By Lance Thate, Chairman
Saint Augustine Tea Party
Special to Historic City News
While the thunder roared and the rain poured outside, another storm raged inside at the regularly scheduled Monday night commission meeting of the City of St Augustine Beach on April 3, 2017.
Despite the inclement weather, a substantial audience was present at the meeting. Most of the audience was waiting to speak on a proposed move to further restrict public comment during commission meetings.
In a previous action by city management in September 2016, political signs were banned from city property and public right-of-way within St Augustine Beach.
Only days later, after posting signs that said no political signs, the city changed the wording on the signs to say no signs. In an interview with a Town Crier Committee reporter, Mayor Rich O’Brien claimed the “no sign” action was necessary due to a lawsuit filed against the city by Alvin’s Island, a beachwear superstore in St Augustine Beach.
The business wanted to put up a pro-Trump campaign sign during the 2016 election cycle, but the city moved to take it down — triggering the lawsuit. Any government action prohibiting speech – based on its content – is blatantly unconstitutional.
So, first, the city banned political signs. Then, after they were sued, the city banned all signs during the 2016 General Election; a move that greatly aided local incumbent candidates — including Mayor O’Brien.
Although the overall sign issue is still not resolved, at Monday’s commission meeting, City Attorney Jim Wilson encouraged the city to settle out-of-court with Alvin’s Island. Attorneys representing the insurance carrier that covers the city’s directors and officer’s liability claims had informed Wilson that, if the city did not settle, they would have to move forward defending their actions on their own — without the benefit of insurance.
Rosetta Bailey, O’Brien’s opponent in the 2016 election, said, “This is what happens when lawyers and politicians are not familiar with the basic precepts of the Constitution.”
In the latest assault, Commissioner Gary Snodgrass and Mayor Rich O’Brien, both of whom have supported the proposed new rules limiting public comment, say added restrictions are necessary. They claim that the reason commission meetings run too long and are inefficient is due to excessive public comment. They see the public comment as interfering and simply not relevant.
“We already have policies and procedures in place, all we have to do is follow them. Presentations are only supposed to be given 10 minutes, instead they seem to be given as much time as they want,” St Augustine Beach City Commissioner Maggie Kostka said in an interview with David Heimbold, St Augustine Tea Party Media Chairman. “If we would adhere to that policy, it would move our meetings along.”
Commissioner Kostka carried the day with the support of nearly everyone who spoke during public comments Monday night. No vote was taken on the proposal and the matter is under continued study.
“Perhaps we need to meet more often,” Kostka added. “Our city has grown a lot since 1959 when our charter was made.”
Thomas Reynolds, a St Augustine Beach resident, suggested that if these “angry old white men”, referring to Snodgrass and O’Brien, followed the rules like the three ladies on the commission do, many of the problems would be resolved. “It is not the public who is violating the rules,” Reynolds said.
It is imperative that we return to Constitutional principles if our Republic is to survive. We have reached a point where the politicians at all levels of government are either ignorant or willfully ignoring the Constitution.
Not only the politicians, but also the lawyers that advise them, no longer appear to have a good handle on what is — and what isn’t — Constitutional.
The Saint Augustine Tea Party engages the public on a regular basis. As chairman, I can attest to the fact that the people are waking up. This is no longer a story about a small beach community.
Tonight, on a stormy night, the people came out to defend their First Amendment rights. We were glad that we could lend our support to the citizens of St Augustine Beach.
Struggles like this are going on across the country. When it is over, I pray to God that liberty prevails.