By Michael Isam
St. Augustine, Fla, (June 18, 2014) – If you are old enough to remember the Paris Peace Accord this could be a Yogi Berra “Déjà Vu all over again” moment.
An article on the History.com website dated December 12, 1968 tells the story. “The Paris Peace talks, which opened on May 10, continue to be plagued by procedural questions that impeded any meaningful progress.” Both the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese continually refused to move forward until matters ranging from seating arrangements of delegates to the shape and placement of the tables were satisfactorily settled. If not for Averell Harriman the talks may not have begun.
Speaking before a larger than normal gathering of veterans during a meeting of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 6, Assistant County Administrator Jerry Cameron presented a brief timeline of communications between St. Johns County and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Formal communications began on October 12, 2011 between Mary Ann Blount, Director of Land Management Systems for St. Johns County, Cameron, and Cynthia Halstead, Administrator of the local Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC), and Rachel Griner of the VA Lease Team informing them Lowe’s had presented the county with a Purchase and Sale Agreement to be considered at the November 1, 2011 St. Johns Board of County Commissioner’s meeting and following the closing they would have two years to vacate the premises.
What followed in quasi-discussion via emails, certified delivered documents, and phone conversations seem to make the above mentioned peace talks pale in comparison.
“We have bent over backwards, tap danced, pleaded, extended dates with Lowe’s, and generally extended ourselves to the limit of time allotment,” said Cameron. “We offered to make facilities available to them, built to their specifications in our new facility and have, to date received nothing but a run around.” Cameron continued “There comes a time when one realizes that there is only one side to an apparent two-sided discussion.” Cameron quoted an old adage proclaiming ‘When a person does not want to do a thing, any excuse, no matter how irrelevant, is offered, and this is where we are now.”
Senior County Veteran Service Officer Joe McDermott commented on one excuse used “the location does not offer enough places to eat” with “I do believe the primary purpose is to provide for the veteran. Staff considerations are secondary and in some occasions, tertiary in concern.”
Many more “concerns” from Nick Ross, Assistant Director, Veterans Health Systems in Gainesville were received and addressed according to Cameron. “Now it appears the location we are offering is out of the center of population for their relocation… by two blocks.” McDermott quotes the tracking his office routinely completes noting, “The growing veteran population in the county is in the north with Nocatee and other developments. The south end of the county is not growing and therefore is not viable regarding their center of population.”
“Are we frustrated? Extremely so,” said Cameron. “But with the realization the VA staff will use any excuse, the frustration diminishes to the level of shaking one’s head and walking away.” “Given the timeline of March 31, 2015, there is not enough time to complete the work. Add to that a $50,000 per month fine imposed for not vacating in the specified time limit.
By a miracle of possible Divine intervention, the announcement of the impending last minute meeting reached the desk of Public Affairs Officer Cindy Snook. In an e-mail she included bullet points regarding the current situation with the St. Augustine CBOC:
• Under no circumstances will VA services be interrupted to Veterans in the St. Augustine area.
• Plans are in place to acquire a replacement clinic
• The plans are presently being overseen by Department of Veterans Affairs Central Office (VACO) Office of Construction and Facilities Management, Real Property Services
• Solicitations for offers has been issued
• Bids will be evaluated next month (July)
• I want to reiterate that we strive to meet the needs of every Veteran we serve and there will be no interruptions of VA Services to Veterans in the St. Augustine area.
Upon receipt by Veterans Council Chairman Bill Dudley, he extended an invitation to Snook to attend the next Veterans Council meeting on Thursday, June 26 at the Elks Lodge on Anastasia Blvd. As of this writing it is not known if she has accepted.
[Disclosure: The author of this story is the current Commander of DAV Chapter 6 who receives his medical treatment from the VA and is assigned to the St. Augustine CBOC.]