The City Council is defective; here’s how to fix it

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Having a grievance taught me a lot about how the City Council is viewed by citizens of Green Cove Springs. As I talked with strangers and people I barely knew, a pattern emerged.

Hearing my grievance, some agreed with me. Some disagreed. Most were indifferent. But because there was a City Council angle to my cause, nearly everyone volunteered an opinion about the council, and they were remarkably consistent: “They just do whatever they want.” If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.

We know that about 65 percent of all Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing because scientific polling measures our attitudes toward Congress on a regular basis. No such measurement exists for tiny Green Cove Springs, but my anecdotal experience suggests our governing body is equally unpopular.

To me the reason is clear, and it cannot be attributed solely to the failings of individual council members. The Green Cove Springs City Council is defective by design. It is hard-wired to alienate its citizens.

As a newspaper reporter, I covered city councils in three states. No two councils were exactly alike, but all of them shared a design feature lacking here. They all had council members who represented individual districts or neighborhoods. In Green Cove Springs, every one of the five council members runs “at large,” which means each represents the entire city. All the successful small cities I have covered have councils that are a mix of district and at-large representatives.

Think of it this way: District council members are like congresspeople in the House of Representatives and at-large members are like senators. In general, district council members look out for their neighborhoods and the people in them. The at-large members are meant to take a broader view. The mixture of these two types of reps provides checks and balances that Green Cove now lacks, hence the growing sense of alienation among many homeowners and business people.

The notion that “they just do whatever they want” is reinforced by the fact that nearly every vote by the Green Cove council is unanimous—5-0, 5-0, 5-0. The old reporter in me would suspect that the council is deciding issues ahead of time in secret, and then engaging in some cursory discussion during the official meeting—call it “legislative theater”—before making another 5-0 decision.

At this point, let’s note the elephant in the room – our own Magnolia Point gated community. Nothing against my Magnolia Point friends, but its existence creates the potential for a further political distortion. With 1,500 potential voters in a town of – 7,277 people as per the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimate – it is theoretically possible that all five council seats could be filled by Pointers. Now there happen to be two.

The potential for Magnolia Point dominance is particularly noxious because a major source of tension between citizens and government revolves around land use. People who live in places like Magnolia Point accept the fact that there are numerous restrictions on what they can do with their property.

Florida has plenty of deed restricted communities, so when the rest of choose to live outside the gates, we do so because we really, really don’t want to live like that. In recent years, it would seem that there is a gradual but concerted effort to retrofit the organic neighborhoods of Green Cove with the types of restrictions normally associated with the Magnolia Points of the world.

Writing from Green Cove’s old riverfront neighborhood, I’m reasonably confident that a district council member would have resisted some of these changes. Carports, an old Florida tradition, come to mind because the resentment over the city’s carport ban continues to simmer and sizzle.

One of our neighbors, a county employee named Pete Gomes, became embittered a couple years ago because the city denied him permission to install a shelter for his RV even before the council voted to ban carports. In other words, he applied for his permit when carports were still legal. He was denied, he says, because the city officials told him the ban was about to pass. Two things: 1. That’s just plain wrong, and 2. How could city officials know for certain that the ban was going to pass, unless the old reporter in me is correct and the system is rigged. (“They just do whatever they want.”)

I guarantee that if Gomes had lived in a district represented by the late Charlie Medeiros, Ward 5 city councilor of Westfield, Massachusetts, his RV would be parked in the shade today. Medeiros would have screamed bloody murder in defense of his constituent. He would have prodded and politicked until Gomes got his permit and probably would have gone on to see the carport ban defeated.

In another example, the city council “prosecuted” a poor woman who had made the mistake of converting her garage into a “Florida room,” another Green Cove pet peeve. I’ll not mention her name to spare her the embarrassment all over again. She owns a very modest home on a crappy street in a crappy neighborhood. Working two jobs and dazed by responsibility, she also made the mistake of not responding to municipal citations. She says she only learned of the issue when she applied for bank refinancing and discovered a lien.

Leading the prosecution, as the poor woman stood at the lectern in front of an audience, were the mayor (Magnolia Point) and the next mayor (waterfront property), who used their bully pulpit to openly deride her. Gawd, was it painful! As I watched, I could only imagine Charlie Medeiros back from the dead and serving as her district rep.

I can hear him now: “Ms. Mayor-to-be, if code enforcement is so vital to our city…” He then would have cited the occasions in which the city had winked at violations committed by more privileged folk. In fact, it never would have gotten that far because he would have let his strategy be known in advance and forced the city to forgive much of the $4,000-plus fine, levied because of a $700 garage enclosure.

Next year is a charter-change year. Let’s fix our defective city council. Here are three potential districts that could elect their own representatives to the council: District One: from the river to the railroad tracks; District Two: Magnolia Point, and District Three: everywhere else. In addition to these, two councilors would serve at-large as they do now. Under this system, we could still have three council members from Magnolia Point but never more than three.

This change would result in true debate on important issues. The 5-0 votes might become 4-1 votes, or maybe that “one” would convince two others, and the vote would go 3-2 the other way. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. Otherwise what we will continue to have is a quasi-oligarchy that “does whatever it wants.”

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