Councilmen Propose Slowing Down Process Of Renaming Jacksonville Parks, Buildings

Aug 17, 2020

Less than a week after the Jacksonville City Council voted to rename Hemming Park to James Weldon Johnson Park, Councilman Rory Diamond is filing a bill to institute a two-year moratorium on the future renaming of public parks, buildings, recreational facilities and public streets. 

“Right now we don't have a process to do it,” Diamond said. “The public is almost entirely cut out, especially during the Zoom era of democracy, so it makes sense just to pump the brakes, and put it in a process so that we can do this the right way.”

Right now, legislation to rename buildings is treated like any other proposed ordinance, going through a six-week process where it is heard by specific committees, has a public hearing, and then is voted on before the full City Council.

Diamond said the current process isn’t effective.

“There's a couple of other [name changes] that made sense in the very short term, but it seemed to have opened the floodgate of renaming as many things as possible,” Diamond said. “And that doesn't make sense to me.”

The bill would put a hold on all renamings until August of 2022, or until a new system for renaming legislation has been put in place. It would prevent council members from filing any new renaming legislation. 

Councilman Ron Salem said he’s working on a bill to create a more robust and detailed 10-week process for renamings. 

He said he’s uncomfortable with the current process that includes just one public hearing.

“I think to change the name of a park or a building is much more significant than that, and should require a lot more public input,” Salem said. 

Salem said the current process also doesn’t push the council members to learn more about both the name currently in place, or the one it will be replaced with. 

“There were some comments made that some of the council didn’t know a whole lot about [Charles] Hemming, and what the significance of Hemming was, and why the park was named after Hemming, and I want to make sure that all the facts are out there prior to the public hearing starting,” he said. 

Salem also said he would like to work on repealing an ordinance that states that a person has to be dead to have a public location named after them. 

“I would love personally to honor some of our past leaders prior to their passing,” he said. 

Both Salem and Diamond said these bills in no way show a lack of support from the recent park name change of Hemming Park to James Weldon Johnson Park.

“I would be the first person to say that we have not honored our African American History in Jacksonville as we should have,” Salem said. “I've said that in my campaign when I was running years ago, and I still believe that. I want to look at ways to do that, but I want to make sure it's done in a way that there was a lot of public input.”

For Councilman Garrett Dennis - who introduced the James Weldon Johnson Park renaming legislation - he’s curious as to why this is happening now.

“I want to know why it became a problem when that park was renamed after James Weldon Johnson, who just happened to be an African American,” Dennis said. 

Dennis also said if most bills go through the same six-week process, treating renamings differently is odd. 

“This process has been around in effect for 50 years,” Dennis said. This process was okay when we named the Tillie Fowler Park. This process was okay when we named the Jake Godbold building. This process was okay when we renamed the Ed Austin building.”

Dennis also cited examples of six-week hearings for important city decisions, such as the Human Rights Ordinance and a multi-million dollar deal with land developers. 

“I don't think I’ll be able to support changing the process because in the best case, then we need to change the process on how we do all deals, and not just just for renaming,” Dennis said.

Overall, Diamond said he doesn’t think the city’s leaders should be focusing on renamings. 

“We have a pandemic, and we have huge problems with our economy,” Diamond said. I think this City Council ought to be focused on that.”

Last week, the City Council voted heavily in support of renaming the small Downtown Hemming Park after Johnson, the internationally-known activist, writer and musician. The council also voted unanimously to rename Confederate Park to Springfield Park. 

The decision on Hemming didn’t come without some push back, however, as Councilman Danny Becton introduced a substitute to instead rename the park “Veterans Memorial Park,” stating that he wouldn’t support any legislation that changed the name of the location from one name to another name. 

Many of the council members initially expressed division on the decision, saying they had a hard time voting against veterans, in turn leading the bill to be tabled for two weeks. 

A day before the bill was seen before the full council, Dennis filed bills to rename five more parks that currently honor people to instead honor veterans. Those bills were later withdrawn. 

At the time, Dennis said he was trying to make a point. The withdrawn bills proposed renaming:

  • The former Jacksonville Landing site to “Veterans Landing” 
  • Tillie K. Fowler Park to “Veterans Park at Roosevelt”
  • Ed Austin Regional Park to “Veterans Park at Hidden Hills” 
  • William F. Sheffield Regional Park to “Veterans Park of Oceanway”
  • Jim King Park & Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek to “Veterans Park & Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek”

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.