Monday, May 02, 2016

Public Comment on ALL Agenda Items at St. Augustine City Commission, please.

Excellent column by Stephen Cottrell in today's St. Augustine Record, agreeing with the simple request for equal access to public comment on all agenda items, as at St. Johns County Commission, St. Augustine Beach City Commission, Anastasia Mosquito Control Commission of St. Johns County, etc.:

Steve Cottrell - Public occurrences:
St. Augustine still stifles public input
Posted: May 1, 2016 - 7:31pm | Updated: May 2, 2016 - 12:00am

Every so often a public official says something that pleasantly surprises me, and that was certainly the case when Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline made a particularly refreshing comment during the April 24 St. Augustine City Commission meeting.

Following an informative presentation that outlined a pending citywide mobility study, Sikes-Kline said how pleased she was that Littlejohn Engineering & Associates, the folks hired to conduct the study, were recommending a citizen task force be created to help identify local mobility issues — to include traffic, parking, events, flooding and other items affecting this community’s livability.

“I’m very delighted to hear that you’re making a recommendation to have a task force,” Sikes-Kline told Littlejohn representative Joel Graeff. “I think it will make sense for us, because citizens will be involved instead of politicians.

It will actually be the people involved in the community, and that’s a good way to work.”

Wow! A public official applauding public participation. That’s great.

But if public involvement is so important, why was discussion of the proposed mobility study — an agenda item that lasted for more than an hour — not open to public input?

Yes, residents could have addressed the study at the beginning of the meeting during the public comment period, in advance of the presentation, but I believe they should have been able to share their thoughts with commissioners after consultants and city staff had completed their presentations and commissioners had offered their own comments and asked their own questions.

Why do commissioners keep insisting they want greater involvement of residents, but conduct their meetings with a policy that restricts what they claim they want? It makes no sense.

Later, during the April 24 meeting, commissioners discussed a proposed 10-year extension for development of the long-delayed Sebastian Inland Harbor project bordered by Riberia Street to the east, the distillery to the south and San Sebastian River to the west.

Modifying the existing agreement in order to give the developer a 2027 completion date requires an enabling ordinance.

A first reading of that ordinance was held, but no public input was allowed during the commission discussion. Public input, if there is to be any, will be allowed only at the second reading.

But if that input leads to substantive changes in the proposed ordinance language, it will be necessary to rewrite the ordinance and then conduct another first and second reading.

Staff did an excellent job explaining pros and cons of granting the extension, but maybe neighbors and nearby business owners would have had something to add to the discussion after hearing staff’s report and commission questions.

Maybe they would have had their own questions of staff: maybe even a worthwhile suggestion or two.

After staff’s presentation, Commissioner Leanna Freeman said, “I look forward to discussing it after we’ve heard public comment, and after we’ve had a full discussion of it.”

She went on to say, “I feel a little uncomfortable jumping into to the meat of it until we’ve heard from the public, so I’m inclined to move this on to a second reading.”

As mentioned above, however, if substantive changes result from residents’ input during the second reading’s public hearing, the ordinance will need to be modified — followed by a new first reading and second reading.

So what’s my point, you ask?

My point is that the city commission needs to start embracing public input on all agenda items. It needs to actively (and sincerely) engage the public while items are being discussed and decisions being made.

Waiting until a second reading of an ordinance for public input is, in my opinion, bad government policy.

And not taking any resident input whatsoever during the business portion of a meeting, unless it is legally required for a public hearing, is also bad government policy.

I know, I know — increased public input will mean longer meetings and allow certain people to go to the microphone more often than some commissioners might like, but so what?

If longer meetings pose a burden to any current commissioners, or to anyone planning to run for the office later this year, maybe they should find another way to contribute to the community.

Maybe they could volunteer for the citizen-based mobility task force.

Contact Cottrell at

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