Guest Column: It’s 2016 – What’s next?

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We love St. Augustine!  Our 450th commemoration reminded us of just how special St. Augustine is: we are all blessed to live in this beautiful, historic, multicultural, semi-tropical Paradise, which is threatened by greed.

Let’s firmly resolve to resist, reject and report powerful pressures to ruin our beloved St. Augustine and St. Johns County and to transform them into ugly, overdeveloped, unreasonable facsimiles of Richardson, Texas or Broward County in South Florida.

Who wants our historic Paradise to be ruined by willful, heedless overbuilding, wetland-killing and tree-killing clear-cutting?

Only money-hungry dodgy “developers” focused on quick quarterly profits — on the next tacky ugly house sale, not future generations. How many impudently absurd arguments and cruelly unfair procedures are used by bullies and bureaucrats pushing such projects?  In November 2014, St. Augustine City Manager John Regan told First Coast News he was thrilled when David Barton Corneal paid $1.7 million to purchase and privatize the Dow Museum of Historic Homes, funded with $2.1 million in state funds, with plans to wall it off from average people, to privatize it, to turn it into a $500/night hotel. Government officials must no longer be cat’s paws for developers — it is unseemly, embarrassing and an appearance of impropriety, at best.

How many dubious “development” projects are advanced by dodgy foreign investors hiding behind “Limited Liability Companies” (LLCs) and their mendacious mouthpieces and stable of political machine officials? We don’t know, because LLC ownership disclosure is not yet required here. A New York Times series by Stephanie Saul and others documents shady foreign-owned LLC real estate practices.  Reforms and investigations are required here.  Now.

The developers and LLCs’ time of tyrannical power and noisome influence-peddling may be ending. The FBI Corruption Task Force in Daytona is interested in finding the truth about our county.

Although “We, the People” have made progress here for more than a decade, some louche local “gotcha government” abuses continue, including:

 

  • Rubber-stamping of projects based on flimsy fatuous “evidence,” ignoring documented concerns (as with notorious DOW PUD/Cordova Inn approval at 12:30 AM on August 25, 2015, a date that will live in infamy);
  • “Gotcha” government breach of fiduciary duty where large corporations are involved, including failure to supervise or audit government contractors and franchise taxpayers (including Florida Power & Light and tour train companies), while other jurisdictions perform such audits routinely;
  • City Commissioners blocking contract audits and questions raised by Mayor Nancy Shaver;
  • First Amendment violations directed at artists and musicians in St. Augustine;
  • City Commissioner Todd Neville demanding City funds and help to file a bogus libel lawsuit against HCN;
  • City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline working for land planner Karen Taylor and refusing to disclose her work on specific developer projects;
  • Johns County School Board suing Open Records requester Jeffrey Gray in an illegal Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP);
  • Demands to amend state law to discourage records requests;
  • Augustine Beach and the State’s Attorney office retaliatory prosecution of a picketer concerned about beach access;
  • Chilling effects on average citizens’ free speech rights at government meetings, while granting powerful people and interests excessive speaking time;
  • A devastating demolition derby, heedlessly destroying historic buildings — 2/3 of 85-year old Echo House and all of 105-year old Carpenter’s House and 211-year old Don Pedro Fornells House (ex-Mayor Len Weeks fined only $3600 for working without permits);
  • Favoritism and privatization for the wealthy in leasing City property. without bidding and below market rates, including:

(1)    leasing to the private Yacht Club since 2006 the City-owned former Salt Run Community Center/Lighthouse Restaurant:

(2)    leasing to ex-Mayors Len Weeks and Joe Boles’ 81 St. George Street (Florida Cracker Cafe and Savannah Sweets) and

(3)    leasing to David Trescott Gethman (ex-Mayor Weeks’ father-in-law) Lightner Museum courtyard antique store;

(4)    free rent to the St. Augustine Fabric Guild (of which ex-Mayor Boles’ mother is a member).

  • Unfriendly government managers who are unhelpful and discourteous to citizens (unless you are wealthy or work for developers);
  • Never requiring financial disclosure by members of St. Augustine’s Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB), who have often represented applicants before that board, (HARB finally requested a State Ethics Commission opinion, which agreed with my reading of the statute: disclosure is now required);
  • Lack of a help desk at St. Augustine City Hall to route citizens to upstairs offices (Boles abolished the Neighborhood Council office in 2011, letting his mother’s fabric guild use the first floor space rent-free);
  • Waste of tourism bed tax revenues on advertising (including Reader’s Digest and Better Homes and Gardens);
  • Overpaid, underworked government managers and underpaid government employees doing the actual work, with women and minorities underpaid and denied equal employment opportunities;
  • Reflexive, excessive governmental secrecy;
  • Sunshine and Open Records violations;
  • De facto segregation (secretive all-white St. Augustine Sister Cities group and all-white 450th “VIP” tent);
  • Fifteenth Amendment violations, including refusal to provide an early voting site inside St. Augustine city limits;
  • Excessive use of deadly force, retaliation and violations of sacred constitutional rights by deputies hired by controversial St. Johns County Sheriff David Bernerd Shoar f/k/a “Hoar”; and
  • Selective, retaliatory prosecutions by Sheriff Shoar and State’s Attorney Ralph Joseph Larizza;
  • Coverups and refusals to prosecute or investigate people for possible crimes based upon political influence, including the tragic 2010 Michelle O’Connell shooting death in the home of Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Banks with Banks’ service weapon (subject of New York Times, PBS Frontline, Dateline NBC, Dr. Phil, Folio Weekly and Guardian coverage) and a 2014 domestic shooting by St. Augustine Beach ex-Mayor Frank Charles in his home (in each case, there were post hoc written justifications by the Sheriff and State’s Attorney, respectively, for refusal to prosecute, each written after filing of Open Records requests).

There is much cause for hope:

Thanks to The New York Times’ dogged search for truth, local corruption became national news, empowering residents to talk about the elephant in the room.

  • Since 2005, “We, the People” have won dozens of victories, gaining ground for liberty by exposing government lawbreaking, waste, fraud and abuse, bigotry, misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance, flummery, dupery and nincompoopery.

Substantive evils that “We, the People” have defeated include:

  • Japanese multinational 7-Eleven proposing twelve gasoline pumps at a clogged intersection May & San Marco next to Florida School for the Deaf and Blind;
  • City managers’ dumping a landfill in a lake (Old City Reservoir), then demanding permission to take it to Lincolnville, put dirt on top and call it a “park” (the traditional solution to pollution in too many locales is “PIBBY” (Put in Blacks’ Back Yards);
  • City Commissioners attempting to “outsource” the 450th to a secret group (First America Foundation), created with $275,000 in City funds;
  • City Commissioners attempting to take a Sunshine-violating “business trip” to Spain;
  • City Commissioners discriminatorily refusing to allow Gays to fly Rainbow flags on the Bridge of Lions in 2005, the only group ever turned down;
  • City “galas” at taxpayer expense, with “free” $195 tickets paid for by you for the favored few.
  • No-bid contracts, including a signed contract for a $1.8 million luxury mosquito control jet helicopter and a Goldman Sachs 50%-owned company’s proposal for illegal red-light cameras at St. Augustine Beach.

Yes, ‘”We, the People” won, on every single one of these issues.

Other victories:

  • Halting illegal sewage effluent emissions and solid waste dumping, resulting in state cleanup orders.
  • Persuading our City of St. Augustine to fix Riberia Street (for the first time in history — ALL of it at once, rather than stretching it out over 5-10 years);
  • Helping convince the City of St. Augustine Beach and voters to enact a building height ordinance.
  • Stopping our County from enacting an unnecessary 17% sales tax increase.
  • Persuading County Commissioners to halt unconstitutional “boxing” of First Amendment activities in narrow spaces at Pier Park and other county lands.
  • Convincing St. Augustine Beach Commissioners to reject efforts to ruin Ocean Hammock Park with a shopping center and a communications tower were rejected.

Our County and City now increasingly look at corporate scoundrels, schemers and schlemiels with a gimlet eye. (It’s about time!)

As we begin our Ancient City’s 451st year, we’re proud of our civic virtues and community values:

  • No high-rise ugliness:  Johns and Flagler Counties are two of the last places left in Florida where ugly high-rise buildings do not block our ocean beaches like the Berlin Wall. Let’s preserve and protect what we love forever with the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore. www.staugustgreen.com. Your grandchildren and their grandchildren will say, “thank you,” just as on Cape Cod.
  • Inclusivity: We are all in this together.  We stand up for each other’s rights — one for all and all for one.  Concerned residents speak out against noisome destructive projects that are not in their own backyard (the exact opposite of NIMBYism). For another example, St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach (our “twin itty-bitty cities”) are two of only five cities in all of North Florida that have any measure of protection for sexual orientation as a protected class. (The others are Gainesville, Tallahassee and Jacksonville Beach). Our community’s sense of pride, diversity and inclusivity distinguishes us as free-thinking people and shows that our hearts are open and we are open for business, as did Clerk of Courts Cheryl Strickland’s courageous decision to continue courthouse weddings, after Duval and other County Clerks stopped them after Gay marriage was legally recognized. We’re not imitating Jacksonville’s bigotry. Let’s assure equal employment, housing, education and public accommodations throughout our county and our country.
  • Activism:From wealthy Ponte Vedra at the north end of our county to our St. Augustine neighborhoods of Nelmar Terrace, Fullerwood, Lincolnville and Old City South to the City of St. Augustine Beach and South Anastasia Island, diverse people are researching issues, talking to one another, getting organized and activating, some for the first time in their lives, inspired by friends, neighbors (and reform St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver).

Decisions are made by people who show up.  That’s how we made progress here, thinking globally and acting locally. We shall continue to overcome our problems.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The ground of liberty is gained by inches … we must … eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade [people] to do … what is for their own good.”   What’s next in 2016?

First, inspired by the strong moral character of the late civil rights leader Dr. Robert S. Hayling, D.D.S. and the late U.S. District Judge Howell Melton, Sr., who both died in December 2015, how about naming the Vilano Bridge the “Hayling-Melton Bridge,” soaring over our Matanzas River, a bridge over once-troubled waters, remembering the words of Amos, “Let justice roll on like a river…?”  Symbols matter.

Second, we need more Florida “Sunshine,” far more public participation and much less smarmy sneakiness. I suggest a series of evening Joint Town Meetings at Flagler College’s Lewis Auditorium next year between the combined Commissions of St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and St. Johns County. Let us discuss:

  1. Protecting First Amendment and whistleblower rights from government overreach and retaliation;
  2. More meaningful public participation in governmental decision making;
  3. Increasing transparency and compliance with Sunshine and Open Records (Article I, Sec. 24 of Florida Constitution, adopted by 3.8 million voters (83%) in 1992);
  4. Responding to flooding and global ocean level rise and climate change;
  5. Environmental protection, growth management and historic preservation;
  6. Enacting a St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore Act, staugustgreen.com;
  7. Enacting a strong countywide ethics law, including Ombudsmen and Inspectors General, post-employment restrictions on top employees, gift disclosure and identification of all beneficial owners of all property-owning LLCs requesting zoning and planning favors.

We appreciate officials heeding my prior suggestions for joint city-county meetings.

Now, let’s involve the County and both cities in joint meetings together, at the same time, with fifteen Commissioners on stage at Flagler College, listening to each other and to residents. Let’s hold all future joint city-county meetings in open public fora, friendly to public participation, with live video coverage — at night, not during the workday, and televised on both our government cable stations.

Third, let’s take back local cable television public access for non-profit groups and individuals — a right that was taken away from us in 2007. In the City of St. Augustine, it happened over public opposition, after a dinner break and apparent Commissioner Sunshine violations under Mayor Joseph Lester Boles, Jr. and the “reign of error” of City Manager William Barry Harriss.

Let’s transform and reform our dull government cable-television stations, which show occasional meetings and interminable repetitive government propaganda. Let’s convert them back to “public access,” as before the 2007 Comcast-Time Warner deal — when officials were pressured by cable-tv executives who did not want people criticizing our governments on local cable television (like the late “Bubba” Rowe, later elected County Commissioner)!  Let’s engage our community with local, home-grown local access tv programming, showcasing our local artists, musicians, houses of worship, news and commentary on our government-owned stations.  Let us raise the quality of debate and civil discourse.

Fourth, our 2016 primary (August 30) and general (November 8) elections are just around the corner.   Ask questions Demand answers. Expect democracy. Report corruption to the FBI Corruption Task Force in Daytona Beach.  Encourage unselfish candidates and true civil servants — just stewards who work for “We, the People,” and not the powerful.

It is up to us to preserve and protect our historic, environmental and cultural heritage, to protect this special place forever.

Happy New Year!

 

Ed Slavin moved to St. Augustine in 1999 and blogs at www.edslavin.com a/k/a www.cleanupcityofstagustine.blogspot.com, which has received more than one million page views.

 

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