Guest: Who benefits from less drama?

Lee Geanuleas
St. Augustine, FL

Special to Historic City News

On March 9, 2019 The St Augustine Record published an editorial titled “Tracy is the right person at the right time,” extolling the selection of former Mayor-Commissioner Tracy Upchurch to fill the remainder of Mayor Nancy Shaver’s term.  Mayor Shaver resigned after suffering a stroke on February 25th at the end of an emotional City Commission meeting.

Along with citing the new mayor’s strong record of public service, the editorial predicted that with the departure of Shaver and the arrival of Upchurch, “the drama” at City Commission meetings was “likely to take a break.”  The editorial went on to criticize former Mayor Shaver as, “pushing her own agenda” and trying to, “enjoin other Commissioners to fall in line.”  The Record’s message was that with a change of mayors, peace and gentility would grace the discourse among St Augustine’s only elected officials.

While I don’t know Mayor Upchurch, his record certainly elicits respect for his professional accomplishments and public service.  My concern is not necessarily with the new mayor, but with the editorial’s implications that good government should be pleasant, gentile and not involve passionate debate, disagreement and commitment to strongly held beliefs of what is right for the people of the city.  The Record’s editorial might lead one to believe the city is being governed best when it’s Commissioners all hug each and sing Kumbaya at the end of each meeting.  

While that vision may be attractive to some, particularly those who don’t want tough questions asked about, for example, ever-increasing traffic congestion or a planned unit development (PUD) application, it reflects an unrealistic understanding of how government operates.  Even in a small city like St Augustine there will be conflicting interests and at virtually every Commission meeting, questions arise weighing the interests of one party against those of another. 

For example, a developer wants the city to approve a PUD that will financially benefit him or her, create an attraction for tourists, and add to the city’s property tax revenue.  But it is likely that same development will negatively impact the lives of the residents living next to it and add to congestion.  As is usually the case, a rational person could argue either side of the issue and there is no one “right answer.”  And given the room allowed by City Code for subjective judgement, it would not be unusual for Commissioners to differ in their opinions of what’s right.  One Commissioner might view the additional tax revenue as the most important aspect while another might prioritize the neighbor’s quality of life.   

Should we expect the city’s elected representatives to stifle their opinions on deciding these types of questions in favor of faux-consensus and feel-good camaraderie?  Or, should we want Commissioners willing to take a stand on behalf of what they believe is right?  And what if that means one of five Commissioners is not “on board” with the others?  Should we expect that person to pretend, for the sake of some utopian vision of local government, that he or she doesn’t believe what they believe? Of course not.

With so much political angst at the national level, it is understandable for people to want peace and good feelings to reign at the local level. But, it’s important to remember that even the founding of the American republic was fraught with intense political disagreement and strong personal animosities – animosities that make anything witnessed in St Augustine’s Alcazar Room seem like a kindergarten spat.  Jefferson and Hamilton hated each other, yet both contributed in significant ways to our great country.  Should we condemn Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, for the rancor he showed Hamilton? Should we disown Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary contributions to the modern federal system because he intentionally created political “drama?”  I should hope not.

Contrary to the myths we tell ourselves about our system of government, it’s all about politics, and politics is tough business, at all levels.  Whether you’re voting on a fifty-billion-dollar federal appropriation or a deciding on whether to spend $500,000 in precious city reserve funds for a neighborhood park, there will be those who benefit and those who do not.  And, who benefits and who does not, involves politics.

In the example of the neighborhood park, there are “winners” who live nearby, who get to enjoy the park and an improved quality of life. But there are “losers” too, like those who must suffer another year driving down a severely pot-holed street or those unable to get city Code Enforcement to respond to a violation because of chronic staffing short-falls. 

If you were to buy The Record’s vision of city government, a Commissioner who sincerely believed that the neighborhood park money would be better spent elsewhere and dared to speak out about it, is considered someone “pushing their own agenda.”  And remember, because of Florida’s sunshine laws, there is no opportunity for Commissioners to speak privately about issues with each other. Every conversation must occur in “the sunshine,” in public and in front of the cameras.  So, the only opportunity for a Commissioner to convince the others to “fall in line,” is to make the case as best he or she can in public at a Commission meeting. 

That’s what Nancy Shaver did on the question of the Coquina Avenue park acquisition; she tried to convince her colleagues and the citizens of the city that the City Commission’s initial vote in favor of the purchase was based on bad information and needed to be reconsidered. 

Apparently, The Record frowns upon this sort of behavior by someone elected to represent the citizens of the city.  But, unfortunately, they don’t provide an alternative course of action.

On more than one occasion during her mayoral tenure, Nancy Shaver took an independent approach.  Often she was the only Commissioner asking tough questions, such as why a commercial PUD should be allowed in a residential neighborhood, or why a developer already approved to build a hotel with underground parking couldn’t build what was approved and now, without justification, needed to consume more of a vital historic preservation district or, as she did at her final meeting, asking for an explanation of why the Commission had been misinformed by city staff on the question of legal access to a storm water outfall that lead to a grievously flawed vote. 

While the other Commissioners often were quick and happy to agree with virtually everything served up to them by City Manager John Regan, Shaver could usually be counted on to push back. Yes, her questions might have been unwelcomed – even embarrassing to some.  Perhaps she didn’t get the “shut up and go along with the agenda” memo and viewed her duty as promoting greater government transparency and protecting the interests of city residents.  Regardless, it is likely those who profit from the city’s ever-expanding tourism industry and ceaseless development didn’t appreciate her approach. 

Nancy Shaver would ask tough questions and was often criticized, sometimes harshly, by her fellow Commissioners for doing so.  You might recall one Commissioner getting angry and petulantly storming out of a Commission meeting four years ago after Shaver questioned three no-bid 450th Commemoration contracts.  The animosity by that Commissioner persisted even until Nancy Shaver’s final meeting on February 25th.

It’s interesting to note that those contracts never did get audited.  Shaver was the lone voice demanding accountability for over $3 million worth of expenditures for the 450th Commemoration.

There is no question that Mayor Shaver’s approach to issues sometimes led to tension, disagreement and, occasionally, “drama.”  But it was drama born out of a strong belief that the interests of city residents deserved as much representation in the City Commission as those of developers, the tourism industry and the college.  If her questions and push for transparency made others uncomfortable, then you might take that as validation of her approach. That some, like The Record, are now celebrating the anticipated lack of “drama” at City Commission meetings probably tells you more about where they stand on the question of protecting residential interests in this city and who’s paying their bills.  Probably safe to conclude that less “drama” really means less “transparency,” and that’s the last thing residents of St Augustine should want.  

As mentioned above, I don’t know Mayor Upchurch and sincerely wish him well.  I hope he will not view his job as “going along to get along” or as just choir conductor for the Commission’s bi-monthly singing of Kumbaya.  Because If Mayor Upchurch embraces the vision of city government endorsed by The Record then, at least until the next election, city residents will have no champion of transparency on the Commission and the opaqueness of city decision making will certainly increase.  This will require city residents to become more engaged, more vigilant and more demanding of answers.  

I truly hope Mayor Upchurch brings to the government, not only his impressive experience in public office, but a fierce independence and a willingness to ruffle a few feathers on behalf of the people who live in the City of St Augustine.  If he does, let’s hope the new mayor receives better treatment from our local newspaper than did his predecessor.