At Monday evening’s annual legislative deletion hearing, Franklin County’s wish list boiled down to one basic appeal.
Help the county’s seafood workers get back to making an honest living, and begin by opening up more harvesting opportunities.
Unlike typical delegation hearings, where legislators hear first from constitutional officers, county and city commissioners, and other elected officials, Monday’s affair began with an appeal from the public, and each of the speakers stuck to a single topic: the difficulties oystermen are having in bringing home a robust harvest of legal oysters.
“I’ve worked out there for about 20 years, and I’ve seen a major decline in the oysters in the past 10 years,” Jesse Page told State Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) and State Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello). “We need to get the summer bars open. It’s killing us. I don’t think people catching small oysters have anything to do with it.
“There’s a lot of people suffering, and we’ve got a gold mine sitting out there, I’m asking for six to eight weeks, open ‘em,” he said. “They open that up out there and people can go to work like myself. I don’t want a handout.”
Later in the meeting, when all five county commissioners appeared together to speak, Commissioner William Massey made a formal appeal to the legislators to talk with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about opening up more bars during December. “They need to hear in the next few days,” he said.
As of Wednesday morning, the FWC had taken no action to open up additional bars. Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, took to Facebook to quell rumors the summer bars were opening this week.
“We as the board have put in a proposal asking that they open these bars for a few weeks to help everyone out because times are terrible,” he wrote. “We are trying everything possible to get help for our fellow seafood workers and their families. Just as soon as we hear something, and we hope we get a response soon, we will let everyone know.”
Page also voiced concern about the recent stepped-up law enforcement efforts on bay waters, intended to stem the tide of undersized and illegally harvested oysters flowing into oyster houses.
“They're harassing people left and right,” he said. “They can’t afford to feed their kids, much less pay a ticket.”
Next to speak was Dustin Varnes, who questioned why more than $4 million in BP money earmarked for oyster reef research isn’t going towards reshelling.
“Why are we putting $4 million back in the bay if we’ve already done it? Why can’t we put it into a shelling program?” he asked. “We’re not asking for a handout; we want to work. Oystering is a hard job, we work hard for our money. We just need help buddy, we need help. I’m about to lose everything I’ve got.”
In his appeal to legislators to back a plan to open up more of the bay for harvesting, Hartsfield said the state has said it would be a health risk.
“If you could find out a little more about it, we’re looking for anything that would help ourselves out,” he said. “During the BP oil spill, they opened the entire bay. Water sampling wasn’t an issue; they just opened it.”
Hartsfield urged legislators to seek an appropriation to help the bay after the session opens March 14.
Both Montford and Beshears said they are continuing to work on the county’s behalf.
“We want to help anybody who wants to help themselves,” said Beshears. “Do not think for one-half a second it falls on deaf ears. We’re paddling that boat as fast as we can. It’s unfortunate that’s it’s had to be an industry collapse for anyone to pay attention.
“The governor’s been down here several times, it’s on his radar,” he said. “Just hang in there. This is a unique problem, unlike any other in the country. The problem we’ve been having is we’ve run out of time. We will stay on top of it.”
Montford encouraged the seafood workers to continue to speak out. “Don’t sit back and be quiet. Keep on doing what you’re doing,” he said. “We all know we have a problem out there. People as far as Miami know the problem up here. This is not a north Florida problem, it’s a Florida problem.”
When all five county commissioners came forward to speak, Commissioner Smokey Parrish addressed what he said was too much authority being invested in FWC.
“That’s a very serious issue. There has to be checks and balances,” he said. “You give a lot of authority to one group that answers to nobody.”
Parrish appealed for help to the oyster industry. “The state of Florida has to step up, we need to get some help down here,” he said. “Why can’t we all work together and get something for these guys?”
He also called for the reopening of the Bay City Work Camp, a position that was also supported later in the meeting by Apalachicola Mayor Pro Tem Frank Cook and City Administrator Betty Webb.
Commissioner Pinki Jackel spoke briefly, thanking the legislators for their work as a bipartisan team. “We appreciate your putting the bay at the forefront,” she said. “We hope you all will do something hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley spoke at length, telling the legislators that since he began working on that water in 1969, “this is the worse I’ve seen. Now it’s worser and it’s going to take time for it to get better. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take three to five years to get this right.
“This thing is affecting a whole lot of people,” he said. “One of our biggest workforces is seafood, and we’re losing it.”
Lockley faulted FWC for ignoring the problem of undersized oysters, and now cracking down hard. “They sit down and let people come in with little oysters. They didn’t enforce it, they do their job but they should have been doing it all the time,” he said.
He also took issue with the fact that Adam Putnam, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture since 2011, has yet to visit the county. “He’s not been down,” Lockley said. “I haven’t seen him, not the whole time he’s been in office. He needs to show his face.”
Chair Cheryl Sanders asked for better communication from state officials. “We have all these projects going on. We need a little bit better communication levels than what we had,” she said.
She also defended herself against attacks regarding her stance against the Air Force using Tate’s Hell for military exercise, an issue that will be revisited on Dec. 12 at a public hearing in Apalachicola.
“It may not seem very important to a lot of people,” she said. “If you do not fish or hunt, you don’t use the forest, you don’t understand what we're talking about. That doesn’t bother me.”
Sanders closed by asking that the state not hand down any more unfunded mandates. “Leave us just as harmless as you found us,” she said.
The legislators heard from Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson and Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper, with their remarks mainly warm greetings and appreciation for past assistance.
Superintendent Nina Marks asked for funding help with vocational training and learning academies, and said the district’s wish list includes curriculum expansion into child care, allied medical professions, marine studies and Jr. ROTC.
“We need the funding to help make the classes what they need to be,” she said. “We need to be able to feed our children back into the community because they do want to stay here.”
Marks also called for a transition period of at least two years for full implementation of the Common Core standards, and appealed for more flexibility in setting the school calendar. “We can start earlier and get through with a full semester before the Christmas holidays,” she said. “We need more time on the clock.”
The legislators also heard from Joe Taylor, director of the Franklin’s Promise Coalition, who introduced members of the Bridges to Circles program, an effort to provide the skills to people to help them better manage the workforce demands and their own finances.
Marcia Lindeman, administrator of the county health department, and Gina Moore, who oversees the anti-tobacco program, provided details of the anti-smoking effort, the dental clinic and other functions of the health department.