Urged to take a step back on Tuesday, Port St. Joe commissioners obliged – at least for two weeks.
Poised to vote on an ordinance that would dissolve the board of the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency and replace board members with city commissioners, operating as an independent body, Commissioner William Thursbay withdrew his motion to proceed.
Commissioners, who appeared prepared to vote 3.-2 in favor of dissolving the PSJRA board, said they would address the first reading of the ordinance at their next regular bi-monthly meeting in two weeks.
The debate among commissioners echoed that of two weeks ago when Thursbay moved to dissolve the board and was joined by Commissioners Bo Patterson and Phil McCroan in what has become over the past five months a consistent voting bloc.
Mayor Mel Magidson and Commissioner Rex Buzzett said the board was not broken and therefore not in need of a fix.
Improvements, aesthetically and economically, in the downtown area, they said, could be traced to the efforts of the PSJRA and its volunteer board.
“We have to make hard decisions, but we also have to make smart decisions,” Magidson said. “This is not a smart decision.
“(The PSJRA board is) an incubator of ideas, ideas to improve the city. They don’t get to spend any money that we don’t say okay. We are already the board.”
Magidson noted the agency has brought in nearly $3.9 million in investment in the downtown since 2006.
The list of projects, from improving the U.S. Highway 98 corridor, City Commons Park, the Billy Joe Rish Memorial Parking Lot, the Dr. Joe Hendrix Parking Lot, sidewalks along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. were just a few of the projects for which the PSJRA was responsible.
And he reiterated an argument Buzzett and he have made from the outset of the debate – city commissioners are already in effect the board of the PSJRA, with final say over all projects and spending.
“They have not done anything without us approving what they are doing,” Magidson said.
Resident and business owner Dusty May said the city has looked better than it has in decades and said the vote should be based on what is best for the city, what would grow the city and make it an attractive place for his kids to make a life as he had.
“In the last five, six, 10 years it is unbelievable how much better the city looks,” May said. “Take a step back and think about what is best for the city.”
Those words, and several other like-minded statements from those in the packed meeting room, were met with sustained and loud applause.
But Patterson and McCroan were not swayed from what they said their constituents believed to be the right thing to do and that was to become the PSJRA board.
No commissioner provided specifics on how things should be changed or how the move would improve the board, but both said the constituents they spoke to thought dissolving the board “the right thing to do,” Patterson said.
“Nothing against the board or members, they have done a good job,” Patterson said. “A lot of voters said that they are proud of what I did. They think I am doing the right thing.
“A lot of you don’t vote in the city, but you want to tell us how to run the city,” a statement that was met with sounds of protest from the audience.
McCroan said he also had received “call after call” supporting his vote and said many people did not feel a part of the PSJRA, Commission or the process.
PSJRA executive director Gail Alsobrook said she sensed several issues were at work – commissioners want more involvement and influence on the PSJRA and a perception of poor communications between the agency and commissioners.
She said she would sit down with any individual commissioner on her time to discuss concerns and invited commissioners to attend a PSJRA board meeting.
She also noted that losing the current PSJRA board would mean additional costs in consulting fees and the like that are not currently required due to the disparate talents represented on the board.
And after additional comments from the board, and questions from commissioners, particularly Patterson, Alsobrook noted that maybe a workshop to educate the public and commissioners on the PSJRA operations would be a benefit.
There are, Alsobrook and Magidson noted, specific mandates on how the PSJRA is funded – through a percentage of property tax increases within the agency’s geographic boundaries compared to a base year – and the agency spends its money – only on redevelopment within the agency’s boundaries.
An overview of the agency and its mandates, Alsobrook said, would be helpful.
Commissioners said they could contact and meet with Alsobrook over the coming two weeks and next week’s meeting of the PSJRA – all meetings are open to the public – will be noticed to allow commissioners to attend.
“I don’t mind waiting so I take my motion off the table,” Thursbay said. “I appreciate everyone coming out on this issue. This is democracy. This is what it is all about.”
In other business during last Tuesday’s meeting:
*Commissioners will conduct a workshop prior to their April 1 meeting to consider options for addressing ongoing issues with discolored water from the tap.
“We are getting very close to a solution,” Buzzett said.
*Another meeting and another testy exchange between Magidson and a resident of Cape San Blas concerning the relocation of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse.
Dr. Pat Hardman attempted to pin Magidson down on where the city was getting the money to relocate the lighthouse. The bids, Magidson said, for the move came in just under $500,000 and Hardman asked how the city would foot that bill in addition to the estimated $170,000 cost of lowering power lines by Duke Energy to accommodate the relocation.
The city has a state appropriation of $325,000, a Duke Energy grant of $25,000 and raised nearly $40,000 in other donations and Hardman repeatedly asked where the remainder of the money was coming from.
Magidson turned the question back to Hardman, asking her where the proponents for keeping the lighthouse on the cape were securing their funds, and continued, as he has for several meetings, to insist the city has the money or “it will be coming.”