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Steve’s Marketplace: Calls Out Quiet Nassau Elected Officials

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By Steve Nicklas, 5-10-23

The sound of silence makes for a catchy lyric in a popular song, but it is an unpopular practice for elected officials.

Voters expect their elected officials to make difficult decisions – and explain their rationale. Also to be vocal, not quiet like a mime. Too much silence has prevailed here.

A couple weeks ago, Nassau County commissioners voted 4-1 to settle a consequential lawsuit over a high-rise development on Amelia Island. The big-dollar lawsuit was brought by an outside developer, Riverstone Properties. 

A sound of silence followed the vote in the commission chambers. Quiet enough to hear the crickets outside. Only commissioner Allyson McCullough voted against it, and she represents the west side of the county.

The commissioners used a lame excuse that the county attorney advised them not to comment, completely unacceptable in a decision of this magnitude. One commissioner tried to explain his decision, but he flopped.

Prior to the surprising decision, there had been an uproar of noise inside the chambers, packed with irate citizens. The crowd overflowed into the hallway, almost all exhorting commissioners to reject the settlement.

When hundreds of residents turn out to oppose or support a pending decision, our elected officials should listen to them. You didn’t get elected to make decisions in a vacuum. At least try to address citizens’ concerns, or attempt to compromise.

Pouring salt on an open wound, the county attorney lectured those in attendance. She ran through a list of things they shouldn’t do or say, or else. This is not the way to talk to your ultimate bosses.

However, we didn’t elect the county attorney, or her outside council; we elected the commissioners, who hired them. And who didn’t explain their votes because they were told not to do so. In this case, silence was not golden, it was cowardly.

County commissioners have company with the silent act. Several Fernandina Beach commissioners abruptly changed their votes and agreed to hire a national search firm to find a new city manager. Something unexpected followed. Again, the sound of silence.

At the last city commission meeting, some 50 people spoke for and against a Gay Pride event planned for next month at a city park. Instead of openly explaining their positions and feelings to the vocal crowd, commissioners just listened, silently.

The Nassau County school board also got into the act. School board members overpaid for a 10-acre parcel in Yulee, and the purchase was brought back before them. Bold school board member Cynthia Grooms had heard complaints about the exorbitant price tag – double what the seller had paid for the parcel just months before.

Grooms wanted to re-address the purchase. There was time to cancel it. Another board member chastised her for bringing it back up, since it had already been voted on. The others sat quietly. No remorse, no regrets.

We need our elected officials to be activists right now. Actively representing us, our county, and our ways of life. Our area is barreling full speed into a pivotal cross roads, and officials must decide the proper direction to take. And some decisions may be irreversible.

Our elected officials serve a vital role. They willingly run for office, and should be commended for their efforts. However, they must represent the people, their constituents, not outside interests.

And residents are entitled to know what they are thinking, doing. We deserve that. It’s called transparency. 

Silence is not an optimal strategy. Having conviction – and being willing to express that conviction – is the right path.

Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.

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