Commentary: A Deceit Beyond the Pale

By Mike Phillips

Over the years I’ve lost track of how many city commissions and councils I’ve dealt with. But it’s well into three figures, and I thought I had seen it all.

I’ve seen a lot of mild fibbing, some bald-faced misstating of facts and several boatloads of ham-handed attempts at spin control. But this one is for the books:

A city commissioner, David Sturges, hears a couple of names, in the hall perhaps, and builds those names into a fiction populated by two wise gentlemen with extraordinary credentials who are willing to drop everything and help a citizen search committee. And to help them perform just as well as professionals who have behind them years of matching city managers with cities and who offer one-year warranties on their recommendations.

The gentlemen have decades of service in big Florida cities, he says. He offers them up as a couple of brilliant finds as the commission prepares to bless the committee and put it to work. His eyes are shining with enthusiasm. What a deal, the commissioners collectively think. They add the two gentlemen to the resolution that gives the citizen search committee the green light to proceed.

Not one member – not even Chip Ross, who usually has a generous store of uncomfortable questions – asks a question. It’s as if they are mesmerized by the thought of the two gentlemen. Or just tired after a long session.

But then the next day, there’s a plot twist. One of the gentlemen, Jim Hanson, becomes aware of the resolution when a Fernandina Observer reporter calls him, and he says nobody told him about this. Nobody talked to him and furthermore, he can’t do what the resolution asks him to do. David Sturges’ story about  Hanson was pure fiction.

But Hanson is a retired pro who has been around the city management block many times. He digs in, reviews the commission meeting tape, asks some questions and then lets it be known that though he’s retired, he’s still an advisor for an industry group that doesn’t let its representatives sit on committees. And yes he knows the city’s fire chief, who proposed him as a possible interim city manager when there was a scramble to find one before the planned firing of Dale Martin. Hanson declined. End of conversation with anybody in Fernandina Beach until the reporter called. Maybe somebody heard his name somewhere and used it, Hanson suggests. Good guess.

So a story embarrassing to Sturges runs in the Observer. Then attention turns to the second gentleman, Richard Sala. His resume was grossly exaggerated by Sturges, who said Sala called him and offered to help. He said Sala had years of city management experience at Fort Lauderdale. But it turns out the truth is seven years as assistant city manager and then city manager not in Ft. Lauderdale, but in a suburb called North Lauderdale.

Furthermore, Sala has disappeared from the web after 2012. We know he had moved on to the urban recovery consulting business and done well with a firm named Calvin, Giordano and Associates. But he’s not there now, and we can’t find him. He has relatives here, but they are silent. He’s been up and down the coast. One phone number is working but not answered. He is a registered voter in Daytona Beach, but the phone at his address doesn’t work. There’s another number that might be his cell, but repeated attempts can’t get an answer. And just to complicate things, there’s one archive that has him in Pennsylvania.

We’d like to confirm if there was or wasn’t a Sala-Sturges conversation. But given the other flat-out fairy tale about Hanson and given the highly inaccurate resume summary Sturges gave the commission, there’s no good reason to believe the Sala yarn either.

So I have to ask myself: What would I do if I were Sturges’ fellow commissioner? What would I think as the commission sheepishly prepared to redo the citizen committee resolution without any mention of the “two gentlemen”? And what would I personally say to Sturges? I hope I would forgive him. But I also hope I’d urge him to take a hard look at himself. He’s prone to exaggeration, but this incident was well beyond exaggeration. It was deceit. It was beyond the pale. I hope I’d gently suggest that his resignation might be the honorable thing to do.

Those last two things wouldn’t happen, of course. Too much denial involved. But going forward, if I were one of his fellow commissioners, I’d be kicking myself for not asking some probing questions at that meeting. And I would in the future have a hard time believing anything David Sturges says without proof.

Wouldn’t that be sad?

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Jerry Torchia
Jerry Torchia (@guest_67919)
1 year ago

Great article. Please don’t let up on these guys.

Wes White
Wes White(@wes-white)
1 year ago

The “truth” is an overrated commodity and constraint that has lost it’s relevancy – on both sides of the printing press. So why let it stand in the way of City business?

A good tall tale on the other hand, still deserves a measure of respect.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_67964)
1 year ago
Reply to  Wes White

Thus goes the concept of contracts and civil business liability. And criminal liability.

Wesley White
Wesley White(@wes-white)
1 year ago
Reply to  Wes White

Forgive me for “trolling” in Observer waters.

I’ve always told my children (and now my grandchildren), “deliver the truth – but never expect it.”

For the 44 years I’ve practiced law, I’ve learned that the truth is one of the rarest, and therefore most valued, commodities.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_68023)
1 year ago
Reply to  Wesley White

Me too, Wesley – since my initial admission to the Virginia Bar in 1975. It’s why we have courtrooms, Judges, rules of evidence, and stare decisis. Play games with the truth seeking process at great risk to civilization.

Julia Newhouse
Julia Newhouse(@jnewt)
1 year ago

Seems we have our own Santos!

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

Excellent investigative reporting, Mike. This is not a matter to be laughed off or explained away as business as usual. Sturges was deceitful and his actions were fraudulent, and he should be held to account for them, at the least by a censure by the commission, and probably by his resignation. The rest of the commission were collaborators by not questioning Sturges at the time. Hopefully they will be embarrassed by it, slow down and do better.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67923)
1 year ago

What’s really sad and very alarming about this tall tale, is that we’ve become numb to politicians who look us in the eye and lie. It’s as though it’s now a badge of honor or something to be respected that someone can engage in consequential deceit without so much as a squirm and without personally paying any consequences. The question for all of us is whether character matters any more in our elections.

Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery(@douglasm)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

I agree, but the problem is how do you judge anyone’s “character” during the Election? It’s hard to tell how they will turn out until you see them in action! People I didn’t vote for turned out to be pretty good commissioners, and some I did vote for turned out to be not so good (in my opinion).

Recalls are probably not possible… all we can do is learn our lesson and remember their character at their next reelection cycle.

1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

Recalls are possible.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67974)
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

A person’s character is easily assessed by his/her track record as a business person, as an employee, or student. In the case at hand, before you might do business with the subject city commissioner, ask yourself this question — would you buy a used car from him?

Paula Mutzel
Paula Mutzel(@paula-m)
1 year ago

Keep digging…there is more to this story …what a tangled web…

John Rasmussen
John Rasmussen (@guest_67925)
1 year ago

What a clown show. Episode 2 will air shortly

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
1 year ago
Reply to  John Rasmussen

“Clown” is the polite word. The other name cannot be published.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_67931)
1 year ago

Indeed. But now necessary, highly appropriate, and critical to our citie’s functioning.

Margaret Kirkland
Margaret Kirkland(@kirkland-mrk)
1 year ago

We should all expect, and insist on, a professional and credible search process. The City faces many challenges and it is critical for all that we have an excellent City Manager who can provide the leadership to address these challenges successfully. What we have seen thus far has been embarrassing.

GStrand (@guest_67935)
1 year ago

What’s really sad is that Sturges led the charge to evict Dale Martin!

Active Member
1 year ago

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…

david britt
david britt (@guest_67937)
1 year ago

Hold onto your hat! You’ll need it to deflect the dirt flying from the development in front of us. For those who remember, it will make John Sayles movie, “Sunshine State” look like a documentary – – except that in “Sunshine State ” the sell-outs and developers ultimately lost. Bring back the cement bags; they’ll be needed.

PatrickSG (@guest_67938)
1 year ago

Another question is what must potential candidates to the vacant city manager position think about working with such unserious commissioners as this?

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
1 year ago
Reply to  PatrickSG

I mentioned that when this thing first went down. Any candidate worth considering would do a quick about face whenever they see how those clowns operate.

Sandra Lerch
Sandra Lerch (@guest_67943)
1 year ago

Sturges has made one fine mess! Time for him to resign and let the big boys carry on. Who is really the mayor?

Jean Stetzer
Jean Stetzer (@guest_67950)
1 year ago

If these shenanigans were not so serious (for all of us), it could play as an old “Bud Abbott & Lou Costello” show….

Thompson (@guest_67956)
1 year ago

If this is the way Sturges runs his construction business, who would hire him?

1 year ago
Reply to  Thompson

It IS the way Sturges runs his construction business, and the reason we quickly passed him by after we met him. Shady, rude, unprofessional and incompetent in his field.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67975)
1 year ago
Reply to  TBrown

I guess nobody checked him out before voting for him.

Robin Wells
Robin Wells(@rocknrobin12gmail-com)
11 months ago
Reply to  TBrown

We did the same

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_67963)
1 year ago

Open deceit – or worse, opens every agreement involving public resources to legal challenge. Including chains of title. A devastating and dishonest way to destroy Fernandina Beach.