Editorial: Can’t fight city hall — well, maybe

Last year as the five members of the St Augustine City Commission left for their typical Christmas and New Years holiday “break”, the 14,000 citizens who call the city home had no idea that under the cover of darkness there was betrayal afoot.

And, when they returned to the table on January 14, 2019, the city manager, John Regan, who lives in South Davis Shores, and commissioner Leanna Freeman, who also lives in South Davis Shores, announced publicly that “the City will have a one-time opportunity Monday night to purchase a marsh front parcel in South Davis Shores.”

Except for the fact that the public was unaware that Regan and Freeman were in cahoots with public works director Michael Cullam, in backroom negotiations to buy the dilapidated 1950’s teardown located at 91-93 Coquina Avenue, residents had been enjoying their proverbial chicken for every pot and car for every backyard. 

Then, two days before the first public city commission meeting of the year, before the mayor or any of the other commissioners met in the sunshine to discuss the Coquina Avenue Land Grab, Freeman was posting on social media and reaching out by e-mail to ask her followers to show their support, proclaiming, “I need three votes Monday”.

She makes some claims on January 12, 2019 that require further examination and explanation.

  • To start with, Freeman creates a false sense of urgency in her communication.  At the full asking price of $469,000, the “negotiated” deal between Regan and his crony, Troy Blevins, anyone could have come along and purchased the “one-time opportunity”.  The half-million-dollar purchase was completely unplanned.  It appears nowhere in the October 2018 budget or in the city’s strategic plan for capital investments.
  • Next is the dubious, if not outright false, claim that the city will be able to “greatly reduce” sunny day street flooding if Freeman is successful in finding two other commissioners to allow her to buy this property.  The notion that by buying 91 and 93 Coquina Avenue, at a loss of more than $7,000 a year in ad valorem tax revenue, ensures a great reduction in local flooding is completely debunked and lacks any scientific basis to make such a promise.
  • Even though the City of St Augustine already owns two other marsh front parcels, further down Coquina Avenue, one of which was already designated a public park, Freeman states, “This would be the first and only public space or park in the South Davis Shores neighborhood.”  That statement is false on the face of it and could clearly mislead a resident who is relying on Commissioner Freeman’s message to be truthful — she is a practicing attorney, after all.
  • Yet, Freeman wrote, “Owning the land will speed up the City’s efforts to reduce flooding by allowing quick construction and repair work to the area”.  As confirmed by City Attorney Isabelle Lopez, there are several easements and temporary access options at hand for the City — whether it buys any further property or not.  The adjoining property owner has allowed the city access for maintenance and repairs over the past 40-years and is agreeable to continue doing so. 
  • Regan told then Mayor Nancy Shaver that the remedial work that needs to be done to control the high tide overflow, can be completed in “about a week”.  Eight months later, the work remains undone.

In an apparent attempt to hoodwink her trusting friends, without identifying the source, Freeman claimed that she found “studies that support neighboring property values may increase from 2% to 22% because of the proximity to a public space.”  Remember who stands to profit by that windfall, if she is correct?

When you follow the money, all the talk about an urgent need, or, stopping sea level rise, or, controlling tidal flooding by purchasing these lots, was nothing more than a red herring.  The neighborhood park was what they really wanted.  They were willing to lie to us as taxpayers to trick us into giving them the support to pull it off, too.  All they needed to do was raid the storm water reserve funds and the general reserve funds, leaving the city a half-million dollars poorer.

But you can’t fight city hall — well, maybe.  Not every St Augustine taxpayer, or resident in Davis Shores for that matter, universally supports being kept in the dark or feeling duped by the highest-paid city bureaucrats or an elected public official.  Signatures were collected by residents in opposition of the misuse of emergency reserve funds.  After a preliminary investigation, citizens could be on their way to Tallahassee for a hearing before the full state Ethics Commission.  We may soon learn if you can, in fact, fight city hall … and win justice for honest, hard-working citizens.