Citizen boards: For better or worse


350-TRANSPARENCYHistoric City News readers know that the REAL power and control in the City of St Augustine is not floating around the offices of City Hall; arguably a dozen of the City’s most influential men and women, who have more power and impact on the day-to-day activities of our residents, property owners, business and professionals, and they aren’t even paid — as far as we know.

You don’t vote for them, they self-nominate, and then, they are appointed by a majority of the five elected city commissioners. The vetting process, if any is undertaken at all, is cursory at best. In many cases, since the positions do not pay a salary, don’t get City health insurance, can’t participate in the City pension plan, or enjoy other perks extended to staff, they go unfilled — only centralizing more power in the remaining Board members.

We are, of course, referring to the St Augustine Planning and Zoning Board and its evil twin, the Historic Architectural Review Board.

Following two recent meetings of each board, Historic City News editor Michael Gold took to the street to ask residents what good, if anything, they have seen or have experienced in observing the operation of either volunteer citizen board. The responses from some, most commonly from those who have been called to appear before one, or both, of the boards, is not appropriate to quote — unless you like to read a lot of profane four-letter-words, and cursing.

(Editor’s note: You’ve never REALLY heard a mouthful of profanity until you’ve confronted a 65-year-old Mexican woman who has been told that the City was preparing to file a lien against her house. ¡Ay Chihuahua!)

In speaking with about two-dozen residents, we came across two who had first-hand experience with the boards. With the exception of only one resident, who I am not entirely certain understood which planet she was on today, all of the other participant’s seemed to at least be familiar with the terms “PZB” and “HARB”.

It seems like just about anything you want to do with your real estate property requires some sort of permit. But, before you can get your permit, the City, County, State, or other governing entity, whose jurisdiction you have chosen to invade, will take a shot across your bow — sometimes seemingly to see if you are paying attention. First, you will probably deal with a clerk who will fit the stereotype of every government worker you have ever seen or heard about on television. They all know where the bottle of Postal Worker pills are kept, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

Then, of course, except for the very simplest of requests, there is the requisite code enforcement officer, or other highly skilled professional, who must come out to the actual job site where you are proposing to paint, or plant, or plug in your electric razor, just to be certain that you aren’t planning to offend 51% of your already grouchy neighbors.

Heaven forfend you plan to change the use of your property, from say a tire store and automotive repair shop to a chocolate factory, because you are getting ready to need a public hearing; and that means a lot of orange warning signs have to be posted, notices mailed, legal advertisements published, and at least two meetings where every Ted Mack Amateur Hour dropout that’s still breathing parades up to the podium and tells you why you are the antichrist — for three glorious minutes.

Notwithstanding the million-dollars-worth of key personnel you are going to take away from playing candy crush on their computer, you are still uninitiated until you get to beg someone who you didn’t hire, to see just how many things they can find wrong with the application that their competitor, who you did hire, is trying to get approved.

Of course, none of this is black-and-white. Your application will announce challenging theories that you conceived while going to bullfights on acid. We all need the drama to review what font of type you want to use to put your name on your new mailbox, what art-deco pattern you want to paint your car wash, or whether or not a mural painted on the side of your building is actually an illegal sign or simply a constitutionally protected form of expression.

Of course, if we take even a 30,000 foot level snapshot of these citizen boards and who ends up sitting in those comfy leather seats, some of us will be surprised.

Members of planning or zoning boards, a board of adjustment, board of appeals, community redevelopment agency board, or other board having the power to recommend, create, or modify land planning or zoning within the political subdivision, are all required to file an annual financial disclosure pursuant to F.S. 112.3145.

According to at least one citizen activist reporting to Historic City News this afternoon, none, not even one, of our appointed Historic Architectural Review Board has ever filed a Form 1 disclosure with the Supervisor of Elections Office or made an annual financial return to the Florida Ethics Commission.

More to come as we review what our readers think is good or bad about this process.

Let us know what you think >>