If you’re a fan of open government – thankfully most Americans are and understand the importance of it – then you’ll appreciate what took place at a specially called Fruitland Park Commission meeting this past Friday night.
Frankly, it was an excellent example of citizens taking an active role in government and making their voices heard. And in the end, they left knowing those voices made a difference.
If you’re not familiar with Fruitland Park’s government, two Villagers will begin serving on the city’s commission in November. Patrick DeGrave was the only candidate to file for the District 1 seat, while John Mobilian and Fred Collins are competing for the District 2 post. The two Villagers will replace Commissioners Rick Ranize and Ray Lewis, who both were elected in November 2014 at the same time voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to divide the city into five districts. Since neither commissioner lives in the district they represent, neither was eligible for run for the post again.
Friday’s specially called budget meeting became necessary after a huge crowd of Villagers showed up for the Sept. 13 meeting. The regular meeting room wasn’t nearly big enough to hold the crowd, so the commission rightly tabled its discussion about the millage rate, budget and fire assessment fees. The commission also secured the much-larger sanctuary at the Community Methodist Church, a couple of blocks away from City Hall, to make sure that everyone who wanted to attend the meeting could do so.
What happened next is something that truly defines the American way. More than 150 residents of the Fruitland Park portion of The Villages came out, as did every candidate seeking a seat on the commission. A few residents from the older part of the community also attended the meeting, and by the time it ended four hours later, every person who wanted to speak had been afforded the opportunity to do so.
We also applaud Mayor Chris Cheshire, a longtime advocate of transparency in government, for starting off the meeting with a crash-course of sorts on the millage rate and the city’s budget. We have no doubt that Cheshire’s well-researched, 30-minute presentation eliminated a bunch of questions right off the top. And like most of the residents in attendance, we learned a thing or two we didn’t know.
Once the meeting moved forward, some Villagers questioned the need for a millage of 3.9863 per $1,000 assessed valuation, which is what the commission originally planned to approve. Gary Drake, of the Village of Pine Hills, displayed a chart showing marked increases in ad valorem tax revenue in the city from 2015-19.
As was to be expected, a couple of times during the meeting the old “us versus them mentality” reared its ugly head. That issue has plagued Fruitland Park since the day The Villages started building homes in the city.
One longtime resident said the city invited Villagers into the community and she hopes they are happy, but she’ll be moving soon because of the rift. A Villager made it clear that she didn’t need an invitation to move to the city. And another resident who lives in the older part of the city pointed out that no one was invited to live in the city and everybody should be welcome wherever they decide to go.
That’s when Villager Mary Ann Mobilian, whose husband is running for the District 2 seat on the commission, stepped to the microphone and eloquently summed up the meeting.
“I feel like we’ve gotten some lectures here tonight that were undeserved,” she said. “I also feel like we’re coming here so that we can talk to you as the representatives of Fruitland Park. We have been civil and I think our concerns are valid. I hope you take us seriously because we’re taking all of this very seriously.”
Clearly, the commissioners heard Mary Ann and everyone else who spoke about the millage rate, the budget and the actual costs of the somewhat controversial library being built next to city hall, because they made the decision to set the millage at the rollback rate of 3.9134. They also heard the first reading of the budget, which will be up for final approval next Thursday in another meeting that will be held at the church so that everyone who wants to attend can do so.
Just as important if not more so, after receiving a myriad of questions about the cost of the new library, Cheshire instructed City Manager Gary Lavenia and Treasurer Jeannine Racine to look at figures and information provided by Villager Patty Drake that suggested the building was about $1 million over budget. And he asked them to come back to the commission with a breakdown of the actual costs for both the structure and the furnishings that will go inside the facility.
After the meeting, both Mary Ann and John Mobilian offered praise for the commission, saying they did an “excellent job listening” to the concerns of Villagers.
Not surprisingly, Cheshire also was pleased after the meeting, saying he truly appreciated seeing so many people making their voices be heard.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “We appreciate their concerns and we’re going to make sure that every one of their questions gets answered. That’s extremely important to me.”
Knowing Cheshire and the way he does business, we have no doubts that every single question will be answered to the best of the city’s ability. And we believe those Villages residents who are relatively new to the community now have a better understanding of how city government works.
We’d call Friday night’s meeting a win-win for both sides. We hope that kind of participation in Fruitland Park government meetings will continue. And we applaud every commissioner, staff member and resident who took part in the semi-historic event.