The Board of County Commissioners’ renewed pledge of civility was tested during Tuesday’s regular meeting.
Barbed comments were exchanged between commissioners, former commissioners and staff during a testy meeting that included debates on a jail inspection and the removal of the old Bay Medical/Beacon Hill Living sign in Beacon Hill.
During a period of calm early in the 140-minute meeting, commissioners received an update on legal issues pertaining to redistricting and county-wide voting as well as a recap and proposed path forward for beach restoration on St. Joseph Peninsula.
The county and the federal decree under which elections are conducted was not impacted by a recent U.S. Supreme Court which struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, said attorney Michael Spellman, the county’s counsel on election matters.
The federal decree put in place in Gulf County in 1986, Spellman said, fell under the jurisdiction spelled out in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court decision impacted only Sections 4-5 and, in Florida, five counties under the mandates of those sections.
Commissioners approved 3-2 (Smiley, McLemore dissenting) to spend $8,000-$12,000 for Spellman to research whether voting districts are sufficiently “compact”, the first prong to a motion to overturn the federal decree.
The beach nourishment project, consulting engineer Michael Dombrowski said, was a success that is now seeing, in what was the normal timeline, some loss of sand in the southern end of the project, closest to the Stump Hole.
Additional sand had initially been placed in the southern section with the idea that much would accrete to the northern section. Indeed, four years after completion of the project the southern section has lost 65 percent of its sand while the northern section had gained 19 percent.
Dombrowski proposed reforming the Beach Advisory Committee, examining a scope of work, costs and potential funding sources to continue the nourishment work.
Temperatures rose as the meeting turned to commissioner concerns and Commissioner Joanna Bryan revisited two issues raised at a previous meeting – a meeting that also included for a call to return to the Pledge of Civility commissioners entered into last year.
Bryan moved for the county to proceed with removing a sign in Beacon Hill that is out of compliance, not located on the permitted land, is in a county right-of-way and has been left in disrepair for several years.
The sign formerly marked the entrance to a Bay Medical Center facility that once operated at the site of Beacon Villa assisted living facility, owned before foreclosure by former Commissioner Bill Williams.
Commissioners voted to remove the sign at a prior meeting, provided Williams was given 10 days to provide any proof of ownership as all county paperwork indicated the sign belonged to Bay Medical, which did not want it.
Commissioner Carmen McLemore asserted Bryan “misled” commissioners on ownership of the sign – Williams lobbed the same charge; both times Bryan answered, “I am not going to let that lay; I did not mislead anybody” – and suggested the board reverse itself and provide Williams a 70-day window to bring the sign into compliance.
“Am I to understand the board now wants to keep the sign?” Bryan said. “A dangerous precedent is being set here.”
Williams also provided a letter from Sacred Heart Bay Medical Center – Bryan questioned the representation from Williams in securing the letter – indicating the sign reverted to Williams upon the termination of the lease agreement with Bay Medical.
Jeremy Novak said the land use agreement with the county had expired, raising issues of legality over compliance, and McLemore moved to extend the agreement.
Commissioners approved that motion – and the 70-day window to bring the sign in compliance – 4-1, Bryan dissenting.
They did so after hearing from one neighbor.
“The sign is an eyesore, it is blight,” said Sharon Winchester. “It has degraded over time. Commissioner McLemore, it’s not in your neighborhood ... Commissioner Bryan is trying to do her best for District 3.
“Commissioner (Ward) McDaniel. You promised the sign would need to go last week.”
Bryan added that the sign has been blighted for years, constituents want it removed and Williams has had plenty of time and opportunities to solve the problem.
“The sign should not have been allowed in the first place,” Bryan said.
The edge in tone continued as Bryan said she wanted to have an inspection of the jail.
The jail carried liability issues, had not been inspected in recent years and the county could secure a free inspection through a contact with the Florida Sheriff’s Association she had been made aware of.
She said an annual inspection was required, through the Department of Corrections has not been enforcing that requirement in recent years.
“At least it shows we are doing something,” Bryan said, noting the jail budget is over $1 million. “I’m concerned about the liability to the county and I am concerned about my role in that liability.”
Jail administrator Michael Hammond disagreed, recommending against an inspection, adding the county can not afford to meet Modern Jail Standards, the template against which an inspection would gauge the jail.
He and Commissioner Warren Yeager argued that small counties typically will not meet inspections and Yeager wondered why bring attention to any deficiencies when the jail has been operating without incident.
“We have a jail that doesn’t have an issue and you are pressing the issue,” Yeager said.
Bryan said she could and would ask for the inspection as an individual commissioner; Hammond said no one would enter the jail for an inspection without a vote of the full board or approval from county administrator Don Butler.
Bryan questioned whether Hammond would refuse a commissioner and inspector entrance; Hammond repeated his previous statement.
The BOCC entertained no motions.