Freshman St Augustine City Commissioner Roxanne Horvath led the Focus 2015 Vision Plan workshop this morning; attended by about twenty-seven citizens, city department heads, city manager, assistant city manager, city attorney, assistant city attorney, and the city clerk.
Mayor Joseph L. Boles, Jr., called the two-hour meeting to order at 9:30 a.m. then turned to Horvath to introduce her proposal for a plan to update the nearly twenty-year-old vision plan for the city — in total about 167 typed pages prepared by a grassroots group of local citizens and adopted by the city commission under the administration of former mayor, Greg Baker.
Horvath announced that there would be no public comment, as is common for commission workshops; but, at the insistence of Vice-Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline, when the meeting concluded about twenty-five minutes early, the remainder of the time was offered to anyone in the audience who wished to speak. Five members of the public addressed the commissioners with their comments for three-minutes each.
The agenda for the meeting provided for ten discussion items by the commissioners, with limited input requested at certain points from the city manager and city attorney. Each Commissioner made an opening statement of their priorities and listed issues that they see as important to the future of St Augustine.
Commissioner Leanna Freeman brought up underground utilities and infrastructure related issues that included improved pedestrian flow, increased use of bicycles, especially at times when congestion is at its peak, paying greater attention to the impact of congestion and events on local residents in order to be sure that taxpayers enjoy the highest quality of life possible, attention to environment and green initiatives, as well as facilitating communication between businesses and non-profit organizations in addressing social issues like homelessness.
Vice-Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline had four topics of interest; preservation plans that address the preservation of city-owned properties ranked highest, followed by maintaining a responsive and transparent city government, transportation issues and sustainability — pointing out that any direction planned for the city will only succeed if livable conditions are maintained for local residents.
Interim commissioner Don Crichlow stated that the city does not have a historical plan, but rather an “architectural marketing plan”. Agreeing that his goal would be to insure that St Augustine remains a “livable city” for its residents, he pointed out, in his vision, the city has to accept that there are many architectural styles and should not limit construction to only Colonial Spanish, or any single period; but, should embrace all periods in our history in order to be successful. Crichlow, who is an architect by trade, lost a battle against the city planning and zoning board when he tried to obtain approval of a plan to rebuild the “Bishop’s building” at the corner of St George Street and Cathedral Place because its appearance was “too 19th-20th century” and thought to clash with some other’s vision for that part of town.
Mayor Boles presented a list that was a bit longer, beginning with finding revenue sources that don’t rely solely on ad valorem taxes. City Manager, John Regan, pointed out that the city’s enterprise fund, supported by revenue from the sale of water and sewer services, was the only way, besides grants, to accomplish that. City Attorney Ron Brown clarified that the city is not in the same position as the county to levy taxes according to Florida law. “We can’t just create another tax,” Brown said. Boles had used, as an example, a recent visit to Boston where he said that three separate taxes applied to his travel expenses. One example Boles used was a “beverage tax” asking, rhetorically, “Are you really not going to buy another beer because it costs an extra nickel?”
Boles also said that he felt education for commissioners and those who would sit on an executive committee was essential to success of any process that will lead to an updated plan — pointing out that formulation of the original vision plan was the result of a grassroots citizen initiative, not an appointed board or one controlled by the commission. The meetings twenty years ago had no obligation to comply with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws which include public notice of meetings, detailed minutes, and prohibition of conversations between participants about the plan. Brown agreed that with today’s technology, records will be an issue — communications by e-mail, text message, or posts to twitter or facebook pages about the plan will all be subject to disclosure and must be properly preserved for that purpose.
Regan interjected that this year’s budget includes $25,000 for “visioning”, although he speculated that amount may not be enough to cover the cost. The commissioners seemed to reach consensus that Regan, alone, could not effectively manage this project and that a professional, paid “facilitator” was needed. Regan would be responsible for administration of the process, however, he pointed out that he can delegate specific parts of that responsibility to various departments within the city.
Coming back to the agenda, it was not decided exactly how far into the future the vision plan should attempt to reach. Some felt that twenty years was probably too long, others mentioned that ten years may have been more appropriate given all of the changes that have occurred during the past two decades.
In plans suggested by Horvath, each commissioner would submit two names for appointment to a steering committee under each of ten main topics. The commissioner suggested that one of the appointees to each focus group should be a local resident while the second should be a business owner.
Based on discussion, it was recognized by the commissioners that the new facilitator might have their own plan as to how best to organize the participants, so no final decision was reached. There was consensus among the commissioners that participation in the steering committee or any of the focus groups should include stakeholders, but not be limited to city residents or taxpayers. Boles stated that St Augustine’s business owners pay higher taxes on their commercial properties than residential property owners; however, like city employees, many no longer live within the city limits.
Commissioner Horvath said that the new Vision Plan should be a “birthday present to the city,” drawing from her suggested timeline for completion of the plan in 2015.
The focus groups suggested include:
1. Arts and culture
2. Economic development
3. Historic resources
4. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic systems
5. Public safety
6. Recreation and leisure
7. Residential and housing
8. Tourism and visitor management
9. Funding and finance
There was discussion about how to get the community involved; including holding Town Hall meetings, providing an Internet site with questionnaires or surveys, and reaching out to the neighborhood organizations.
It was agreed that the Vision Plan should assess where we are, look for gaps, and look for areas of improvement and that action plans should have prioritized, defined goals that can be measured. A facilitator should be someone designated to drive the implementation of the goals and measure and report the outcomes.
Public speakers included Ed Slavin, who says he already has a suggestion for a facilitator, Ari Lamme of Gainesville. Other suggestions were to open the “think tank” to the world through a wiki page, a ten-year plan similar to the City of St Augustine Beach charter review plan, including OSHA protection for certain employees, diversity, inclusion of a national seashore in future plans, and criticism for a plan voiced by county commissioner Ron Sanchez during yesterday’s meeting to convert State Park property in the Amphitheatre parking lot into a public parking garage.
Judith Wilmont offered suggestions regarding pedestrian walkways or overpasses for Ponce de Leon Boulevard that might link with existing bicycle paths, such as at SR-207 and US-1 South.
Melinda Rakoncay said that it is important to include neighborhood councils in the process to keep the public informed and to foster public participation. She did not like the appointment of committees saying that after individuals are appointed, others with good ideas tend to feel “left out” and end up withdrawing from the process. Rakoncay has worked with the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood on several high profile issues including imminent domain for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, and, most recently, in objection to the construction of a 7-Eleven store and gas station at the intersection of May Street and San Marco Avenue.
Pat Riley said that she had read the entire 167-page legacy document but that future versions needed to be streamlined so that others will. She supports the idea of an outside facilitator to provide structure and encouraged the use of Internet, social media and other methods to keep everyone informed.
Martha Mickler, a participant in the 1995 Vision Plan process, spoke to show support for moving forward with an updated plan and retaining an outside facilitator.
The next meeting will plan to include public comments, and is tentatively set for Monday, November 4, 2013 from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. Staff will present options to the commissioners for a facilitator; including choices between entering an agreement with an organization like the Northeast Florida Regional Council, the Florida League of Cities, or selection of an individual paid professional planner and facilitator.