— Steve’s Marketplace —
Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.
Fernandina Beach city commissioners spent Tuesday afternoon putting out self-started fires, without having to summon firefighters. These were political fires, blazing with controversy and emotion.
About 50 residents – some angry, others just concerned – congregated inside and outside City Hall to protest punitive actions by the building department. Some spoke for their three allotted minutes. Others voiced opinions on handheld signs on the lawn outside City Hall.
Builders, engineers and architects alike came out, along with ordinary citizens. They formed a coalition to demand changes to the building department’s conduct, policies and enforcement. They didn’t get many reassurances, unfortunately.
The workshop even started off disjointedly. Attendees overflowed the confines of the commission chambers, so some were instructed to move outside willingly. Or else they would be escorted out by police. City officials used virus-related excuses as the justification, or maybe it was a deterrent.
Some speakers called for the city building department to be disbanded and/or merged into the county’s efficient operation. Others criticized building officials and city officials themselves. You wonder why it had to come to this, however. The frustration has been brewing like a Mocama beer.
Unfortunately for the concerned citizens, several high-ranking city officials have voiced support for the building supervisor and his department. So when commissioners instructed the city manager to come back in a few weeks with remedies, you doubt what effort will be made. A new oversight board was suggested, but this is simply another layer of government.
Nevertheless, “I think we made good progress,” said Regina Duncan, the president of the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce. “We’ll continue to work with the city.”
The Chamber truly inserted itself into the opposition. Through a survey, the Chamber solicited responses from builders, businesses and residents who had interactions with the building department. The responses were overwhelmingly negative about varying degrees of unprofessional, heavy-handed enforcement.
Following the workshop on the shortcomings of the building department, commissioners launched right into a hearing on a revised noise ordinance. A “Save the Music” protest about the over-enforcement of the noise ordinance drew close to 100 people several weeks ago.
Protestors have recently become commonplace at city meetings. This is not normal. You question whether commissioners are representing the people, or ruling them.
While city commissions in other towns might be focused on substantive, big-picture items, not so here. The time is being wasted on problems created by city officials and staff. Like the building department fiasco, and the harassment of downtown businesses about live music.
The reading of the new noise ordinance was downright comical. City officials debated decibels and distances and parameters, and which codes applied to what situation. Meanwhile, competition for the city’s shops, restaurants, bars, etc. is coming from the west like a CSX locomotive. Look at the expansive, luxurious developments like Wildlight.
“People aren’t going to be bothered with the city if there are other alternatives,” says one former city official.
Here’s a fiery issue that matters. Local businesses cannot find employees who want to work, so they are chronically understaffed right now. Why not work with city businesses – not against them – to address hot-button issues like this? Before it becomes a four-alarm fire.
Steve Nicklas is a financial adviser with a regional brokerage firm who lives and works on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in North Florida and in South Georgia, and on his website at SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected].