The odds of Wednesday farmers markets surviving in St. Augustine Beach seem better after a County Commission meeting on Tuesday, but issues surrounding the event’s management stoked arguments the night before among the St. Augustine Beach commissioners.
Monday’s beach meeting was peppered with bickering among commissioners, loud public comment and shouts and grumbling from the audience — Mayor Rich O’Brien had one man escorted out after the man exchanged words with him during public comment.
At issue was a request by the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association that the City Commission adopt a resolution which would support the group’s effort to work out a new lease with St. Johns County to hold the markets. The resolution would also have supported a temporary lease extension and reduced rent rates if the county begins requiring rent from the civic association.
The discussion came late in the meeting, and O’Brien and Commissioner Gary Snodgrass tried to change city procedure to allow for a vote as the clock edged toward midnight. Three commissioners voted against the motion, some citing the late hour and noting the tension on the dais.
The county controls the property near the pier where the farmers markets are held, and has allowed the civic association to operate the markets rent-free.
A recent notice from County Administrator Michael Wanchick notified the civic association that he wouldn’t recommend renewing the agreement, which was to end in July. That news resulted in an online petition to save the market alongside other efforts. At Tuesday’s St. Johns County Commission meeting, Wanchick said he would extend the lease for five or six months and use that time to work through issues with the civic association and come up with a long-term solution.
Feelings were mixed about the future of the market in St. Augustine Beach.
“They [the civic association] get that space for free, and they charge other people and that is public land,” Vice Mayor Undine George said.
“We’ve already agreed to that,” Snodgrass said.
“What do you mean we’ve agreed to it? We haven’t agreed to anything,” George said. “This is the county. … We’re interjecting ourselves into the county. Each of us can communicate. The mayor took a leap of faith and sent on city letterhead without consensus a letter on behalf of the city … “
“I’m grateful that he did that, by the way,” Snodgrass said.
George said previous agreements between the civic association and the county put money toward Pier Park improvements.
“Now there’s no … profits turned over for the benefit of the county,” George said. “It’s all kept in house. So was it appropriate for Wanchick to say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to rubber stamp a renewal of a 10-year lease that gives all the profit to a private organization without competition, without examination of the other options. Quite frankly, I think that was appropriate. Do I want to see the farmers market to go away? Absolutely not.”
Bill Jones, civic association president, has pointed out that the association gives money to the city and nonprofits such as the Betty Griffin House, and sponsors community events.
Snodgrass said he supports the civic association and not just the farmers markets. He referred to “thousands of people” who go to civic association events such as the summer concert series and farmers markets.
Commissioner Maggie Kostka said she is not against the civic association and supports working out a solution, but she said it would be presumptuous for St. Augustine Beach to voice their position on Monday.
Snodgrass said it would be “shameful” not to act on behalf of the civic association.
George said she disagreed and said she thought Snodgrass was being “blinded” — and she cited the late hour.
“I’ll stay here all night … if that’s what it takes,” Snodgrass said.
After 11 p.m., commissioners aren’t supposed to make a decision, officials said. Commissioners can waive the rule, City Attorney Jim Wilson said.
Commissioner Margaret England said she didn’t want to change the city’s “rules on the fly” and supported taking a breather on the discussion.
“I’m afraid this is going to get out of control,” she said.
Still, Snodgrass made a motion to change the rules so that the commission could resolve the issue after 11 p.m.
“That’s heresy,” someone yelled from the audience.
The commission voted 3-2 against Snodgrass’ motion, and didn’t allow public comment before the vote. O’Brien and Snodgrass voted to waive the time rule for the night.
Applause rose from the audience before O’Brien adjourned the meeting.
Reporter Jake Martin contributed to this report.