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They’re not elected. They just keep showing up to City Council meetings

Published on January 15, 2024 at 9:43 pm

A waterways advocate, a teenager and the people arguing both for and against Confederate monuments all have one thing in common: they are frequent flyers at City Hall.

Some people call them gadflies. Some call them government watchdogs. They are all Jacksonville citizens, and among the most active speakers at City Council meetings. Some have attended hundreds of government meetings over decades.

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Passionate could be the best word to describe the folks this diligent about making their voices heard, through public comment at City Council meetings and by inundating elected officials via email. And in a city of more than a million people, relatively few are such a consistent presence at the Downtown Jacksonville government center.

Here are a few of the most persistent unelected people representing the voices of Jacksonville:

Age doesn’t matter

One citizen who has attended nearly every City Council meeting since last July just recently became a teenager.

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Bricelyn Schreiner, 13, along with her family, repeatedly returns to City Hall, mostly to critique her local officials.

Last Wednesday, Bricelyn could be seen doing something fairly unusual for a 13-year-old girl: strolling up to the lectern before 18 City Council members and speaking with authority into the microphone in the massive chambers gallery.

“In December I was here with my family,” Bricelyn told the dais, going on to quote Council President Ron Salem when he had tried to rein a large crowd after the mayor’s Confederate monument removal last month.

Bricelyn Schreiner, 13, speaks at the Jan. 10, 2024, City Council meeting. | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

“We were told by Ron Salem that he ‘allows us’ to be here,” Bricelyn went on to say. “I couldn’t believe an elected official would say such a thing to the same people that elected them.”

Councilman and floor leader Chris Miller gently reminded Bricelyn of the rules, that public speakers need to “address the body as a whole, not any individual council member,” and the girl – donning a pair of oversized, tiger-striped slippers that matched her father’s – went on to unapologetically and directly request that the council president resign.

Her three minutes up, she thanked the council for their time and took her seat at the back of the gallery with her mother and baby sister to listen to the rest of the government business meeting.

While her age might not be typical of those who address elected officials during public comment, the interaction was: Citizens usually get three minutes to speak about any topic that concerns them, less time if there are many public speakers who wish to address their government. They thank the council for the time, and then individual members have the option to invite the speaker to the “Green Room” astride chambers to garner more information if they choose to. 

Most citizens are not invited for further discussion. Some are, but they tend to be those who are not frequent speakers at City Hall.

Divided in opinion, united in protest

Blake Harper (left) and Wells Todd (right) | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

The Confederate monument issue has been a consistent topic of interest during public comment at City Council for at least the past five years. Two voices on opposing sides are Blake Harper of the Unity Project and Wells Todd of Take ‘Em Down Jax.

Todd supports Mayor Donna Deegan’s decision to remove the statues from Springfield Park in late December. Harper says the mayor’s action was “criminal.”

But despite differences of opinion on Jacksonville’s Confederate statues, last Wednesday the two appeared united in their criticism of government officials. Todd told the city leaders they are on the “wrong side of history” for myriad reasons.

“You were on the wrong side when it came to the liquor store issue,” Todd began. “You were on the wrong side (when it came to the idea of) building the medical examiner’s office in a residential community…and, I might say, you are on the wrong side of history when you support the genocidal, Zionist, right-wing government of Israel.”

Like Todd, Harper had strong words as he addressed the group, while defending his own organization, which he insisted is not trying to erase history but to “add to it.”

“There is nothing about the Unity Project that destroys anything. For people to say the Unity Project is racist, that is discriminatory and itself a lie, and for any of you who repeat those words, you’re bigots, and liars,” he told the body.

Waterways advocate honored (by most)

But while criticism, both given and received, is par for the course for individuals who constantly share their opinion of government work, some persistent voices have been honored by the council. And at least one person has been both honored and critiqued during the same legislative hearing.

That would be John Nooney. Make that John “Philanthropic Resiliency” Nooney, as he has dubbed himself. If one threw a dart at a calendar of Jacksonville government meetings at least over the past 22 years, chances are pretty good that Nooney attended it.

John Nooney thanks the Council for honoring him in November 2023 | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Nooney has taken on a personal mission to advocate for Jacksonville’s waterways. He can usually be spotted at every Jacksonville City Council meeting in one of many spray-painted T-Shirts of his own design that, on any given occasion, highlights – in bright, pastel colors – the issues or people he wishes to speak about that day. 

Some feel the waterways advocate could, perhaps, be more effective if he was not quite so flamboyant in his delivery and scattered in his advocacy.

City Councilman Michael Boylan is one such elected official.

Council member Michael Boylan | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Boylan was one of three council members who voted against a resolution honoring Nooney for his civic engagement late last year. Boylan said his objection wasn’t meant to be disrespectful, and he didn’t encourage his colleagues to vote against the resolution, but he did not think Nooney deserved the honor in the same way as the likes of the late Ben Frazier.

Frazier, who founded the Northside Coalition to improve social, racial, and economic justice in that community, was a frequent and vocal critic at government meetings, leading many protests to remove Confederate monuments from city parks and advocating for racial equality. After he died last summer from cancer, the City Council honored his advocacy posthumously.

“If I look over the list of a dozen or so citizens we honored over the last six months,” Boylan said during the Nov. 28 City Council meeting, “I think of the names of individuals who left a lasting legacy.”

He said when he first met Nooney, he encouraged him to help rally others to his waterways advocacy or play a role with a well-known river organization.

But group projects aren’t really John Nooney’s thing, and he continues to speak to his city officials in his unique way.

On the other hand, resolutions are “not just for big shots,” said Councilman Matt Carlucci, one of the sponsors of the resolution honoring Nooney, at the time. He says Nooney began attending City Council meetings when Carlucci was council president in 2001.

“I’ve watched Mr. Nooney over the years,” Carlucci said. “I dare say that we would not have possibly built near as many kayak launches had it not been for John Nooney pounding that issue away.”

Council member Matt Carlucci | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Carlucci also credited Nooney’s waterways cleanup effort. Nooney scoops up bags of debris and places them where the city’s parks department can easily pick them up for disposal.

He does this often, like one recent morning along Pottsburg Creek, when he glided along in his yellow kayak, aiming the bow toward whatever bottle, can or other trash was floating, scooped them up into his vessel and moved on toward the next piece of trash as he spoke about the natural beauty of the Pottsburg Creek waterway.

“It’s just wild,” Nooney says of the creek and the way the landscape has changed over the years he has lived along its banks. “Everybody’s just cutting everything down, filling everything in.”

The Coastal Conservation Association has an annual trash collection contest, which Nooney has placed in several years in a row.

Nooney can be scattered in the way he shares his thoughts. He acknowledges as much. He’ll jump from talking about the Florida Legislature to Pottsburg Creek, to Hurricane Irma, then go silent – his mind back on the beauty of the creek, the ducks and birds singing in the background.

“Just look around,” Nooney’s soft voice whispered. “Isn’t this cool?”

John Nooney cleans up trash on Pottsburg Creek | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

His latest endeavor at City Hall is an effort to get the city to buy his property, tear down his house and build another kayak launch for more creek access. He has a grand vision of the city then attaining another house nearby, to which he refers in countless emails to council members as “the FEMA house,” for yet even more public access — perhaps with a park or waterway education center.

He’s been unsuccessful thus far. But he’s persistent, in his way.

“I got these ideas for more shirts. And there’s some (people) that want me to sing more,” says Nooney, as he navigates his kayak to yet another piece of trash.

He says he was completely surprised by Carlucci’s effort to honor his activism but barely speaks about the resolution during an hours-long kayak ride with Jacksonville Today.

Back in November at City Hall, Councilman Rahman Johnson had sided with Boylan on Nooney’s proposed honor.

“Honor is not just a word. It’s a reflection of character, achievement and contribution on a grand scale,” Johnson said. “In this fast-paced society, quite often we find ways to just give the word honor away so quickly, so simply and so easily – sometimes we give it away when that word is not deserved.”

Council member Rahman Johnson | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

But in the end, the council voted 14-3 in favor of acknowledging the Jacksonville resident’s advocacy efforts. Boylan, Johnson and Councilman Jimmy Peluso voted against. The yays included Ju’Coby Pittman.

“I will say, he may be outside of the box in terms of getting our attention,” Pittman said.

But Pittman said Nooney is a strong advocate for the river and draws eyes to issues, even if he may not adhere to a typical delivery.

“You know, God uses us all,” Pittman told her colleagues. “And we all have purpose. And I will say that he may have a different way of developing his purpose on the journey, but he does make us pay attention.”

Corrected: This story was corrected to state that Wells Todd is affiliated with Take ‘Em Down Jax, not the Northside Coalition.


author image Reporter

Casmira Harrison is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on local government in Duval County.

Harrison can be reached at casmira@jaxtoday.org.

author image Reporter

Casmira Harrison is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on local government in Duval County.

Harrison can be reached at casmira@jaxtoday.org.


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