Commissioners air differences over job responsibilities

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 3, 2018 10:47 a.m.


Vice Mayor Len Kreger added a discussion item to the end of a long Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) agenda on May 1, 2018: a review and assessment of City Manager Dale Martin’s job performance.  However, the ensuing discussion among commissioners morphed into a self-evaluation of the job of the city commissioner and whether all commissioners are adhering to the requirements of the City Charter by staying out of the city manager’s job.  The exchanges between commissioners and the city manager aired problems that sometimes impede the progress against identified goals.

Whether individual commissioners recognized the role that they sometimes unwittingly play in obstructing progress is not clear.  But commissioners had an opportunity to publicly voice their concerns with the city and each other through a 40-minute discussion of issues as seen from their individual perspectives.  

Kreger evaluates city manager

Vice Mayor Kreger kicked off the discussion with a slide presentation during which he cited the key areas for his evaluation:  leadership, project management, purchasing, and Comprehensive Plan review and implementation.  He cited what he considered to be a lack of leadership and management in many city departments, specifically Community Development (including Planning, Building and Code Enforcement), Parks and Recreation and Finance).  He expressed his belief that leadership problems prevented staff from optimal performance. He expressed a need for improvement to achieve goals and set priorities.

Kreger cited deficiencies in project management with examples of the city marina and the local mitigation strategy.  He also cited a problem with respect to what he termed “Delivery of Construction.”

Kreger said that he has discussed his concerns with City Manager Dale Martin and wanted to share them with other commissioners.  He said he is seeing improvement in some areas, and that the city manager does not agree with him on all his suggestions for improvement.  He added that he is the only commissioner to have previously provided a written performance review.

Commissioner Roy Smith responds

Commissioner Roy Smith took issue with Kreger’s assessment.  He turned to Kreger and said, “I understand what you are saying, Len. But commissioners are not understanding what they are supposed to do.  I know what I’m supposed to do.  But some of them don’t, and you may be one of them.  I know you send a lot of emails every week telling him what to do.  But our job is not to tell him how to do his work. If we tie him up with a hundred emails a week from one commissioner, we not only tie him up, but we tie up staff getting answers to these emails.  That’s not our job, if you read Section 10 of the City Charter.  We give him direction, but we don’t tell him how to do it. We’ve got 5 commissioners up here. Stop blasting [the city manager] with emails asking him questions. … No wonder our departments are deadlocked, if he has to respond to 600 emails a week.  They are busy answering questions, which are not our part to ask.  We are not following the [City Charter], and that is causing a big problem.  Until we get that resolved we are going to have that problem.”

Smith then turned to the City Manager to ask why Planning Manager Kelly Gibson was not made Community Development Department Director following former director Marshall McCrary’s departure.  Martin responded that he was still working on a reorganization of that department, which will come to the FBCC at the next meeting.

Smith was not satisfied with the explanation, expressing concerns that Gibson was acting in the capacity of department director without proper compensation.

Smith continued to express concerns about potential Charter violations that could result in censure or more serious action by the State Attorney.  He concluded by telling Kreger, “So blame the Commission for a lot of [the deficiencies].”

Commissioner Chip Ross emphasizes Charter language.

Commissioner Chip Ross, one of two new commissioners, acknowledged and commended Kreger for providing a written evaluation of the city manager.  He said that he thought that was an essential part of an evaluation.

Ross began his remarks by commending city staff for the day-to-day functioning of the city.  He said, “The water is safe to drink, the sewer system functions well, we have a well functioning Police Department and the EMS does an excellent job.  Trash is picked up, we have a great park system, and on and on and on.  The city functions well.  Sure, there is room for improvement, but the day-to-day city functions well.  I want to give kudos to the staff and the city manager who make that happen.”

Ross added that the method for evaluating the city manager has already been set out in Resolution 2002-160, which calls for an annual evaluation consisting of a one-on-one evaluation session with Charter Officers and written evaluation form, as well as an opportunity to publicly discuss their performance of their duties. Ross said that the evaluation should be done in September, as the Resolution notes, not in May.

He said that the duties of the Charter Officers are set out in the job descriptions in the same resolution. He noted that goal setting, as raised by Kreger, is not one of those duties.

Ross said that running the city is like steering a large ship.  The city manager should be evaluated by what the FBCC asks him to do.

In responding to Smith’s concerns, Ross quoted the City Charter, which forbids commissioners from dictating personnel appointments.  “The City Manager has the sole responsibility for doing that,” Ross emphasized.  “The commissioners shall deal with city staff solely—SOLELY—through the City Manager.”  Ross continued to read the specific language from Section 10 of the Charter.

Ross also informed commissioners that he had recently read the job advertisement dating to 2015 under which Martin had been hired.  He said there was no mention of project management, which is a focus today. “What the city commission was looking for then has evolved over time,” Ross said.

Ross said that the most important role for the City Commission is to articulate the tasks they want the city manager to perform.  He recapped the list of actions taken by city staff under the direction of the city manager following direction from the previous commission on which Kreger, Smith and Miller served.

“I believe the challenge now,” Ross said, “is to get the commissioners to agree on actions going forward.  We’ve made a good start by setting our goals. … My question to my fellow commissioners: how are we going to support the staff and the city manager to make them successful in meeting the goals we’ve set for this year?  And that’s my question.”

Commissioner Phil Chapman weighs in.

In partial answer to Ross’ question, Commissioner Phil Chapman noted the number of staff who arrive early and stay late to get the job done.  He returned to the question he raised earlier about using uncommitted money in the personnel budget to fill vacant positions.  “I don’t think we can ask the city manager to take on more projects when we already have staff that is overburdened,” he said.  “We need to sit down and determine where we need to add people, and I believe [Martin] is doing that. … There’s no question that this city has to have some of the most dedicated staff of any city in the country. We need to boost [staffing levels] up a little bit so we can get things done in a timely manner.  I think that will make a big difference.”

Kreger and Smith continue

Kreger seemed to take issue with other commissioners’ assessments that the city is doing well. He suggested they should go into departments and talk with staff.  Kreger said that he has over ten years of working with the city, so he really knows what is going on.  “We’re not doing all that great,” he said, “but we’re doing fine [day-to-day].”

Smith returned to a discussion of Kelly Gibson’s status.  He said she should be paid for what she is doing.  Then he turned to Kreger and addressed his suggestion that commissioners talk with city staff.  “Len, really, we’re not supposed to do that unless you ask [the city manager for] permission.”  Kreger replied that the city manager had given that permission, and Smith suggested that maybe he shouldn’t do so.  “We shouldn’t be listening to staff problems,” Smith said, turning toward Martin. “They are your problems, not ours.”

Kreger launched into an explanation of the various activities he has been involved in, such as beach renourishment, that might technically be considered as part of the city’s responsibility.  Ross interjected that Kreger’s work in that regard was commendable.  He said that it is the job of commissioners to get out and talk to people, including engineers and consultants on city projects.  But those people are outside the chain of command of the city manager.  “The point is,” he said, “there is a difference with city employees:  who he hires, who he fires, who he decides to head up a department.  But I encourage commissioners to get out and talk with other people.  The more you talk to people, the more you can bring back to this table.  But inside the city … that’s the purview of the city manager.”

Chapman expressed confusion at Smith’s remarks concerning Gibson.  “If I understood what was said, we shouldn’t be talking to staff.  But in the same breath the city manager has just been told that he should promote somebody.  So I’m a little confused,” he said, addressing Smith.

Smith replied that he hadn’t talked with staff but sees someone who is acting as a department head and not drawing the salary.

City Manager Dale Martin states his position.

City Manager Dale Martin said, “Let’s wrap this up.  I enjoy working with all of you.  To quote Commissioner Ross, you are five different cats and this is herding cats. You all have different personalities and it’s fun trying to pull them all together. [The Charter Officers] sit in the interesting position of being able to hear what you are each thinking before you share that with the rest of your peers.  We can see a train wreck coming, or we can see great congeniality coming. … I explicitly gave each of you permission to talk to department directors and any other city staff on the condition that you share with me the fact that you had a conversation with them.  I don’t need the details; I am just interested in the topic or substance. And yes, that is my prerogative to withdraw that permission at any time.  I am not withdrawing that permission. … If I think you are crossing the line, I will be the one to tell you that. If you hear it from the press, if you hear it from anybody else on the street, do not consider that the appropriate source.  I’m in consultation with the City Attorney on a daily basis and we’ve had these conversations. Why do I think you are not in violation of the Charter?  Because I think you are all well intentioned for the direction of the city. … I don’t think anyone is trying to circumvent other commissioners or undermine myself or city staff.  So I say keep doing what you’re doing, and I support you, and I’ll continue to work with you.”

City Attorney Tammi Bach, City Manager explain need for time to prepare agendas.

City Attorney Tammi Bach raised a related point about lead time needed to prepare for FBCC meetings. She said that often commissioners introduce materials at the meeting that neither she nor the city manager have had time to research or analyze.  She reminded commissioners that agendas are “locked in” three weeks prior to meetings.  When papers are dropped at commissioner seats the night of the meeting, no one has had time to properly review them for comment or action.

Bach reminded commissioners that they had asked for more lead time so that agendas could be finalized and back up material presented for public consideration as well as for commissioner review.  Introducing additional materials after the agenda cut off disadvantages other commissioners, both the public and city staff, who need to be prepared to respond at meetings.

City Manager Martin explained the process of finalizing an agenda, including the sign offs required by many departments following their review of a proposed action.  He said that currently the city is looking at the agenda for the July 2 meeting.

Consensus vs. discussion

During Commissioner Comments, Commissioner Chip Ross introduced 3 new items on which he sought consensus to move forward from other commissioners.

Commissioner Smith said, “I think we are doing way too much by consensus.”

After a somewhat testy exchange between Mayor John Miller and Commissioner Smith about repetition, Vice Mayor Kreger weighed in.  He suggested that items that he and other commissioners have been introducing shortly before or during meetings should instead be placed on agendas as discussion items to give commissioners, staff and the public notice.

A  frustrated Mayor Miller expressed support for allowing the City Manager to seek consensus on some of the matters with short fuses to be able to move ahead quickly without the need for agenda and slides.

City Attorney Bach cautioned commissioners on problems that can result from too much reliance on email, reminding them that responding to emails from other commissioners violates Sunshine Law.  “Everybody is emailing, and it’s going to get us in trouble,” she said.

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.


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Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
6 years ago

Glad to see that some of the other commissioners called out the irony (and some might say hypocrisy) of Comm. Smith’s comments where he first talks about the other commissioners interfering with the CM’s job and then turns right around and asks the CM why a certain employee hasn’t been promoted. Legitimate question to ask about the reorganization of an area but not to advocate or denigrate any individual employee. Good job by the CM in addressing the issue.
I agree that project management is a much need attribute for the CM as well as the department directors. The City asks engineering firms retained by the City for various projects for PM plans. That is a great way to determine if a project is on schedule and if not, the reasons why. PM plans are not written in stone as there will often be circumstances that created a need for adjustment, but the PM provides a clear roadmap to the achievement of the project’s final goal.

Eric Bartelt
Eric Bartelt(@ericbarteltgmail-com)
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Lott

Beautifully reported and clearly written, Suanne, as usual. Somehow you have a knack for making it much clearer in “print” than it actually was listening to it in person.