MILTON — Residents and business owners voiced support and concerns about Main Street Milton to city council during a specially called public forum on Tuesday.
After months of public comments at City Council meetings about MSM and its grant process, Mayor Heather Lindsay called for the six-member MSM Board of Directors, as well as its Executive Director Ed Spears, to appear before the City Council.
The MSM board, however, voted not to attend the meeting due to a possible conflict of Florida Sunshine Law, according to Spears. The Florida Sunshine Law is a series of laws that guarantee the public has access to government meetings and records. One of those laws, the Florida Open Meetings Law, states that a government body "must provide reasonable notice of all meetings." Spears attended the meeting as the representative of MSM.
Some critics of MSM have questioned the grant-awarding process for downtown businesses. Spears has repeatedly denied any inappropriate practices, saying he has offered to meet with anyone with concerns. He has said that no one ever accepted his invitation, however.
Lindsay opened the meeting with a statement.
"This is not to be an antagonistic or adversarial meeting," she said. "I am not asking council or Main Street to defend any decision they have made at this point. This is about gathering information. Some people who present information may be upset and if they are upset, then this is the time for them to be heard. Hopefully this will allow the council to digest this information so that they can make informed decisions for the coming fiscal year. "
In the audience were over 35 people from the community, including residents of the city, commuters who work in the city or are involved in the Milton Garden Club — which shares the building with the program — and past board members of MSM. Opinions were split with people speaking in favor of the program while others said they had concerned about its current state.
Lindsay read letters from residents unable to attend the meeting.
In his letter to the council, Jerry Couey said because of the MSM board's refusal to attend the public forum, city council should "withhold all funding until the issues are more in line with what the taxpayers expect."
Currently MSM receives major funding from the city's operating budget for event planning.
In a letter from Pamela and Jerry Mitchell, the couple said they were concerned with the public not being able to hear the MSM board at the meeting. They asked if the board could begin meeting with the public in future meetings.
"Ed Spears and Cassandra Sharp (MSM board president) took the position that the board should not attend the meeting ... that it was not necessary" Pamela Mitchell said. "Spears said that he had answered public questions in print and on social media and his answers should be enough."
Deb Becker, owner of the Boomerang Pizza Kitchen and recipient of the business facade grant, said she was in full support of the program.
"I am grateful to be a grant recipient," she said. "Keep up the good work."
One resident of the city, Mike Cuzack, spoke in favor of the program and its director, saying he felt instead of the negative focus being on this program, the city should focus more on the former United Way.
"All Spears is trying to do is his job and make this city better," Cuzack said. "This town needs to be revitalized. He needs the support of the council."
Margie Baldwin, a member of the Japan America Society, said the program has been supportive of the cultural and artistic events in the community.
"There is collaboration happening," she said.
Baldwin said as soon as she started hearing about the negative comments she went to the state website for the program to do research. She said even though there may be concerns about the board, she believes the program itself is viable and deserves to be kept.
"Main Street should be given a chance," she said. "Address the problems with the board, whatever you have to do, but the program itself is worthwhile."
To watch the public forum, visit the city of Milton website at www.miltonfl.org.