Pensacola News Journal – January 23, 2021
The very safety of your drinking water and the collective property rights of 55% of Santa Rosa County citizen-customers are at stake when the board of county commissioners convenes Feb. 25.
Three commissioners could decide to put their friendship with one businessman over the safety of more than 100,000 people, more than half the county. That businessman owns a mining company. He bought some land in the eastern part of the county that is in a protected area. He knew it was protected land when he bought it. The land is protected because it serves as the well field for an important part of our water supply. But now three northern county commissioners are changing the county’s comprehensive plan in order to allow their friend’s borrow-pit mine to expand pit operations into protected land.
A “good government” is accountable to the people, not to special interests, corporate interests, or the self-interest of elected and appointed officials. Good governance mediates differing stakeholder interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interests of the majority. Here’s a question: What is the difference between a special interest and a community stakeholder? Knowing the difference will help you determine whether your local elected leaders are practicing good governance.
Stakeholders are people who have an interest or concern in their community. Stakeholders represent their neighborhoods or groups and help government officials develop majority consensus of what is best for all concerned. By contrast, a special interest is an individual or group who seeks to take special advantage of its government. A special interest seeks to influence decision makers for often a very narrow benefit.
A crisis in governance is when the narrow interests of a few outweigh the interests of the majority. To ensure accountability to the people, a “good government” is as transparent as possible — holding public meetings and maximizing opportunities for citizen input, providing information to the press, and being clear about what decisions are being made, by whom, and why.
Governmental land-use decisions have a profound effect on communities and individuals. It is through these decisions that the quality and character of our future development will in large part be determined. These decisions also can significantly affect individual landowner’s rights. It therefore is imperative that these decisions be made in a fair and impartial manner. Because these decisions are made by citizen officials elected in part because of their relationships, maintaining impartiality and avoiding conflicts of interest can be difficult. State law requires that those entrusted with governmental land-use decision-making authority avoid conflicts of interest. It applies to any participation that is likely to affect the outcome of the decision, not just voting.
The objectives of land use planning boils down to resolving and preventing conflicts between public and private interests. Comprehensive plan policies are adopted to serve as a framework for all the decisions that follow. The Santa Rosa County zoning board affirmed the importance of protecting our drinking water quality by recommending 7-1 that the county commissioners not approve a change that benefits a narrow special interest over the interest of the public majority. The zoning board knew well that it was the northern county commissioners who directed the county planner to draft the land use change in the first place. No need for this special interest to fill out a public application requesting the plan change to benefit his business.
Transparency. Accountability. Representation. Rule of law. Effectiveness. Responsiveness. These are the hallmarks of good governance. In the face of perennial debates about the relative power of the people versus the special interests, it is the responsibility of elected officials to represent stakeholders.
In the months leading up to Santa Rosa County’s land use vote, our elected members of south Santa Rosa County water boards who comprise the Fairpoint Regional Utility System attempted a diplomatic approach to the northern commissioners’ push for a special interest. The FRUS first engaged a statewide environmental specialist to read to the county its own past environmental studies on the matter, and explain environmental facts. Gulf Breeze elected officials made individual phone calls to county commissioners to no avail. Stakeholders’ pleas on the public record went unanswered and were not included in the county’s transmittal of its plan change to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Feb. 25, a final public hearing is scheduled. The public needs to tell the commission NO. We have established a website for citizens to express their views and to stay informed about this issue at www.saveourdrinkingwater.com.
If the three northern commissioners continue to put one business ahead of the interests of everyone else, the Fairpoint Regional Utility System will next seek a hearing to resolve the dispute by the State of Florida. My perspective as a city manager is that this comes as no surprise. Our elected officials have publicly stated that they will take all legal avenues to protect the public whom they serve. Facts of conflicts of interest will be laid to bear. The public trust in some county officials may be irrevocably broken. The only way to steer us back on course is for one of the three north county commissioners to listen to stakeholders over special interests. If not, there may be a crisis in governance in Santa Rosa County.
Samantha Abell is city manager of Gulf Breeze.