By DOTTY NIST
“(O)f outstanding quality; especially: consisting of individuals selected for quality, reputation, or authority,” is the definition of the adjective “blue-ribbon” per the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. In use since 1926, the adjective is often placed in front of the words “panel” or “committee.”
County commissioners were recently presented with a request for the formation of a “blue-ribbon committee” in Walton County.
Well over 100 members of a newly-formed organization of small businesses crowded into the South Walton Annex for the Nov. 7 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting, overflowing into the hallway of the meeting room. On behalf of the group, spokesman Gary Shipman asked for the formation of the special committee—and a hold on several ordinance proposals under review by Walton County.
Shipman’s comments to the commissioners came during discussion on a proposed ordinance that would amend the current county code provisions setting standards for parking. Workshops had been held on the proposed ordinance, to which Shipman and other members of Walton County Small Business Association (WCSBA) had expressed strong opposition.
Soon after the Nov. 7 BCC meeting was convened, County Administrator Larry Jones made a recommendation for the parking ordinance as currently proposed to be withdrawn and for county staff to be allowed to pursue a different course of action to address parking problems. Jones explained that what was envisioned was a “more focused approach” to identify problem locations and target those areas to resolve concerns.
He told the commissioners that he would envision a series of workshops on the proposals to be developed by staff. Jones emphasized the importance of the county being able to enforce the proposals that were adopted. A number of people, he continued, had expressed concerns in connection with the county moving forward with the issue. Their participation, Jones noted, would be encouraged during this process.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander responded that she would “certainly agree” with that approach.
Shipman, who had been placed on a different part of the agenda for comments on the parking ordinance and other proposed ordinances, was asked if he would like to go ahead and speak.
Coming forward, Shipman told the commissioners that several recent ordinance proposals by the county were the reason that most people in the room had attended the meeting. These proposals, the parking ordinance, the special events ordinance, and the business license ordinance, all have the potential to negatively impact the business environment, he maintained.
Members of the business community, Shipman continued, do not want to be “gripers” but instead want to “create solutions” to problems. Proposed ordinances should undergo review by those who will be enforcing them, and consideration of proposals should be accompanied with concern for the business community which may be affected, he argued.
A parking problem already exists, particularly in south Walton County, Shipman reasoned, so an ordinance applying to future construction will not solve the problem. The workshop format that the county is using, he also asserted, “won’t fix the problem.”
Instead, Shipman called for a blue-ribbon committee which would include not only the business community but the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, the South Walton Fire District, the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce. It was suggested that the committee would review the proposed ordinances and develop solutions to parking, traffic, events and licensing issues in Walton County that have a potential effect to the business environment.
By putting “smart people” together to seek solutions in these matters, Shipman urged, it could be possible not only to identify solutions but methods to fund putting them into place.
Shipman noted that the committee would operate “in the sunshine.” He asked the BCC to put the committee in place without delay. The request was followed by loud applause from the crowd.
After being advised by Mark Davis, county attorney, that the BCC has the authority to appoint any kind of committee it so chooses, Comander suggested moving forward with creating the blue-ribbon committee.
Davis commented that the procedure would be to publicly notice meetings of the committee, which would be open to the public, and advise committee members that they could not discuss committee business with other members outside of meetings. The county would be responsible for taking meeting minutes, he explained.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows questioned Shipman, “What can you do in a committee that you can’t do in a workshop?”
Shipman responded that the county holds a workshop on a specific ordinance. “You can’t think outside the box in a workshop,” he declared. “This is a way we can put together people who are stakeholders,” he said of the committee.
Meadows said her experience with committees was that they “drag things out for ad infinitum” and “create a lot of extra work” for county staff. The use of a committee, she continued, limits the process to “a select few” who may be pushing for their own agendas that may not represent the wishes of the broader community.
The idea with workshops, Meadows continued, is that “everybody would have a say.”
“We’ve come up with process for ordinances that we think works very well,” she asserted. That statement drew a loud burst of laughter from the meeting room.
“Everybody who’s laughing,” Meadows observed, “90 percent of you guys I’ve never seen here on any other issue pertaining to the community.”
Telling the citizens she was glad they had attended, Meadows also commented that the county commission meets twice a month. “If you want to be involved, hey, come to the meetings,” she said.
She added that many of the issues referenced had been discussed at commission meetings for many years.
Davis countered Shipman’s statement that workshops were held on one topic. “A workshop can be on any number of topics,” he stated.
Shipman countered Meadows’ assertion that a committee would narrow the process, saying that a committee meeting held in the sunshine is “ effectively a workshop.” Everyone is invited to attend, he said, explaining that the WCSBA has a land planner lined up who will provide ideas and plans.
Shipman spoke of a “distrust” among the business community of the county enacting ordinances “that aren’t what they seem…to harm the business community.” He said he did not think it was the county’s intent and “sure hoped” that this was not the case. The “simple way” to counter the distrust would be to form the committee, he urged.
Shipman said he and other WCSBA members had met individually with the commissioners. Addressing Meadows, Shipman observed that they had met with her for 3 ½ hours and that he had had the impression that Meadows had been in agreement with them on some topics, including public parking.
Meadows replied that she had not agreed on the formation of the committee.
“I said that a blue-ribbon committee as in Lloyd Blue ribbon committee is really not the type of thing that…” She was drowned out by loud groans from the audience.
“Lloyd Blue isn’t standing up here talking to you, I am,” Shipman countered.
“This is not going to be a battle between Lloyd Blue and Suzanne Harris, not if I’m involved in it…” Shipman said, “this is about what is right for this county.”
Shipman, a local attorney, had represented Blue as a defendant in the Suzanne Harris v. Walton County lawsuit, which had alleged illegality in connection with the Blue’s sale of property at Chat Holley Road and U.S. 331 to the county in 2010.
Blue was present at the Nov. 7 meeting, but his involvement, if any, with the WCSBA was not clarified.
Meadows pointed out that ordinances were already “on the books” on most of the topics about which the WCSBA was expressing concern. Ordinances regulating parking and special events are already in existence and the county has been reviewing proposals for changes to those ordinances, she said,which the BCC would like businesses’ input on. It is not the case that the county is “making up new stuff” to attack business, Meadows observed.
One of those changes, Shipman charged, would make it a “crime” for him to invite six people over to his house to grill burgers.
“You’re an attorney, and you know better than that…” Meadows retorted, “you’re not doing the small businesses any justice by acting like you’re representing their interests.”
Asking for the floor, Comander stated that, while she agreed with many of Meadows’ comments, she also recognized that it was the BCC’s duty to serve the public— and that a “big outcry” was in existence to form the committee. She moved to do so, and the motion was seconded.
Much discussion followed on what groups should be represented on the committee. Meadows pointed out that representation for people who live in the community but are not in business had not been mentioned. She spoke to the need for such representation. She called for the South Walton Community Council, the Coastal Dune Lake Advisory Board and the bed tax community to be represented. The topics to be taken up will affect both full-time and part-time residents and people from all walks of life, Meadows noted.
“All stakeholders” should be represented, District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld agreed.
County Commission Chairman Kenneth Pridgen suggested that, rather than just “throwing out names” of groups to be represented on the committee, that the commissioners have county administration look into membership for the committee and bring back a recommendation at the next BCC meeting. He too was in favor of all community interests being represented.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman emphasized the importance of recognizing the different needs of the north and south ends of the county with any solutions to be proposed.
The motion on the floor was rescinded in favor of consideration of the committee being placed on the agenda for the Nov. 26 BCC meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
“I think when you boil it all down, we all want the same thing,” Jones observed. What is desired is what is best for business owners and the rest of the community, he noted, and a way to “attack the issues and not each other.”
It was agreed that work on the proposed ordinances would be put on hold pending a decision on the committee. Meadows observed that the proposals were “still in the public review process” in any case.
Jacquee Markel, a community leader, small business owner, and attendee at most BCC meetings, commented that she was not in agreement with many of the views expressed by the WCSBA. She was pleased that the BCC was looking at taking steps to interact with the community—but felt that the formation of the committee “in the snap of a finger,” at the request of the new business groups was “a slap in the face” of those who had been involved with efforts to resolve the matters under consideration for many years. There are people in the community with “great ideas” who have long begged the BCC to listen to them, Markel lamented.
“We’re not asking that this committee consist of us,” Shipman stated. “I want you to hear everybody’s views,” he clarified. Shipman emphasized that, however, the committee would have to be “about solutions, not complaints