Tuesday, July 26, 2011

St. Augustine Record Still Mum on National Historical Park and National Seashore, Neglects to Cover Emerging Democracy on City Commission

Real newspapers lead their readers to learn more about their world, from City Hall to the Courthouse to the White House.

Real newspapers lead their communities to change for the better.

Real newspapers expose and fight wrongdoing, remembering that Justice Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Real newspapers “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Real newspapers file Open Records and Freedom of Information Act requests. If stymied, they don’t take “no” for an answer – they appeal and sue and work tirelessly, doggedly to inform their readers.

Then there is the St. Augustine Record, which sadly is no longer functioning much like a real newspaper in this down economy. Nearly run into the ground by the Morris family of Augusta, Georgia, the Record has seen declining news room budgets, declining full-time equivalent reporters and declining space for news (the “news hole,” in journalese).

Led down the primrose path by the infamous Morris Communications empire, the WRecKord’s editors and reporters are burned out. Are they bored, or not allowed to report about citizens when we make our government responsive? Why is the Record still seemingly currying favor with government employee apparatchiks, like Paul Williamson and Tim Burchfield? See Peter Guinta’s story, above. When will the Record cover all of the news, including citizen participation?

Last night, senior reporter Peter Guinta put his notebook on the chair beside him, taking nary a note, while the City’s abortive plan to waste money on an $8500 table was debated and trounced – and the City’s effort to raise our taxes failed on a tie 2-2 vote. Guinta’s story read like it was written by Williamson, making it sound like a bad idea that City Commission did not raise our taxes last night.

I asked Commissioners to reject it a proposal for an $8500 table and talk of “reconfiguring” the Commission meeting room at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. I asked them to “table the table.” They did it. The “table was tabled.” The Record did not report it (see above), although former Mayor George Gardner did so in his City Hall newsletter today, and controversial former Commission candidate (and government contractor) Michael Gold wrote about it on his blog, Historic City News, using “table the table” in his headline. (Credit goes to Gold for opposing the $8500 table ab initio).

The table was a dumb idea – the City could get one free. Lack of imagination in City purchasing officials still persists – they need to sharpen their pencils and stop wasting money on flubdubs.

After a briefing by architect Jerry Dixon, all four City Commissioners present and voting agreed unanimously that there was no rush to spend tens of thousands of dollars – as architect Jerry Dixon suggested – to put City Commissioners on a raised platform, as if they were Spanish royalty, which would have required ramps or lifts for disabled persons.

Dixon seemed out of touch with average citizens as he proposed spending tens of thousands of dollars to make the Commission meeting room less secure, with the Commissioners’ backs literally up against the windows. Dixon acted as if WILLIAM B. HARRISS were still the City Manager, and money could be wasted without Commission and public scrutiny. Those days are over. Democracy has broken out.

But old habits die hard for some officials – City Commissioner Errol Jones thrice said the City’s current table was “very eloquent (sic).” Jones said the word “eloquent” thrice. Jones reportedly has a Master’s Degree and is the former “Dean of Students” (e.g., disciplinarian) at St. Augustine High School. When WILLIAM B. HARRISS was City Manager, Jones often and loudly defended every single controversial former City Manager HARRISS’ works and pomps to the point of insulting neighborhood residents, whether the subject was Amerigas trucks on Leonardi Street, illegal dumping in our Old City Reservoir, or the evisceration of the beautiful former Ponce de Leon Golf Course, which Commissioners annexed and allowed developer Chester Stokes to destroy in the name of mindless real estate speculation.

Commissioner William Leary agreed with Jones that it was an “elegant table” and an “elegant room,” but he and Commissioners Nancy Sikes-Kline said the City need not waste any more money on flubdubs.

Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline later said of the elegant (or “eloquent”) St. Augustine City Commission table, in place since 1972, “if only this table could talk.”

The Record failed to appreciate the significance of Monday night’s vote – there is now a functioning democracy on the City Commission. No longer does the City Manager function as a dictator, with absolute power, electing and funding candidates and exercising a Philistine’s veto on projects (as HARRIS did on the Civil Rights Footsoldiers Monument).

No longer does the St. Augustine City Manager violate Sunshine laws, “polling” Commissioners to see how they will vote. You can see the spontaneity at City Commission meetings now.

Watching the St. Augustine City Commission grow into a functioning democracy last night, I was proud of our public officials. Much has changed in a few short years.

The evolving St. Augustine City Commission is something to be proud of, not ashamed of. The situation reminds me of how proud I was to see the Anastasia Mosquito Control Commission grow with new leadership (Jeanne Moeller, John Sundeman, Janice Bequette and Catherine Brandhorst, et al.)

Once citizens become active, speak out and elect candidates, we must keep them honest by attending meetings and speaking out – thanking them when they do a good job and asking them to do better.

Check out former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham’s excellent 2010 book “America – the Owner’s Manual – Making Government Work for You.”

As evidence of the sea change in City Hall, Folio Weekly today awarded City Commissioner William Leary a “bouquet” for his work on beautification for the 450th – encouraging people and businesses to do it without government expense.

Foreign-funded developers and their enablers once ruled the roost in St. Augustine City Hall. When WILLIAM HARRISS (a/k/a “WILL HARASS”) was City Manager, our City government did things that would gag a maggot – like destroying a 3000-4000 year old Indian village archeological site next to St. Augustine High School. Why? Controversial New York developer ROBERT MICHAEL GRUBARD asked them to do so. When HARRISS was City Manager, citizens were threatened for participating in their government, and treated with disrespect, ridicule and disdain (as we were so often treated on matters of environmental pollution).

With new City Manager John Regan, there has been a sea change – City Hall is listening to people and working to be a good steward. “It takes a village” – every citizen of St. Augustine deserves credit. We did it. We had what Andrew Young calls “soul force.”

Our ideas have prevailed – the same ideals with which our Founders established this country 235 years ago. We now have a City government that increasingly inspires pride, not embarrassment. Not unlike a possum, we have awakened in a new world.

Congratulations, St. Augustine residents – your government is no longer working against you – it is listening. Peoples’ concerns are being heard and heeded.

We stopped a City tax increase last night. And we “tabled the table.”

Next, there will be budget workshops and hearings. This time, we expect that our questions will be answered.

In 2007, working with the advice of three (3) accountants and many knowledgeable City residents, I propounded some 140 questions on the City’s gold-plated budget. The questions were not answered. The questions were not acknowledged. Some City Commissioners said I asked “too many questions.” The Record ignored the questions, and demanded no answers.

Tatterdemalion City Manager HARRISS never even thanked us for our efforts to build a better budget.

Sadly, WILLIAM B. HARRIS was an habitual violator of the First Amendment and was repeatedly found by federal courts to have violated free speech rights – of artists, entertainers, Gays, Lesbians and others. We’re glad he “retired.”

This time, we expect a new ballgame – our City Hall works for us (and not the way around). Expect City officials to ask questions, and hear answers.

It’s our money.

Now, if only the St. Augustine Record would provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of government meetings, quote citizens who speak, and cover all sides of every issue – that would be greatly appreciated. It is time for the Record to treat its readers as adults to be informed and inspired.

And why is the Record still mum on the proposal for a St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, which it first reported in June 1939 – 72 years ago --, when it was proposed in Congress by United States Senators Claude Pepper and Charles Andrews and U.S. Rep. Joseph Hendricks, with support of St. Augustine’s then-Mayor Walter Frazier.

For years, the St. Augustine Record has never written a news story about it, and refuses to take an editorial position in favor of it. Why?

I still believe in a place called Hope, and it is called St. Augustine. Expect the unexpected. Controversial Michael Gold has performed a public service by exposing proposed waste (by a City government that once gave his family business no-bid uniform contracts). Thomas Jefferson believed in the perfectability of humankind. Our planet’s major religious traditions teach forgiveness.

Now, in that spirit, it is not too much to expect that the St. Augustine Record can support healing and growth by publicizing and supporting the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore. www.staugustgreen.com

It is not too much to expect that the Record will report and editorialize on the park, which promises to save our economy, create jobs, celebrate our 450th anniversary and provide lasting environmental protection for future generations, preserving wildlife, marshes, beaches and forests forever?

Is that too much to ask?

What do you reckon?

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