Fireworks erupt at St Augustine commission meeting

Nothing short of fireworks during the first two-hour segment of the St Augustine City Commission during their regular meeting tonight when a local pastor took the podium — not to recite a benediction, but rather to condemn the members of the commission and city staff for defamation of his Lincolnville church.

Pastor Ron Rawls, the community activist leader of St Paul’s AME Church, minced no words as he publically called-out commissioners, the city manager, John Regan, the city building department director, Mark Knight, and even the city attorney, Ron Brown. He accuses all of them, point-blank, of acting “incredibility irresponsibly” in making statements that were published in The St Augustine Record, that Rawls says are “void of truth”.

At issue is an April 22 article, written by senior reporter Peter Guinta, titled, “City wants roof tiles returned”. The article published in the Sunday newspaper, has caused the churches phones to ring off-the-hook, Rawls stated.

The provocative article, and matter-of-fact reader comments published following the article, are each replete with errors. Among other issues, Rawls alleges that those involved “lied to the paper, and blatantly defamed our name.”

In summary, the article says the church sold 20 to 30 pallets of vintage red terra cotta tiles, removed from the roof of Echo House, for $2,000 to Ormond Beach developer George Arnold — tiles the city claims were not the church’s to sell.

The manufacturer of the tiles told a member of the Citizens for the Preservation of St Augustine of which Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline is a member that the value of the missing, used tiles is about $4 each; placing the value of the tile removed at roughly $25,000.

In The Record article, Mayor Joe Boles is quoted, saying, “It’s city property. Our goal is to get it restored, but we can’t restore the building without its Mediterranean Revival roof tiles.”

Also in the article, Guinta wrote, “St Paul’s leased the building in 2010 in hopes of turning it into a charter elementary school, to be called the School of Excellence.”

This makes Rev. Rawls furious. Rawls has a deed to the Echo House property and says the church owns it. It was acquired from Echo House via quitclaim deed. The former owner did acquire the property from the City of St Augustine, and the deed did include a reverter clause — requiring Echo House, and St Paul’s AME Church, as successor, to use the property solely for “non-profit, philanthropic or charitable” purposes.

Rawls said, emphatically, that the church has never used the property for anything contrary to those allowed uses.

The article further says, “A $2,000 grant in October 2010 to St. Paul’s from the National Trust for Historic Preservation was specifically for storing and safeguarding the tiles.”

“My signature is not on anything to do with the grant,” Rawls declared. He said that he resents being falsely accused of selling the roof tiles while knowing that they were not church property. “Not only do we own the property, we pay the taxes on the property.”

Rawls drew applause from the parishioners of his church when he expressed his embarrassment and disappointment in the city commissioners, city staff and The St Augustine Record for falsely causing the public to believe he and the church had done something underhanded.

When the City could not produce the documents they claimed Rawls had signed, Rawls asked, rhetorically, “You took me for being stupid; did you think I would roll over because you said I had agreed to something I know I never agreed to?”

At least twice, when Rawls cited examples he feels demonstrates that the City was attempting to run roughshod over him and his church, Rawls said, “I graduated from the University of Florida — I know how to read.”

In Rawls view, St Paul’s AME Church interceded on behalf of the former owners to save the historic structure from the wrecking ball. In fact, Rawls told the commissioners, two months after the church took on the task, April 13, 2010, the former building official, Nick Andrade, again found Echo House in violation of city codes on fifteen items; and served notice that St Paul’s had thirty days to abate the violations or demolish the building.

Rawls says that shows that the City has changed their story and may have ulterior motives.

“If you cared about the tiles you wouldn’t have told us to demolish the building.”

Instead, the City, Rawls contends, used the newspaper to discredit the church, and him, when they published a remark attributed to City Attorney Ron Brown, that read, “Quite frankly, the decision to sell the tiles and not use them for the rehabilitation of the structure is an unwelcome surprise and a decision the city cannot accept.”

Rawls referred to correspondence from his contractor to the City announcing, on January 27, 2011, that a volunteer team would remove the remaining tiles from the roof, stack them on pallets, and then Global Wrap would shrink-wrap them.

They were not hiding anything from anybody, according to Rawls.

Rawls left the meeting, despite the fact that officials were trying to ask questions. He told the commission that he had a meeting at 6:30 p.m. at his church to discuss the city’s actions and to decide what will be the church’s response.

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