“We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.” So said Franklin Roosevelt in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech.
At its Oct. 28 meeting, the St. Augustine City Commission aired a proposal to amend the City Charter to allow mayor and vice-mayor to be appointed by city commissioners instead of the voting public. That’s right. St. Augustine’s burghers want to rig the rules against us citizens. First they wanted to allow nonresident business owners to vote (which is illegal). Now they want an end to elected mayors. The Establishment doesn’t want to see another reformer like Nancy Shaver in office.
In response, I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to investigate. Since the 1980s, St. Augustine citizens have voted twice to elect their mayors. There’s no need to insult voters by asking the question a third time.
St. Augustine residents first elected their mayor in 1812 under the landmark Spanish Constitution. That soon ended, and commissioners took appointed turns as mayor in the bad ol’ days, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called St. Augustine “the most lawless city in America.” Long trains of abuses by successive city managers include dumping a landfill in a lake, polluting our saltwater marsh, seeking to develop buildings on top of old garbage dumps, racist annexations diluting minority voting strength; First Amendment violations harassing artists, musicians and journalists—all dutifully reported for decades in Folio Weekly.
Then, after four (white, male) city commissioners deposed Ramelle Petroglu, St. Augustine’s first woman mayor, in 1985, residents voted—twice—to amend the City Charter to protect their right to vote for mayor. During 2014-2018, residents thrice elected a reform mayor, Nancy Shaver, who served with honor for 1550 days. She asked questions, demanded answers and expected democracy in St. Augustine. The New York Times reported in 2017 how she was the object of a “money bomb” from Sheriff David Shoar. After suffering a stroke in February, Shaver resigned and was replaced by Tracy Upchurch, ad interim.
Now opponents of reform (and democracy) want “their” town back. They’d like to curtail residents’ constitutional right to vote for mayor, lest they elect the wrong woman again. They want the mayor to be a “team player.” A “team player” in government and business parlance means one who willingly keeps wrongdoing secret.
Mayor Upchurch pushed back against the proposal, observing that the elected mayor’s position is a check and balance on the St. Augustine City Manager. Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline agreed.
Who wants to “rotate” awkward commissioners into the mayor’s seat? Enter Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman, an 11-year commissioner who has never run for mayor, but wants it on her resume. Freeman often blocked Nancy Shaver, even challenging her over a bathroom break and a 450th-commemoration forensic compliance audit. In short, a real team player.
What’s next? Commissioners must hold two public hearings before putting this turkey on a March 2020 primary ballot. If passed, there would be no more elected mayors in St. Augustine, only rotating figureheads. If this sounds like a bad idea to you, speak out 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12 and Monday, Dec. 9. The swing vote is Commissioner Roxanne Horvath, an architect who initially seconded Mayor Upchurch motion to “table” the idea and to “send it into outer space forever.”
Slavin is a veteran watchdog and editor of the Clean Up City of St. Augustine blog.