Once again, in a 3-2 vote with commissioners Cyndi Stevenson and Jim Bryant dissenting; Ben Rich, Tom Manuel and Ron Sanchez decided to ignore the voice of the voters and authorize County Administrator Michael Wanchick to spend up to $35,000 to “educate” the voters who defeated a proposed home rule charter in the August Primary Election using local public funds.
Items 13 and 14 on yesterday’s County Commission meeting agenda were presented by Patrick F. McCormack, County Attorney.
The first, Item 13: Consider motion to adopt a Resolution finding a public purpose in the expenditure of public funds for the purposes of educating the St. Johns County electorate regarding adopting a one-cent surtax for five years for the purposes of acquiring agricultural and/or environmentally significant lands and funding transportation infrastructure for existing development.
And finally, Item 14: Consider motion to adopt a Resolution finding a public purpose in the expenditure of public funds for the purposes of educating the St. Johns County electorate regarding a home rule charter.
A number of citizens spoke at the morning and afternoon sessions against re-voting on the previously defeated charter and using public funds to purchase advertising in four area newspapers ostensibly to overcome what Sanchez, Rich and Manuel have termed as “blatant lies” that were distributed to some voters by mail and may have been seen by others in a one page ad that appeared in The Record. The three commissioners contend that there was a concerted effort to defeat the charter proposal by lying to the public and using “illegal methods” to voice their dissent. No such charges have been proven to date but are being investigated by the Florida Division of Elections.
Both Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson and Commissioner Jim Bryant made reasoned arguments against spending public funds to pursue advertising the charter on the pretext that the citizens who voted did so without understanding why they were voting the charter down.
When their pleas – as well as those of the citizens who spoke against spending this money – fell on deaf ears, Manuel and Sanchez approved lame-duck Commissioner Ben Rich’s motion; resolving to purchase for both the local option sales tax and the home rule charter, direct mailings, newspaper display advertising, and several other means of communication characterized as “free” by Wanchick which included website, e-mail and through inserts in utility bills.
Rich said, “I don’t think we have any choice but to do the mailer. They spent a ton of money trying to kill this, putting out bad info.” He continued, “This is simply a matter of presenting the truth to the people.”.
The commission determined first that it wanted to spend public money, then had to decide how much. What had been rumored to be a figure as high as “six digits” was discussed and whittled down to the $35,000 number. Wanchick can return to the commission later and request more money to achieve the commissioner’s objective if he finds that $35,000 is not enough to cover the actual expenses.
Recognizing the claim that Commission Chairman Tom Manuel attended law school for a year, Commissioner Stevenson said she didn’t know if the “misleading” ads were truly illegal, as several commissioners called them. “I’d like to get the advice of my own attorney first”, she said.
“I just don’t support public funds for either of these items,” said Commissioner Stevenson.
The sentiment of those in the audience seemed to support Stevenson’s point. Both Stevenson and Commissioner Bryant received applause from the audience as they voted against spending money from public funds for advertising and promoting these two issues. There was definitely a feeling that Manuel, Sanchez and Rich were throwing good money after bad; since the charter had already been voted down in the previously held election.