Letter: Time to stop digging this hole

In your recent editorial you essentially ask if it is worth the trouble to wait for the First America Foundation (FAF) to get its act together for the commemorations in 2112-2015.

Under its current leadership, my answer is “no.”

Last August the city gave $275,000 to FAF and diverted another $25,000 to it a few months later. FAF has spent about a third of that to little avail. This saddens me because the FAF board is otherwise composed of extremely talented community leaders. I admire their willingness to serve our community. I also admire their talented lone staffer.

But as a city commissioner, I am obligated to the citizens of St. Augustine to ensure that city tax dollars are properly spent. In this case, they have not been. Absent a change in FAF leadership and subsequent demonstration of real progress, I believe we must ask for what remains of your money back.

Nine days ago I asked the FAF chair to resign for the good of the foundation and the 450th effort because the FAF had, in my opinion, become irrelevant. I said the FAF needs a new head coach. He refused and said he would “not make it easy for me.”

Since then, Historic City News has made public some of his correspondence to FAF board members that greatly deepen my concerns. Under the letterhead of a prestigious law firm, this correspondence threatened board members and others with retaliation (such as public embarrassment and being “hung out to dry”) if they communicated about the FAF with those of us on the outside or attended a public workshop of the city commission.

That is the antithesis of the outreach efforts we envisioned. Indeed, this correspondence only adds to the perception that the FAF has been led into a dark tunnel, removed from the very community it was intended to serve.

FAF has failed to inspire the community and the organizations that have so desperately sought leadership, direction and encouragement. FAF has focused on secrecy over efficiency and control over delegation to and empowerment of interested individuals and community groups.

FAF has spent nearly ten months getting organized, a work still in process. To date, FAF has not raised a dime on its own. That may not change anytime soon. Stunningly, I understand FAF has yet to apply for 501(c) (3) nonprofit status allowing it to accept charitable contributions. That process can take up to a year.

The FAF strategic plan is neither. Its four proposed projects in fulfillment of its contract with the city can’t possibly be what the city had in mind. More importantly, FAF did not even ask the city if they were. I’ve had too many local citizens ask me what FAF does, why they don’t return calls, and why they seem to offer little value added to others’ ideas.

It is time to stop digging this hole and wasting tax dollars.

This has been harsh commentary. I regret that. One year ago I urged the city to turn the 450th commemorations over to a foundation because I believed a foundation could be more nimble and able to run a business operation. I still believe that, but I never envisioned a foundation as incapable as FAF has been.

I also believe one who does not correct a mistake makes a greater mistake.

Despite these failings, I believe all is not lost. I acknowledge that members of the FAF board have offered some great ideas, such as the First America Youth Ambassador Program for 6-8th graders. We must give these ideas wing and support.

The city manager’s new 450th city initiative endorsed last week by the city commission and the new federal commission both create new opportunities for success. Every failure creates opportunity to begin again. We still have time to get it right. Let’s seize the opportunity.

Bill Leary, Commissioner
City of St. Augustine, FL

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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