Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 26, 2015 1:00 a.m.
One of the toughest jobs in public life is that of city manager. While not an elected official in most cases, the lucky person who holds this title must be constantly aware of political trends, agendas of local elected officials and the needs of both the electorate and the political bureaucracy entrusted to him or her. While most of us have had occasional heartburn at having to meet the demands of one boss, imagine how much worse it must be to work for five bosses, each of whom has his or her own ideas and priorities for the city. Then add a layer called the Sunshine Law, which makes it impossible for the manager to work behind the scenes to try to get consensus among the Big Five.
In the 40 years since 1975, the city of Fernandina Beach has had 14 permanent or interim city managers:
- Grady Courtney (1975-1983)
- Ferris Jones (1984-1989)
- Larry Myers (1990-1994)
- Zachary Zoul (1995-1997)
- Jerry Greeson, interim (1997-1998)
- Richard Diamond (1998)
- Fred Hays (1999-2000)
- Andy Barton (2000-2001)
- Scott Moye, interim (2001)
- Robert Mearns (2002-2005)
- Jerry Sinclair, interim (2005)
- Michael Czymbor (2006-2011)
- Dave Lott, interim (2012)
- Joe Gerrity (2012-2015)
Some have served a very short tenure, either because they were only interim managers (Greeson, Moye, Sinclair and Lott) or because quickly it became apparent that the manager and the city were not a good fit (Diamond, Hays and Barton). The remaining 7 served multi-year terms and achieved successes on one or another front: Courtney (8 years), Jones and Czymbor (5 years); Myers (4 years); Mearns and Gerrity (3 years); and Zoul (2 years). The period of greatest turmoil was between 1997 and 2001, when the city went through three permanent and 2 interim managers. So for 28 of the last 40 years, Fernandina Beach has been run by managers who have served 3 or more years each. While this may sound terrible to some, in reality, city managers generally expect to serve 3-4 years in a particular position before changes in the political scene and community priorities cause them to move on. And politics has generally been the driver here in Fernandina Beach.
In the case of Fernandina Beach, where the city charter mandates 3-year commission terms and two-term limits for city commissioners, there is an election every year. This means that commissions have only months to reach consensus on any initiatives that they’d like the manager to implement before an election that could turn the direction of the commission 180 degrees. Such a situation almost guarantees status quo, no progress and constant churning among the electorate, who seem to fall into one of two camps: those who like things just the way they are now and have always been; and those who are anxious for change, which they deem progress.
Many people over the years have claimed that things would run much more efficiently in Fernandina Beach if only we would change our form of government from Council-Manager to Strong Mayor. I remain skeptical. The system we have works tolerably well for most small cities in America. It insulates the bureaucracy from politics and insures that a professional manager—trained and experienced in fields like public finance, land use and planning, public safety, and organizational management—makes sound recommendations on policy to the “deciders,” the elected officials. A strong mayor system would add another layer of politics and probably raise the cost of government, because the mayor would have to bring in a “City Administrator,” “Chief of Staff” or other such-titled person to do the work now done by a city manager.
So can we achieve more stability in local city government without changing our form of government? Must we chew up and spit out city managers like sunflower seeds following elections? Is there a learning curve in Fernandina Beach or are we doomed, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” to keep repeating things over and over again and getting the same results? Each time we part ways with a city manager we spend time and money trying to find the perfect replacement. And what is perfect for the 5 folks making the hiring decision may not remain perfect in less than a year when a new commission is seated. Is there any way to break this costly, unproductive cycle?
During a period of turmoil and unhappiness more than 20 years ago, citizens voted to change the city charter to impose a limit of two consecutive terms that any commissioner may serve. While this change solved a particular problem at the time, it has not necessarily had positive, long-term results. The voters, in my opinion, are the ultimate term-limiters. As long as an elected commissioner is performing to the satisfaction of the electorate, his or her continued service adds to continuity in local government, historical perspective and an element of trust from the electorate. These factors are especially important in a small town, where there may not be a large pool of qualified, dedicated citizens willing to serve—in good times and bad– for the salary of $12,000 per year. But as multiple recent elections have proven, the electorate is not willing to eliminate term limits.
So what else could we do? We could add some stability to local government by amending the City Charter to change commissioner terms to 4 years from their current 3, hold elections every two years instead of annually, while keeping term limits. Such a change would give a new commission and the city manager more breathing space to institute changes and accomplish priorities, without having to prepare each year for elections and their possible consequences.
These changes have also been put to the voters previously and rejected, even though this system seems to work well for the Nassau County Commission and the District School Board. Fernandina Beach voters, I believe, have difficulty looking at the big picture and instead view such a move as rewarding incumbents, whom they may not support. Certain locals have also expressed fears that electing three commissioners in one cycle and two in the following cycle might cause cataclysmic disruption to the direction of government. Really. My belief is that if three people embracing the same platform are elected, the voters are saying that they want things turned around quickly. Isn’t it better to rip that Band-Aid off in one quick yank than to tug on the adhesive a little at a time?
Recent commissions have seemed to agree with the change to 4-year terms, but they have expended little effort to sell the benefits of the change to the electorate. The last vote was the closest yet to approving the change. With a more positive and proactive educational campaign, it might be worth asking the voters once more to approve the change directed toward achieving more stable government, along with a little bit of money savings achieved by holding elections every other year. Implementing the change on a gradual basis to avoid charges of rewarding incumbents with an extra, unearned year should allay fears of the electorate that incumbent commissioners are just looking out for their own interests.
Along with the charter changes suggested above, I would add two more relating to the hiring and firing of charter officers. Currently, the manager, attorney and clerk can be hired or fired on a simple majority vote. I would change the charter to require a 4/5ths vote to do either. When an individual makes the commitment to serve our city, s/he should enjoy the support of most if not all of the commissioners. Otherwise, that person is put in the position of constantly counting votes to make sure that one of his or her three supporters doesn’t turn tail and join the opposition. People who move to new jurisdictions incur expenses in terms of moving households, changing schools, and finding new employment for a spouse or partner. It does not seem unreasonable to ask for the support of a super majority of the commissioners before requiring successful candidates to make these major life changes.
But in the final analysis, the blame for government instability, wasteful spending, failure to respond to legal mandates or the will of the people, rests with two groups: the five elected people who preside over the general government of the city and the voters who put them there. Over my 20-plus years of observing local government in action (or inaction) here in Fernandina Beach, I have concluded that duties and responsibilities outlined in our City Charter are woefully misunderstood. Various commissioners and citizens pick and choose which part of the Charter to cite, much as people use Bible verses to justify a particular point of view:
- At various times, practically every commissioner has accused fellow commissioners of either not understanding or violating various charter provisions. A commissioner recently suggested that other commissioners needed some training on how government works. Local elected officials in Florida are required to participate in annual training on this very topic. When last I checked, some of our city commissioners have not yet fulfilled this state-mandated responsibility for 2015, although we are now almost six months into the year.
- There are those among us who want all decisions to be taken to the people, claiming that we live in a democracy. Sorry, but while everyone has a voice in electing city commissioners, those five representatives—not the citizenry at large—are charged to make most decisions on behalf of the electorate.
- Many commissioners seem to believe that the charter officers are there to do their individual bidding. That is also not true. Individual commissioners may have more access to charter officers than the rest of us, but as individuals, they have no more power or right to direct Charter officers than the rest of us. Their power—and subsequent direction to charter officers—comes from the decisions that they take collectively by vote or consensus at public meetings.
- Some commissioners believe that their office automatically entitles them to speak for the city in dealing with other government bodies or organizations. While commissioners, like citizens, have every right to express a personal opinion, they can only represent the city’s position or commitment if authorized to do so by the city commissioners.
- Many citizens believe that the “way to get things done” is to call a city commissioner. Commissioners make policy, but the city manager is responsible for most of the day-to-day problems that citizens encounter: potholes, drainage, permit delays, etc. Involving a commissioner in these matters blurs the lines established in the City Charter between the commission and the manager.
- In addition to misunderstanding the manager’s role as CEO of the city, many people also misunderstand the role of the mayor, which is largely ceremonial. The mayor is chosen by the commission after reviewing the straw poll opinion of the voters. The mayor receives no more compensation than the other commissioners. Commissioners may accept the will of the voters or not in electing the mayor. The mayor is expected to preside over meetings, represent the city in case of a declared emergency resulting from a catastrophic event like a devastating hurricane, and show up for public relations events like ground breakings, dedications, etc.
- Unlike larger cities, our city commissioners have no publicly funded staff. If you call or email a commissioner, there is no middleman. They are responsible for doing their own constituent outreach, maintaining their calendars and clarifying any questions about agenda items with the city manager. If they deliver a speech, they probably wrote it themselves. There are few procedural rules binding commissioners, with the exception of rules for conducting public meetings, which they set themselves. They have even balked at using a common form or evaluation system to rate the performance strengths and weaknesses of the three people they supervise: the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.
Over the years I have heard commissioners both bow to and reject public input in making their decisions to support or oppose various measures proposed by city staff through the city manager. Commissioners have claimed, and rightly so, that they have an obligation to act on behalf of the best interests of the entire city, not just the vocal citizens who show up at commission meetings. Other commissioners claim, as Woody Allen did, that 80% of success is showing up. Those commissioners will weigh more heavily the opinions of the people who speak. And there have been other commissioners who believe that the general public really doesn’t want to be bothered with civic responsibilities, that they rely on commissioners they trust who are more interested and informed to make decisions in their best interests.
But after all is said and done, the responsibility for making our city run rests on the shoulders of the city manager, not any individual commissioner or group of commissioners. The most important job the commission has is to bring us the best city manager we can afford. Let’s wish this commission Godspeed in doing just that in the months ahead.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.