Night of citizen activism at City Hall

BLAKE R SOUDER

BLAKE R SOUDER

Monday, January 25th had its share of citizen activism beginning at 4:00 p.m., when Angel Jones and art supporters from around the state returned to the sidewalks in front of City Hall to protest a current ordinance that could send outdoor artists to jail for up to 60-days.

Since the last demonstration two-weeks ago, Jones pointed out that the City of Winter Park, east of Orlando, has banned artists in its small city using as example the same St Augustine ordinance that has our city back in Federal Court.  In 2009, St Augustine lost a lawsuit in favor of the artists based on Constitutional guarantees of free expression contained in the First Amendment.  Four local artists, three of which were plaintiffs in the 2009 lawsuit, have instigated the new lawsuit because they say the city still violates their rights which were clarified in the original ruling.

Then, at 4:30 p.m. while city staff was handing out sprigs and small saplings as part of their Arbor Day program, several organizers from various city neighborhoods, coordinated more than two-dozen residents who came to stage a silent protest to what they described as “the rancor” between the four commissioners and the mayor.

A video clip of Commissioner Todd Neville, Seat 4, taken during closing comments at the last meeting, stirred strong reaction from the community.  Many citizens, including those who attended the 5:00 p.m. regular commission meeting, have been commenting on facebook and by e-mail about the images and overbearing tone Neville used to address Mayor Shaver.

Historic City News reported as the situation developed in the social media, and, in today’s printed newspaper, there was a reference to the resident’s plans for tonight.

The decision was made that one representative would read a prepared statement to the commission during the public comment period, held early in the meeting.  At that time, without fanfare, all those in support would simply standup and walk out.

 

The presentation was read by resident Blake Souder:

Mayor and Commissioners,

I have been asked to speak for many of the citizens in this chamber tonight and many who are watching from home.

 

Out of respect for the Board, City Staff and for those with items on this evening’s agenda, we hope you will appreciate our consideration to deliver the following message with one speaker.

 

The citizens of St. Augustine voted you all into office because the majority believed in your message and your ability to conduct the people’s business in a professional manner.

 

This City Commission has great potential moving forward, with many exciting projects & changes that are currently in the works.

 

These accomplishments and future initiatives are undermined by the unnecessary rancor between Commissioners and the disrespect occurring toward the Office of the Mayor.

 

We, the citizens of St. Augustine, respectfully request that this behavior cease immediately, and that you strive for courteous and civil public meetings, where disagreement and various opinions are welcome without spite.

 

In conclusion, I would like to leave everyone with a phrase to reflect upon, which is “to understand is to forgive.”- Blaise Pascal

 

Unlike many recent commission meetings where some members used the time allocated to “final remarks” of commissioners to launch entirely new topics, not on the agenda, going so far as calling for a vote on items that would not demand a public hearing, tonight’s comments consumed a total of eleven minutes and not a raised voice was heard.

“This is a monumental opportunity for everyone to pause to reflect on where we’re going as a community,” Cash S McVay, one of the organizers, told local Historic City News reporters.  “We hope that this opportunity is seized so that we can all focus 100% on improving the special City that we all hold dear.”

Speaking with those who quietly left the meeting, the consensus was positive.  Although they did not individually speak, the commission pays attention when large groups of people, organized in their purpose, come out of their homes in cold weather.

Historic City News editor Michael Gold, who attended the meeting, counted thirty-five individuals who left the meeting in their stand for respect.  It was clear that they expected better behavior and more respect shown towards the office of mayor — whoever happens to be sitting in the seat.

Gold later contacted several of the residents who protested, and was able to confirm that they could see improvement in the remainder of tonight’s meeting.  Certainly a healthy step in the right direction.

Mayor Shaver was not involved in the planning or execution of the demonstration; however, Gold contacted her after the meeting for her impressions.  She told us that she actually enjoyed the meeting tonight even though there were contentious issues to be resolved; referring to the request for an extension on the Madeira Planned Unit Development, which was denied on a 3-2 vote, Todd Neville and Roxanne Horvath dissenting.

“For whatever reason,” Shaver said, “I hope that we have this common courtesy and respect issue behind us.  Things certainly went a lot smoother and we got a lot more accomplished.”

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