A new broom swept into the city of Apalachicola Tuesday night, and it took little time before it got to work.
Mayor Kevin Begos, and city commissioners Despina George and Adrianne Elliott, all elected for the first time a week ago, were sworn in according to the terms of the city charter, on the Tuesday after the first Monday of October.
In addition, City Attorney Kristy Banks took the oath, succeeding Pat Floyd, who served in that role since the 1980s. Outgoing Mayor Van Johnson swore her in. Commissioner Brenda Ash asked to table the proposed contract with Banks, which she had only recently been presented, but her motion died for lack of a second, and Banks’ approval was ratified.
Begos’ mother Jane Richardson performed the honors of making official the start of her son’s duties as mayor.
In Elliott’s case, she was sworn in by her grandfather Jimmy, whose seat she was elected to after he decided not to run for re-election after more than three decades in that role.
George broke tradition by taking her pledge herself, surrounded by several citizens, including Donna and Al Ingle, Day McGee, John Alber, Barbara Holmes, Robin Vroegop and Bonnie Davis. “I invited citizens who wanted to join me, as I was elected to serve them all,” she said afterwards.
George took her seat at the end of the dais, next to where Anita Grove sits. Grove was absent due to her taking part in Riverkeeper’s annual RiverTrek paddling down the Apalachicola River.
Brenda Ash, who was swiftly approved as pro tem in one of Begos’ first moves as mayor, remains seated in her spot, alongside Elliott, who took her grandfather’s seat. The new mayor and city attorney each took the seats their predecessors had occupied.
Once the new city commission was sat, they approved motions to honor Johnson, Elliott and Mitchell Bartley with plaques. Elliott served 36 years as commissioner, Bartley served 20 years, and Johnson served 22 years, during which he was both city commissioner and mayor.
Prior to the swearing in ceremony, the previous commission approved resolutions honoring Floyd, for his work as city attorney since the mid-1980s, and for Granville Croom, who is retiring from many years of service to the city’s recreation needs.
In his inaugural remarks, Begos told the audience that he had run for mayor “because I love Apalachicola. I could not sit back and watch our city crumble, or stay silent about the struggles of our senior citizens, working families, and youth. We have tremendous potential and so many good, hard-working people.”
The new mayor than shared some steps he plans to take in the next few months, beginning with the scheduling of a second public meeting each month. “Next week will feature a serious budget workshop to seek better use of our money,” he said. “We will take a hard look at every expense and every possible income opportunity to create a budget that pays bills without punishing the most vulnerable citizens or our historic institutions.”
The budget workshop has been tentatively slated for 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17.
“I will also propose re-starting our CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) program far earlier than previously scheduled,” he said. “Let’s be clear: the city shortchanged the Hill neighborhood, the working waterfront, and the Bowery, and that’s unacceptable. We need to invest in those areas and give those people a fair share of tax dollars, not ignore them.”
Begos said “the foundations for solving all these problems and many others will be transparency and cooperation. I will meet with you, answer your questions, and demand that city staff do the same. I believe our biggest mistakes in recent years - the state loan default and the collapse of our CRA - have come about from lack of transparency and lack of broad-based public input.
“From now on we will fully discuss important issues in public meetings. I will respect every commissioner and make sure all have the opportunity to raise topics of concern. A mayor does not make policy alone; it takes three votes. Each commissioner has a valuable and unique perspective,” said the mayor.
“I will work with the commission to reform city committees so that they reflect all parts of the community, and not just special interests. We will make city websites and social media more responsive to citizens’ needs. I will listen to you and respect your freedom of speech rights at all times, especially at public meetings,” Begos said. “I promise to work with all of our citizens to make city government better, fairer and more transparent. We can work together. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.”
At the outset, the public comment portion of the meeting included comments from Robin Vroegop and from George, both of whom had questions regarding whether it was appropriate to have the outgoing commission handle a number of item slated for old business.
Johnson addressed the agenda as proposed, but once the new commission was seated, George moved, and Elliott seconded, a motion to rescind the previous votes.
George’s issue was to seek a more careful review of a proposed grant application for a piece of a $25 million fund set up by the Florida Division of Emergency Management for Hurricane Michael damages. If sought and approved, the grant money would go towards restoration of the Popham Building along Water Street, adjacent to Leavins Seafood.
Elliott said the new commission had talked about grants, “but have little knowledge about what they are.”
She said the Popham building “has been derelict and dilapidated” for a while prior to the hurricane and while it might benefit from repair, so would other areas of the city, such as the working waterfront. She asked whether they would be allowed under the terms of these Hurricane Michael grant monies.
City Manager Ron Nalley said grant guidelines – such as a denial from FEMA, a cost minimum and existing insurance - mean that the Popham building is the only site in the city that would qualify for the grant monies.
“This is just for us to make the building be structurally sound,” he said. “We can reject the grant if it is awarded. I think it’s important for us to be midst of that.”
Begos suggested a special meeting be held in the next week, in advance of the Oct. 15 grant deadline. “We could review the grant ourselves and then vote to proceed or not,” he said.
Ash, who eventually cast the lone nay vote in the 3-1 approval of the motion for a special meeting, said she “has no concerns about staff, I have the utmost confidence in staff. I am not one who thinks staff should be micromanaged.
“I know the new commission doesn’t have that faith, which is really pretty distressing,” she said.
The special meeting is expected to take place Monday, but a specific time has not yet been scheduled.
Also in the public comments, Dolores Croom rose to thank those who had helped her during a recent fainting spell she suffered at a reception at the community center. She mentioned Valentina Webb, Barry Hand, Direek Farmer, Quan Jones and Deanna Simmons by name, and said other had helped her as well.
“This is not for any political reason,” she said. “I just want you to feel my heart.”
She also appealed to the new commission to close a ditch in front of her house which she said she has sought for the past 21 years.
Pastor David Walker came forward to thank those retiring for their service to the city. “Sometimes you can disagree but it should be respectful,” he said. “We all love the city of Apalachicola. Thank you for your service.”
Speaking on behalf of the Florida Seafood festival, Carl Whaley thanks the previous commissions for their support. “We look forward to all our new commissioners,” he said.
In other business the new commission approved the placement of Trish McLemore and Lois Swoboda to fill vacancies on the board of adjustment.