Thursday, May 04, 2017

St Johns County Discriminates Against Indivisible St. Johns

St. Johns County Commissioners, all registered Republicans, said nothing about County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK's viewpoint discrimination, an apparent violation the First Amendment. County Commission voted to allow free use of the World Golf Village Convention Center auditorium for a 2005 anti-Gay hate rally, but won't allow Indivisible St. Johns to use our County Auditorium in 2017.

Controversial St. Johns County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK waited until the end of the day on Tuesday, May 2, 2017 to announce he's discriminating against Indiviisible St. Johns by denying free use of the St. Johns County Administration Building to Indivisble St. Johns. On March 15, 2005, St. Johns County Commissioners allowed free use of the County's 1800 seat World Golf Village Convention Center to an anti-Gay Nuremberg style hate rally presided over by former UNESCO Ambassador Alan Keyes. I told Commissioners about this after Indivisible St. Johns members spoke. Nothing was said until the end of the day (see Jake Martin's story from The St. Augustine Record).

Not one peep from County Commissioners, who said nothing to WANCHICK's ukase. All five County Commissioners are registered Republicans. So is St. Johns County political boss DAVID SHOAR, who changed his name from "HOAR in 1994 and was elected Sheriff in 2004, raising boatloads of money from developers.

Denying a liberal group county space while allowing it for an anti-Gay group is a stench in the nostrils of our Nation. It is viewpoint discrimination, unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment. This stinks, Commissioners. County Attorney PATRICK FRANCIS McCORMaCK,w where is your legal research on this issue?

Posted May 4, 2017 12:01 am - Updated May 4, 2017 05:51 am
County Commission roundup: County denies Indivisible St. Johns’ request to use auditorium

St. Johns County administration on Tuesday denied Indivisible St. Johns’ request to use the county auditorium for an upcoming meeting. The decision came during the commission meeting’s closing reports and with no objections by the board.

During general public comment at the start of the meeting, Mary Lawrence, an organizer of Indivisible St. Johns, made her group’s case to use the facility on Monday.

Commissioners on Saturday received advance notice via email from Lawrence that her organization would seek permission to use the space. Lawrence also told The Record on Tuesday she had reached out to County Administrator Michael Wanchick in February and decided to redirect her request to commissioners after “getting nowhere.”

Lawrence told commissioners the group is nonpartisan and self-funded and that most of its money goes to hall rentals, insurance and permits. She said previous meetings at the Willie Galimore Recreation Center and the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall have put a strain on the group’s finances. She also said meetings are always announced and open to the general public.

She said with 400 people on the email list and a Facebook page with more than 700 followers, the group’s two previous general meetings have drawn around 400 people.

She said organizers “never anticipated such huge support” and that there is a lack of large venues for the group to meet as a whole.

“We feel as taxpayers that the facility should be available to large civic associations for a nominal fee,” she wrote in her email to commissioners. Wanchick later in the meeting said the Administrative Code, under which his office operates, says the room is reserved for the commission’s use. He said the board can make the space available to other government organizations or county-sanctioned or county-sponsored agencies, or those agencies that operate under the rule of the state’s Sunshine Law.

“And that’s what we’ve confined it to, almost exclusively,” Wanchick said, acknowledging that an exception to the rule is the League of Women Voters.

“They’re promoting county elections,” he continued. “That’s been a long-standing thing, years prior to my ever being here. I think that’s the one notable exception … My concern is always one of setting precedent because once you let one group in, you’ve got to let other groups in.”

Wanchick said when the county opens the room to others at a low cost, it’s creating costs for the county associated with security, building maintenance, sanitation and keeping the lights on, while also competing with the private sector. He said the county has turned down similar requests in the past.

Lawrence on Wednesday said the group will have its meeting 7-9 p.m. Monday at Pedro Menendez High School for an estimated cost of $750, including insurance costs.

Commissioner Jay Morris said he didn’t want to “open Pandora’s box” by allowing political organizations to meet in the space, never mind his concerns about financing low-cost rentals.

“You’ve got other places you can go if you want to go there,” he said.

Commission Chairman Jimmy Johns echoed those sentiments and said venues like the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve have opened their facilities to local groups.

Wanchick said the policy has served the county well because it keeps the room available for county functions. In addition to the Board of County Commissioners, there are several volunteer boards, such as the Planning and Zoning Board, that make use of the space.

Matthew-related expenses

Commissioners approved three Hurricane Matthew-related items on Tuesday.

Unanimous approval was granted for reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state for emergency protective measures taken before, during and after the storm.

The county incurred costs of about $1.8 million for overtime and activation time, as well as purchase and/or rental of supplies, materials and equipment. The county stands to receive about $1.4 million from FEMA and $235,000 from the state, with the rest coming out of county reserves.

Commissioner Jeb Smith was alone in dissent to adding three full-time positions to deal with the ongoing reimbursement process with FEMA as well as the Community Block Development Grant program for disaster recovery assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Wanchick said he didn’t want to risk facing de-obligation of funds years down the line just because the county didn’t add the positions needed to handle the processes properly. He said the big picture is the county is pursuing about $150 million in reimbursements and disaster recovery assistance from state and federal agencies, which have specific requirements regarding procurement and project management.

The county expects the positions will be at least partially reimbursable through FEMA as well as through the CDBG process.

Commissioners also unanimously approved another task order worth more than $2.9 million with Ardurra Group that will keep the Louisiana-based consultant on board for another year as the county works its way through the reimbursement process. The county expects Ardurra’s time will be eligible for reimbursement through FEMA.

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