Port St. Joe city commissioners are preparing to don new hats.
A deeply divided board on Tuesday, voting 3-2 along familiar fault lines, approved dissolving the board of directors of the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency.
The result, after an ordinance to make the change is approved for advertisement and read twice, would be commissioners becoming PSJRA board members, operating “separately” as a body “independent” from their roles as city commissioners, said city attorney Tom Gibson.
The item, which had not been previously discussed by this board, was not listed on the agenda publicly distributed last Friday.
The item, listed at the request of Commissioner William Thursbay, was included in an amended agenda posted shortly before 11 a.m. ET Monday.
The issue was taken up while PSJRA executive director Gail Alsobrook, who attends nearly every regular and special meeting, was not in town.
“That was a cowardly act to vote when she is not here,” said resident and active civic volunteer John Parker.
Dissolution of the PSJRA board, Thursbay said, was not to get rid of Alsobrook, but the board.
Thursbay brought the motion that was seconded for discussion by Commissioner Phil McCroan. During the lengthy, often heated debate, Commissioner Bo Patterson approved the move for reasons similar to Thursbay.
When asked if his second of the motion stood, McCroan said he wanted to hear from all commissioners and then provided no insight as to his own views as he voted to dissolve the PSJRA board.
Commissioner Rex Buzzett and Mayor Mel Magidson strongly disagreed with the move.
“We have great board; we are doing the wrong thing here,” Buzzett said.
Buzzett noted he was chairman of the board of what was then the Downtown Redevelopment Agency for a decade. The group, without funds, mostly gathered to discuss ideas without the wherewithal to get much done.
That changed, he said, when the agency hired an executive director and pursued statutorily mandated Tax Increment Funds – a small percentage of property value increases in the designated area compared to a base year – from the county and city.
Since then the agency had leveraged those funds to make major changes to the downtown and the business area.
“Everything that has been done in the city to improve the city has been the work of the PSJRA, all of them,” Buzzett said. “You are not going to be able to do what these people, volunteers all of them, do.”
Thursbay brought the motion to dissolve the PSJRA board, stating a fundamental objection to a non-elected board spending taxpayer money.
He thought the PSJRA does a good job, but cited a “lack of communication” between the agency, city staff and commissioners.
He added that he believed he spoke for the “majority of voters” in the city in moving to dissolve the board.
“I am a steward of tax money,” he said. “The majority of city voters believe we should become the board.”
Patterson said he too spoke for the majority of voters, qualifying it later saying he was speaking for those who contacted him.
He continued that there was a socioeconomic gap between those who would contact he and Thursbay and those who would communicate with Buzzett and Magidson on issues.
“I think the board has a done a great job, but I do have a problem with our not being the board,” Patterson said.
Thursbay emphasized he wanted to dissolve the board, not “get rid of Gail”, though he later said he objected to Alsobrook’s salary, comparing her pay as a hourly contract worker to the county grant writer’s salary and benefits package, as well as the PSJRA budget.
Magidson said it seemed the “sore point” for Thursbay was Alsobrook’s salary.
Buzzett said the Gulf County Tourist Development Council was a non-elected body with a budget several times that of the PSJRA.
Magidson and board member Aaron Farnsley said the agency has been able to leverage its funding into millions of dollars to improve the aesthetics and infrastructure downtown.
Farnsley said two major items on the night’s agenda, including the badly-needed sidewalk project along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and lights for Langston Drive were happening through the efforts of the PSJRA.
“I think we do a great job,” Farnsley said. “I am speaking as an individual. We have really tried to communicate with you. We are not an elected board and I think we take the politics out of it.
“We have all worked to the betterment of the city and that is evident by our accomplishments.”
Magidson and Buzzett said commissioners already have final say over PSJRA actions, noting the Commission has vetoed two recent proposals, including an observation tower at Billy Joe Rish Memorial Parking Lot.
Commissioners approve board members and the budget and all projects come to commissioners for approval. All spending is done according to Florida statutes, Gibson said.
“If you have a problem with the board, look in the mirror,” Buzzett said.
Patrick Jones, a former PSJRA board member, said the board represents an opportunity for talented people in the community to be involved. The board, he said, brings “skill sets” and “community assets” to bear in ways government can not.
While a vote to dissolve the PSJRA board might silence some critics, it would tell those volunteers “you do not count.”
“The best use of civic resources is to involve them not get rid of them,” Jones said.
Resident Mark Howze said the effect of the Commission’s action was to replace one board with another, adding another layer of bureaucracy, and playing “semantics.”
Howze and Thursbay, as with the commissioner and Magidson and Farnsley earlier, engaged in pointed words, Howze criticizing Thursbay for “snide comments” interrupting his presentation.