event is to be hosted by the Fernandina Beach Womens’ Golf Association and Mens Golf Association, according to an announcement distributed by Golf Course Manager Steve Murphy.
Additional comments from candidates at the FO forum follow, in alphabetical order by Group.
Phil Chapman regularly attends City Commission meetings and said he often hears people heading out of the meeting say the board did not listen to their concerns.
“I want to change that,” he said.
Mr. Chapman said the commission must do a better job explaining their voting decisions.
“So it’s not: ‘All in Favor?’ Aye, Aye, Aye,” he said.
Mr. Chapman, a retired educator who moved to Fernandina Beach 14 years ago and works part time at a local hardware store, said the city can control development. But the city, he said, doesn’t always follow the rules. He said the right-of-way on Citrona Dr. has been ignored and the marina has not yet been repaired.
Mr. Chapman said the city ignores the “ripple effect” of its actions – or inaction – and must pay attention to the impact decisions will have on the community in five and 10 years. “I don’t think that always happens,” he said.
Mr. Chapman said he would improve marina facilities for transient boaters, including a place to walk dogs, dispose of trash, and clean up after a long ride on the water. “Where’s the shower room?” he said.
Speaking of showers, Mr. Chapman implied that the city is too big and must take an honest look at its size.
Mr. Chapman said the city can restore the golf course to profitability by making a “quality” course and getting kids interested in the game. He said he doesn’t want the course to become a trailer park. (That was once proposed.)
In a response to question about any misconception he’d like to correct about himself, Mr. Chapman said, “I’m basically an unknown.”
Mr. Chapman, who serves on the Parks and Recreation advisory board and steps to the public speaker podium to share concerns, said, “I don’t know how to get my face out there.”
Should he be elected, Mr. Chapman said he wants citizens to hold him accountable.
“You make sure I behave,” he said.
Tim Poynter said he wants to make the city a better place to live than when he arrived here 18 years ago. “It’s really not any more complicated than that,” he said.
Mr. Poynter said he listens to constituents and that he routinely receives calls and emails from local residents. He said the city is moving in the “right direction” and of course he supports the City Commission. “I’m part of the solution,” he said. “It’s a complicated city with a lot of moving parts.”
Mr. Poynter said the City Commission has “a lot” of discussion and he offers commentary on how he is going to vote. Remarks that the board isn’t listening to the public leaves him puzzled. “I’m a little confused,” he said.
Regarding any rubber stamp approvals, Mr. Poynter said commissioners must support issues on the city’s ‘consent agenda’ and that there are issues on which the board has no oversight.
“You don’t get to be king. When it’s over, it’s over,” he said. “We don’t sue. We don’t complain. We move on.”
Mr. Poynter said he has no interest in getting rid of the golf course, which has been losing money for years. “Government doesn’t have to make money,” he said.
As for the marina, he said: “the marina is our heritage.”
Mr. Poynter, who owns two popular restaurants on N. 3rd St. in downtown Fernandina, including Café Karibo and Timoti’s Seafood Shak, said he wants people to know that he works hard and comes to meetings well prepared. He invites the public each month to meet him at Café Karibo to share concerns and ideas about any and all matters. He serves (tasty and warm) cookies and has carafes of iced water on hand. The meetings are often held on the restaurant’s back patio near a charmingly quirky fireplace.
“I do my work in the best interest of the community,” he said.
Orlando Avila said he and his wife found their “dream home” in the city in 2014 and he is running for the commission to make the city a great place to live for his four children. Previously, he lived in Yulee.
Mr. Avila called parks and recreation an important “quality of life” issue and said the city should plan for improvements at facilities that will need upgrades, such as the Atlantic Recreation Center. “There are things down the road we have to plan for,” he said.
Mr. Avila said the city can improve the permitting process for citizens and business owners. “There has to be a way to make it a better government,” he said.
Mr. Avila, who is a member of the Fernandina Maritime Exchange, said government should be self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Since government relies on property taxes, assessments, and fees to function, he didn’t explain how that would happen. In a handout provided by the Observer on candidate position statements, Mr. Avila said he is a proponent of public/private partnerships, including the waterfront.
Mr. Avila said the city golf course needs to do more marketing and should seek help from hotels and the Tourist Development Council. “We have to be creative,” he said.
He said the city should consider repurposing land at the golf course, perhaps with other recreational activities. “It’s going to cost money,” he said.
With regard to correcting misperceptions, Mr. Avila said “some folks think I’m going to be a shill” for the port and school board because of his work in the maritime industry and friendship with top school officials. He said he could separate business from personal relationships.
“This isn’t Facebook. This is real life,” he said.
Mr. Avila also said, “I’m not for clear-cutting trees and putting up Mcmansions.”
Medardo Monzon, a chemist with a corporate leadership background, said he is retiring at the end of the year and is running for the commission to help the city solve the city’s “complex issues.” Mr. Monzon said he supports every commissioner who serves on the board and believes they have had the community’s “best intentions at heart.”
Mr. Monzon said he has met with residents and has heard that wetlands, the airport, and the marina are important concerns. He said his corporate experience managing people and budgets has taught him how to work collaboratively. He said he wants taxes to remain “as low as possible.” He said the city should take a “different look” at its enterprise funds, including the marina.
When asked about the city’s “biggest opportunity,” Mr. Monzon said, “You said the questions wouldn’t be difficult.” The comment drew chuckles from people in the audience, and perhaps those watching online. The meeting, recorded by Clerk Caroline Best, was streamed live and is available for viewing on the city website (www.fbfl.us) for up to two years, according to an announcement. The city site has been newly designed but largely features the same content, according to Public Information Officer Mary Hamburg in a recent email.
Mr. Monzon said his life is an “open book” and that a small group of people think he was paid to support Rayonier Advanced Materials when the company proposed last year partnering with an international firm on a heavy industrial manufacturing facility along the Amelia River, just south of its mill at the foot of Gum St. Mr. Monzon said he was not paid by RAYM to support LignoTech Florida. He said he made a decision at age 13 after a family tragedy to always act ethically and with integrity.
Mr. Monzon recognized how people might think he sides with the company. Mr. Monzon was allowed to give a 30-minute presentation to the City Commission supporting the proposed industrial facility (scheduled to open in 2018) and its benefits to the environment. The presentation included information on the company’s efficient manufacturing process, though Mr. Monzon admitted he did not know all of the chemicals RAYM used. It was a flattering PowerPoint and RAYM executives watched from the audience without commentary.
Ronald “Chip” Ross, a medical doctor who works in the emergency room at Baptist Nassau, said he is running to maintain Fernandina’s character and not a new version of what some people want it to be. He said he is committed to preserving wetlands, open space, and the tree canopy.
Mr. Ross said the city’s plans to open Alachua St. at Front St. to improve the flow of downtown traffic may not be worth the estimated $800,000 price tag. He suggested the installation of a pedestrian walkway at a cost of $30,000.
Mr. Ross said city residents are concerned about safety and he suggested the city improve its streetscapes by adding sidewalks and lighting.
Mr. Ross said the cost of the city’s new terminal at the airport has ballooned over the last year by some $2 million, to $4.1 million. “I do not believe (the new building) will help the citizens of Fernandina Beach,” he said.
Mr. Ross said the city’s emergency services are good. He has concerns about having hazardous materials in the flood plain.
Mr. Ross said he would like to discuss programs for kids at the golf course and he would “never support” rezoning the municipal property to be rezoned for residential housing. (That idea has been kicked around as a way to generate revenue.)
Mr. Ross said he knows that he has a reputation as a “troublemaker” and an “activist.” He frequently challenges city officials in public presentations, including the new airport terminal, Kinder Morgan’s plans to ship coal at the Port of Fernandina, and storing hazardous materials on the flood plain. Mr. Ross is currently challenging the city in administrative hearings on its approval for a developer to build on wetlands for a significant parcel at Lime St. and S. 14th St.
“Many people think I’m litigious,” he said. “When people think government is wrong, they have a right to speak.”
*Ahead of the forum, the Independent asked Mr. Meyers to comment on Sen. Bean’s effort to secure $1 million from the legislature last year in recurring annual funding for Nassau County Tax Collector John Drew’s family business Florida Psychological Associates. He refused, saying the topic was “too hot” to discuss.
Mr. Drew, who served as Mr. Bean’s campaign manager, is also a close friend of the senator’s.
Earlier this year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran looked into the $1 million funding for FPA and determined the company’s effort to provide mental healthcare screening at schools and courthouses in Nassau, Duval, and Clay Counties was a waste of money. Mr. Corcoran ended the funding, which Sen. Bean quietly helped funnel through Florida State University’s medical school.