Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday night postponed moving forward with changes to a key city board affecting downtown development, after they heard sustained criticism from audience members of how the process to reconfigure the Community Redevelopment Area board was handled last month.
Led by Ann Seaton, a Fifth Street resident who has sat on the CRA for the past five months, about a half-dozen audience members deplored the way city commissioners on Jan. 14 agreed to expand the seven-member CRA board by adding an eighth member who would represent the Main Street organization.
Seaton said Main Street chairman Jim Bachrach, who had pressed for adding the Main Street representative, had made the request in an undated letter, without prior notice so as to be included on the agenda. The matter was introduced in the report by City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb, and then approved unanimously by the commissioners.
Seaton made clear she did not intend to argue the merits of the change, but wished to address what she made equally clear was a breach of ethics in her book, as well as a possible violation of the Sunshine Law.
“The request was improperly brought before you and for that reason alone, it should be struck,” she told commissioners, citing the fact that it had been included in Webb’s report.
“My understanding of the word ‘report’ is to provide you with new information on pre-existing issues. Not to bring a new issue to you attention,” she said. “In my view this is not only a legal issue but an ethical one as well.”
Both Mayor Van Johnson and City Attorney Pat Floyd disagreed that there had been anything wrong or unusual about the request originating in Webb’s report. Floyd said commissioners were entitled to act on matters that emerged from reports by department heads.
“I am a citizen of this city,” said Seaton. “I have a right to participate in this government. If it’s not on the agenda, I can’t.”
Johnson said he has never disallowed a citizen from speaking out on any subject at a city meeting. “Anybody that wants to interject at a meeting is free to do so,” he said.
Seaton said she did not know whether the CRA chairman, Anita Grove, had been aware of the proposed change.
Before Grove had her opportunity to address the commissioners, both Johnson and Commissioner Brenda Ash said they were concerned about the tensions that had surfaced.
“Sounds like this discussion needs to be taken up at the CRA meeting. I think the CRA is very instrumental. There needs to be a sense of harmony on that board,” said Ash.
“I would like to see the CRA work out a plan, and not turn this appointment into a (battle),” Johnson said. “The last thing I want to see is to open up old battle wounds from the time when it was the chamber (of commerce) vs Main Street. You’re never going to have harmony when you go back and fight these old battles. The only way you’re not going to fight these old battles is to move forward.”
Clarice Powell said she felt Main Street had tried to circumvent the process by going directly to the city commission, rather than discussing the proposal first within the CRA.
“Main Street should have gone to the CRA board and said ‘This is what we want to do,’ instead of going to you guys,” she said. “If these people are supposed to have the autonomy, they should go through the right channels.”
Grove told commissioners she learned about the Main Street proposal for the first time at the city commission meeting. “This bump has happened and it was a surprise, I don’t know if the rest of the CRA members even know about it,” she said. “We did have a meeting less than 24 hours before that and nothing was brought up.”
She said she didn’t want to spend a lot of time rewriting the bylaws. “We’re going to drop back and do a little bit of housekeeping, and see how to better work with each other,” she said.
Ash asked Grove why she hadn’t spoken up at the original meeting when the Main Street proposal was made.
“I was in shock,” Grove replied. “I didn’t want to appear anti Main Street, and I didn't feel comfortable saying something. I hesitated because I didn’t know what’s going on.”
She said she has been working for the past several months on revitalizing the CRA. “I’ve finally got it going again and we’re going in the right direction and the whole board has been usurped,” said Grove.
In her remarks, Marie Marshall cited a 1976 statute that empowered the Planning & Zoning Commission to manage the city’s land development code, and suggested additional boards would encroach on that function.
"Look to P & Z,” she said. “Why invent another new body? We have to look at laws that are in place presently.”
Leslie Coon said she supported Main Street, the chamber and the CRA, but questioned why it was necessary to expand and intertwine these organizations.
“There are so many people, on so many boards that are redundant,” she said. “Why is it that Main Street has to be on the CRA board? Why is it assumed by you there will be a battle if they are not on that board?
“Why do all these different boards have to be on other boards? Why isn’t it simply a process?” she asked. By the way, an eight-member board doesn’t work. So how many members of a board does it make it equal?”
Jamie Liang, who said she was an attorney but was not representing a particular party, cited the state statute that had created CRAs as an advisory board and a watchdog board.
“This implies an independence of the board,” she said. “The mission of the CRA is every narrow.”
Liang said that while the CRA focuses on eliminating blighted areas and other such revitalization, Main Street has a broader mission statement that “dovetails in some respects.” She said Main Street’s bylaws specify that it will promote travel and tourism, advocate for a positive view of Apalachicola, pursue appearance improvements to the downtown, and education for business owners, among others.
Liang called the Main Street expansion proposal “a move to disturb the independent nature of the (CRA) board. The whole bringing up of these things calls into question respect for the independence of the board. The whole thing seems not to have gone through the right channels,” she said.
Ash pressed her concerns. “What I’m hearing is kind of disheartening,” she said. “The CRA is there for a purpose; it’s not there as a political battleground. We’re not here to engage in the infighting, that’s not the purpose. We’re here to get something accomplished for the city of Apalachicola.
“We need to work together. What I’m hearing is Main Street, Main Street, Main Street,” she said.
“It’s a fear that eventually the Main Street will take over development of the city,” said Johnson.
The first reading of the ordinance to reconfigure the CRA board had been on Tuesday’s agenda, but the mayor secured unanimous approval to have the matter postponed until the March 4 regular meeting.
“This will give the CRA a chance to discuss it,” said Ash. “We’re going to start over the process.”