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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The mural controversy in High Springs continues to dominate discussion around the community and at commission meetings. The issue surrounds the proposed Walldogs mural project under the auspices of the Heart of High Springs and an event permit that was granted earlier. At the March 24 meeting Commissioner Katherine Weitz suggested enacting an ordinance regarding the matter.

“I’m hoping that the folks involved with the Heart of High Springs could maybe set their ego aside to listen to what the people in the town are saying because the people are overwhelmingly against a Walldogs festival,” Weitz said. “They’re not necessarily against a mural or two. A lot of people are not against the idea of a mural. But I don’t think they want to have their town taken over by other folks.”

Commissioner Ross Ambrose responded, “We need to be very careful when you start creating legislation or rules that are specifically designed to impede the efforts of citizens within the community. So coming up with a policy and developing that so that the city staff can focus on what’s important and what’s within their realm is important. [I agree] because this has gotten to be a distraction for city government and it’s a private group using private funds in the community…I want to be careful that as a government we’re not designing something to impede a legal entity operated by citizens privately raising money to do work on private property. And I think that’s a very dangerous place for the City to go and be careful of.”

“I’m looking at it from a different perspective,” Commissioner Linda Jones said. “I don’t think a small group of people should be able to come into this city, fill out a permit and do whatever they want in this city. And we, as a Commission, have nothing to do with it. It states that in the application, ‘Commissioner approval not needed’ if they are not asking for money, for in-kind services and alcohol is not being served.’…“I hear that everybody’s got rights and we do, too…Why are you coming in and saying to us, ‘This is what you need and this is what we’re going to do,’ …So we’re trying to make sure that when they come up for the big one in 2023 that they can’t just sail through. We’ve got to have some barrier up there…some say as to what goes up in this city.”

City Attorney Andrea Parker listed aspects of an ordinance that the City could consider. She stressed that the ordinance be legal, defensible and definitely content neutral. “A clear process needs to be identified with time limits and the ordinance cannot make it overly difficult for someone to adhere to it,” she said. She added that regulating art on private property cannot violate people’s first amendment rights.

Resident Alice Brown called into the meeting and said she supported creating a mural ordinance. As part of her comments she suggested an arts council be formed to review public art, an idea that seemed interesting to Commissioners.

The Commission directed the City Attorney to create a mural ordinance for their review.

In response to what City Manager Stathatos described as a number of myths circulating around town regarding the Heart of High Springs and Walldogs issue, the City created an informational area on the City of High Springs website called Truth vs Myth. The idea that seems to have received the most attention is that a ballot item can prevent Wall Dogs from coming to High Springs. According to the City website, special event permits are granted taking into consideration the life, health, safety, and general welfare of High Springs’ citizens and visitors. Special event permits cannot be permitted or denied based on the content of the event. The right to gather and hold events is a protected First Amendment right.

Although the City Attorney explained that people could obtain 10 percent of the voters’ signatures and could place it on the ballot for a vote, it would not be defensible and she would recommend that the City not proceed along those lines.

In other City business, Jones took the mayor to task for not signing a letter that the Commission voted unanimously to send to Tallahassee in support of House Bill CS/HR 493, Single Member Districts. Williams said he didn’t have all the facts on the issue and declined to sign the letter because he didn’t support what the letter said. Ultimately, Commissioners voted 3-2, with Williams and Vice-Mayor Gloria James casting the dissenting votes, to send the letter under Commissioner Jones’ signature.

The Commission authorized Assistant City Manager Bruce Gillingham to negotiate an agreement with Suez for an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) project. He will report on the total cost and how the City proposes to pay for the project for Commission approval.

A request by the High Springs Chamber of Commerce to waive fees for their use of the Civic Center was approved for one quarter. Meanwhile, the City will review the policy for non-profit organizations to see if they might want to modify the fee structure.

Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of a new elevator for City Hall at a not-to-exceed amount of $120,000 using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. They also unanimously voted to approve the purchase of cardiac monitors for the High Springs Fire Department, also using ARPA funds.

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