The Jacksonville Beach city leaders informally decided at a special meeting Thursday evening to prohibit City Council members from organizing festivals and events in town.
City attorney Susan Erdelyi recommended changes to the special events policy after hiring Jacksonville attorney John Dickinson to conduct a report, which raised concerns that two City Council members could be personally benefiting from annual festivals held at Latham Park and Seawalk Pavilion.
Though the meeting ended with the decision to not allow council members to organize major events in Jacksonville Beach, it doesn't mean the events will come to an end. The popular festivals will continue, but other people, who are not city officials, will have to take on the roles.
Mayor Charlie Latham agreed with the policy change, saying it could appear to be a conflict of interest if public officials were involved in the planning.
"We had an informal agreement tonight. We didn't have a vote, but that's the direction we're headed in is that council members shouldn't be involved in any way in sponsoring or promoting events and same applies to appointed officials and city staff," Latham said.
But others, including both council members whose actions have been questioned, said there's no personal profit gained from the special events.
Councilman Phil Vogelsang started Oktoberfest in 2013, along with fellow Councilman Keith Doherty. He said he contributed $19,000 to charity in 2015, and this past October's event generated more than $30,000 for charity. In 2012, Doherty organized another popular event, the Celtic Festival, which is held each November.
"My events were all paid for by me. So I don't understand what was behind the investigation," Doherty said.
Vogelsang told News4Jax that the festivals, which are held during the off-season, help bring local beach businesses a boost during a slow time of the year. Before the meeting, he said, the end of council members' involvement in events would be disappointing not only for him, but for the entire community.
"Election season started in 2016 and all of a sudden, the question came up as to whether it would be appropriate for us as council members to do special events," Vogelsang said.
Vogelsang said he immediately contacted the Ethics Commission in Tallahassee, which told him there were no issues.
"Coincidentally, the city manager said he wasn't comfortable, based on me relating the information to the Ethics Commission. He wanted his own review done of the policy," Vogelsang explained.
Erdelyi then hired Dickinson to conduct the review, which came back showing no violations of laws or policies, according to Vogelsang.
But he said he was upset with the way Dickinson's report portrayed where exactly the money raised from Oktoberfest went.
"Every dollar is specifically accounted for, where that went. It all went to charity and the other remaining funds were left with the organization to be used for the next event and it specifically articulates that by law. So for him to suggest in his report or question where the funds went was very frustrating, disappointing," Vogelsang said.
Doherty said there are more pressing issues that the city needs to fix.
"The beach is a disgrace. The walkovers are unusable. The pier is out of commission for probably two years," he said. "There are other things we need to focus on."
Many Jacksonville Beach residents attended the meeting to learn more about the proposed changes, as well as to express their opinions.
"This meeting is about a conflict and they're fooling the public," said resident Matt Killen.
There was some confusion surrounding the meeting, with several attendees thinking that city leaders were going to announce that there would be no more festivals in Jacksonville Beach.
That is not true, Latham stressed. The events will go on, but with changes in policy.