On May 25, Santa Rosa County workers installed new signage at the foot of the Navarre Beach Causeway, reflecting a new brand and slogan for the beach: Florida’s Most Relaxing Place.
Hours later, County Commission chairman Rob Williamson took it upon himself to remove the signs in the dark of night — a bizarre, embarrassing, and decidedly undemocratic act.
The new slogan and signs had been approvead unanimously by commissioners in March, after numerous public input opportunities and unanimous support from the county’s Tourism Development Committee. Signs were ordered, a new website was launched, videos ads were filmed and rolled out. Developed by St. Petersburg-based Paradise Advertising, the campaign was based on research that showed the beach’s previous slogan — “Florida’s Best Kept Secret” — didn’t resonate with travelers.
When the signs went up, though, a small but vocal minority with an inexplicable attachment to the old signs started complaining on social media. Williamson, who had voted in favor of the new brand and signs just two months earlier, quickly reversed course.
Instead of bringing up the issue at the next county commission meeting, though, Williamson decided to drive to the foot of the causeway in the middle of the night and take the new signs down himself. He then drove home, put the signs in his garage, and started posting about what he’d done on social media.
It’s easy to poke fun at this as just another crazy episode in the small-town politics that sometimes erupt into theater here in Northwest Florida, but Williamson’s actions have larger implications. When the chairman of the county commission takes it upon himself to singlehandedly overturn a board action, it calls into question that chairman’s judgment and his ability to lead. Williamson’s unilateral decision left Navarre Beach with no welcome signs at all at the causeway over the Memorial Day holiday, potentially confusing visitors on one of the beach’s biggest weekends all year.
“Definitely one of the more impulsive and probably not the smartest thing I’ve done in some time,” Williamson acknowledged in an email to County Administrator Tony Gomillion.
What does this mean for the public’s confidence and trust in the process? Will social media backlash become the new standard for decision-making (and unmaking) in Santa Rosa County? Government by mob rule is no government at all.
Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging his “impulsive” decision and apologizing, Williamson appears to be doubling down, recasting himself as a populist defender of the old welcome sign, which he’s now calling a “community landmark.” He’s encouraged opponents of the new signs to email his fellow commissioners with the hashtag #BRINGBACKOURSIGN.
If Williamson is right, and the greater Navarre community prefers the old signs to the new, that’s fine. But those decisions should be made in public, during the day, in the light of the Florida sunshine, not by one man under cover of darkness. Williamson should apologize to his constituents, his fellow commissioners, and the county staff members whose time has now been spent dealing with his antics. Real leaders admit when they’ve made a mistake and take steps to right the wrong. If Williamson won’t apologize, then he’s not fit to lead the board, and he should step down as its chairman.