Commission ignores voters: Charter to reappear

In a short noticed meeting that some speculated was bound to happen, three St. Johns County Commissioners – Ron Sanchez, Tom Manuel and Ben Rich, each joined together to place a charter government proposal back on the November ballot.

Many of the speakers in attendance — which included several former county commissioners, a noted state legislator, long time residents and the former Clerk of Court, pleaded with the current commission to accept the overwhelming defeat of the proposed charter government; which only Tuesday was voted down by over 15,000 St. Johns County voters.

Fred Green, former Chairman of the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners, suggested that the existing commission already has the power through planning and zoning to restrict building height and through established constitutional authority to legislate ordinances to accomplish many of the requests of those who supported the proposed charter. Green thought it was arrogant to return the proposal to the General Election ballot in November saying, “The public has already spoken.”

Herbie Wiles, who has served on the county commission and as a member of the House of Representatives, said that he was embarrassed by the light turn out for the Primary Election Tuesday where the original charter proposal went before all voters; Republican, Democrats as well as those without party affiliation.

Wiles said political strategists would have advised supporters of the charter to rush the referendum onto the Primary Ballot for just that reason – less voters should have made it easier to pass. Just the opposite happened. Wiles observed that the explanation for such a resounding defeat in the Primary Election was the voters felt “there is something wrong with the charter.”

Tom Costeria, speaking on behalf of the Board of Directors of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that the proposed charter failed to pass in 41 out of 47 precincts. Nearly 63% of the voters said they did not want to change our form of government as it was proposed.

Costeria pointed out that the Chamber previously came to the commission and asked that the proposal be held until the General Election in November to allow more time for public input, but the commissioners refused and insisted that it appear on the August Primary ballot.

Costeria said that turning around now after the proposal was defeated and placing it back on the November ballot was “like spitting in the face of the voters.”

The pleas of these speakers and a dozen more fell on deaf ears.

Retiring Commissioner Jim Bryant suggested simply that if the others ever wanted to see our county government changed, they should accept the “no” vote and start over with a properly appointed Charter Commission; following all of the proscribed open meetings and procedures. Bryant suggested that to do otherwise will be to shoot the whole thing in the foot; delaying approval for many more years.

Commissioner Stevenson agreed with Bryant that although she supports adoption of a comprehensive charter, this one isn’t it. Stevenson did not appear to like the idea of trying to revote portions of the charter or to repeat the vote in November fearing that doing so would further hamper the work of so many citizens who have invested so much political capital in getting us this far along with the process.

It was inferred by Don House of Ponte Vedra Beach that the commission was acting like a schoolyard bully that he once knew who would cry “Do over!” every time the bully would lose anything. House directed a jab at Commissioner Rich implying that he, too, might want his own re-election put back on the November ballot since he lost his seat to political newcomer Mark Miner.

Rich was his typical, authoritarian self during the meeting — not looking for compromise or to build bridges, rather interrogating Craig Maguire as if he were in a court of law and using the possibility that Maguire was one of the people responsible for a mailing piece critical of the charter government just days before the Primary Election Day.

Sanchez felt passage of the charter was too important not to put before the voters – again. His sentiment was that if the voters don’t like it, they are free to vote “no”. Sanchez admitted that he was in the group of losing voters who did vote to approve the proposal.