Breach on the beach over ‘ragtag’ label

Former Air Force pilot John Lewis, who flew in Korea and Vietnam, led fellow members of the now-resigned Navarre Beach Beautification Committee to protest County Commissioner Rob Williamson’s recent labeling of them as “ragtag” volunteers.

“I’ve never been called ‘ragtag’ before,” said Lewis, a retired lieutenant colonel, speaking to the commission at its meeting Monday. During three decades in the military, Lewis said, “I’ve been called a lot of names, some good, some bad.”

But after watching on the county’s website video system as Williamson criticized his 10-member volunteer group last Thursday at a meeting of the Tourism Development Council, Lewis said he looked up “ragtag” in a dictionary: “It means a group of people who are undesirable.”

Lewis pointed out that the beautification committee, formed in 2006 to help the beach recover from hurricane damage, includes a retired police officer and an attorney- not to mention his wife: “A school teacher who kept our children while I was in Korea and Vietnam.”

Some members of the committee, who all quit after a three-hour meeting with Williamson in January in which they say he berated their efforts, demanded an apology for his “ragtag” comment.

Williamson assumes victim’s role

But Williamson refused to apologize for his remark, saying that he was blindsided by the committee’s abrupt, mass departure. He asserted that his intent in making suggestions to the group was to help better organize their efforts and tighten financial procedures in hiring contractors.

“That’s why I hate politics,” said Williamson, who was elected to the District 4 commission slot for his first term in 2014.

Williamson has proposed that the departed volunteers be succeeded by others and that county employees might take over some of the beach work.

But District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole interceded to apologize “personally,” even though he wasn’t present last week when Williamson made his offending statement. “Frankly I’m embarrassed to sit up here,” he said, adding, “What we’ve done is a slap in the face.”

The volunteers got more support before the commission from Teresa Pack, vice president of the Navarre Beach Leaseholders and Residents Association. She praised their efforts such as cleaning the beach, helping landscape it and removing storm rubble: “This entire county owes them a debt of gratitude.”

Pack also suggested that Rob Williamson, who owns a landscaping company, “recuse himself” from future decisions on the hiring of contractors in that field.

Williamson responded by characterizing comments that were critical of him as “insulting.”

District 3 Commissioner Don Salter was conciliatory, “I would encourage everyone to have cooler heads…” and he wondered if the beach volunteers might reconsider their exit from the committee.

But outside the commission meeting room, Larry Sims, a member of the disbanded committee, echoed the reaction of other volunteers, saying he wouldn’t help on the beach again as long “as Rob Williamson is on the commission.”

As seen in the Mar. 10 issue of Navarre Press. Click HERE to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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