Late Commission News: a Move to Fire the City Manager

By Mike Lednovich

Citing a litany of mismanagement and lack of communication, Vice Mayor David Sturges called for the termination of City Manager Dale Martin at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. This was very late in the evening, after the audience of citizens had left.

“I’m making a motion to terminate Dale Martin’s contract without cause and give him a 30-day written notice immediately,” Sturges said right after Martin had given his city manager’s report to the commission.

The commission would eventually vote 3-2 to postpone the decision until the next commission meeting.

“I know it’s late in the hour and it’s city business and if it wasn’t important I wouldn’t be bringing it up,” Sturges said as he began listing his reasons to terminate Martin.

Sturges said Martin has engaged in mismanaging the city and cited the following:

  • Before becoming a commissioner, Sturges said he attended a City Commission budget meeting at which the city manager looked up city property owners on the Nassau County Tax Appraiser’s website, identified the owners by name and read their tax bills, thus publicly embarrassing the property owners.
  • He said the termination of 30-year plus City Streets Director Rex Lester without cause 18 months before his retirement was wrong.
  • Sturges claimed the city manager delayed the decision to terminate the city commissioners’ health benefits for six months until one commissioner was eligible for Medicare, which was selective management.
  • In the Brett’s Restaurant debate about closing the establishment, Sturges said Martin failed to persuade commissioner Chip Ross to delay asking about insurance issues thus “disgracing our city.” He said Martin hijacked the ensuing City Commission meeting and showed favoritism to Commissioner Ross on the Brett’s issue.
  • On the Brett’s lease, Sturges charged that Martin has manipulated the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) process to favor one potential company. He said it was unacceptable financial mismanagement.
  • Sturges said he learned of Airport Manager Nathan Coyle’s resignation from reading about it in the local newspaper instead of being told about it by Martin.
  • The vice mayor said in the hiring of a new police chief, Martin had ignored his request to meet to discuss with him the hiring. “I would think he would listen to my input since I’m one of his bosses,” Sturges said.
  • Sturges said on the hiring of a new police chief that interim Police Chief Jim Hurley had left the position and that the deputy police chief was not given any instructions on what his responsibilities would be until a new police chief is hired.
  • Sturges said he learned that Martin had informed city staff that Commissioner Ross was preparing an upcoming (2023-2024) budget report about the impact of 10% department budget cuts. Sturges said Martin told city staff “to make it look ugly.” Sturges said he verified the statement with three city department heads.

“The city manager does not control my behavior regarding Brett’s,” said Ross in rebutting Sturges’ claims for terminating Martin. “This is baloney….and it has nothing to do with the city manager.”

Ross also said it was “totally inappropriate” for any city commissioner to be involved in the hiring of a city department head, according to the city charter.

“I think the city manager has done a good job. The airport works, the marina works. The whole thing with FEMA was hundreds of hours of time and we got an excellent result. (His termination) would put this whole city into chaos,” Ross said.

Martin said he had made some mistakes, but pushed back on Sturges’ claims about Brett’s and the hiring of a new police chief.

“Commissioner Ross and I do not discuss Brett’s. I completely disagree with his handling of Brett’s,” Martin told commissioners. “It is on the next City Commission agenda that the city will suspend any code actions against Brett’s.”

On hiring a new police chief, Martin read an email exchange with Sturges regarding potential candidates just before Christmas of last year. He said he intends to announce a new police chief at the next City Commission meeting.

“I personally reviewed 61 police chief applications and interviewed six (finalist) candidates. It’s a difficult decision,” Martin said.

Commissioner Ayscue said “sometimes this is a very healthy discussion to be had because we can’t discuss these things among ourselves,” he said. “The 10% make-it-hurt comment, I did hear that from a few department heads as well.”

Mayor Bradley Bean spoke last before the vote to postpone the decision. “I have had frustration in the past with direction and policy,” Bean said.

Martin told commissioners they had laid out his shortcomings and asked for the opportunity “to prove to you I can work with this commission, which is a whole 180-degree different change (than the previous commission). This is a transition period and I will support this City Commission.”

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Bob Allison
Bob Allison(@bob-allison)
10 months ago

Commissioner Sturges, thank you…thank you…thank you… for your courageous leadership on this issue.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_67142)
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Allison

How so?

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_67119)
10 months ago

It is time to address the relationship issues raised by Mr. Sturges. A series of bad and costly decisions have been made via these relationships and the time has come to fully review and hold accountable parties in the sunshine.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_67125)
10 months ago

Let’s not forget the FEMA debacle, where taxpayers were on the hook for millions… only the “missing document” saved us from disaster, and the handling of the Atlantic Seafood lease, the insubordinate attitude taken on budgets, and the unauthorized solicitation of “bids” to replace Brett’s, to cite a few examples.
This City Manager tends to get too far out in front on many issues and tries, it seems, to bulldoze through his plans.
These behaviors extend over a long, long period. Can he change? Is it too late?
The present Commission must decide….waiting 6 months as Dr. Ross suggested is no answer…the next budget cycle is starting and the process must be different this time.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_67143)
9 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

See my links above on FEMA reimbursement, Al. You do a disservice to the person that actually got us relief.

Peg (@guest_67147)
9 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Our City Manager takes his direction from the City Commissioners. The examples of criticism Al Macdugall is citing should be traced back to the commission meetings where the issues were first brought up and discussed. The commission would have voted to approve the action the city manager recommended or tasked the manager to investigate options towards resolving an issue and offered those options at the next meeting. The manager may suggest one solution over the others but it is the commission that makes the decision with their vote. 
The three newly elected commissioners have no reason to believe the city manager would not do the same now and their willingness to fall in step with Commissioner Sturgis’ inappropiate hijacking (to use his words) of Tuesday night’s meeting was disappointing. The city needs thoughtful deliberation by the commissioners not knee jerk reactions. Wait for the facts.
Commissioner Ross makes it his business to know what is going on in every area of the city. By doing this he has been able to bring factual information to the meetings generating more robust and in-depth discussion. Regardless of one’s political party, any city commissioner who is willing to devote serious time on city issues ought to be applauded. 

Roy Chisolm
Roy Chisolm (@guest_67163)
9 months ago
Reply to  Peg

Who are the “three newly elected commissioners?”

Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_67140)
9 months ago

Let’s get it on!!

Kathe Conrad
Kathe Conrad(@kconrad2k)
9 months ago

Commissioner Sturges surprise call for the termination of City Manager Dale Martin’s employment at the end of a long meeting after many of the public had left is troubling. Why was there no prior notification? Even more troubling were his reasons, which seemed more focussed on Commissioner Ross than on Dale Martin’s performance. Commissioner Sturges complaints about not being involved in the hiring the new police chief and the interim police chief duties is most concerning. Doesn’t the City Charter prohibit the commissioners from communicating directly with staff on day-to-day decisions?

Mike Lednovich
Mike Lednovich(@mike-lednovich)
9 months ago
Reply to  Kathe Conrad

The City Charter specifically created a firewall between City Commissioners and staff. It is up to the City Manager and City Attorney to enforce any violations. Warning have been issued to Commissioners in the past.

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Lednovich

Mike, let’s be fair here. While you are correct about the language of the Charter, Dale (as had previous CMs) has given previous commissioners as well as the new ones essentially carte blanche to contact city staff and only asked that he be apprised of the communication.
Personally I think such communication is disruptive. The Commissioners should be meeting with the CM on a weekly basis and that is the forum in which their questions should be addressed unless it is a situation that requires an immediate answer. Otherwise it could be interpreted by the employee as some level of coersion.

Trudie Richards
Trudie Richards (@guest_67154)
9 months ago

No one is perfect, and Manager Dale Martin is, I’m sure, at least as imperfect as the rest of us. My impression though is that he has generally done a terrific job, both as a leader and as a communicator.
I do wonder whether our new commissioners hope that by introducing this apparent vote of no-confidence, they are intentionally planting a seed.
Mr. Martin may find it increasingly difficult to do his job under these new circumstances, where doubt about his leadership has surfaced.
He may even decide it is not worth it, and decide to resign.
Well done, commissioners – you get what you want.

Shame on you.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_67179)
9 months ago

Trudie – Removing competence is what this is about.

John (@guest_67156)
9 months ago

Thanks goodness someone has taken the bull by the horns. Hire someone with a better idea to manage a budget and not spend money on radical things.
Thank You Commissioners.

chip ross
chip ross(@chipross)
9 months ago
Reply to  John

For the last 5 years all five City Commissioners, including Bean and Sturgess voted to approve the budget. All spending above $20,000 is approved by the City Commission.

Taina Christner
Taina Christner(@taina)
9 months ago

I watched the video of Sturges bringing this up. Do not agree that the City Commissioner should have done this after a long meeting and most of the public left.
I don’t agree on removing the City Manager. It takes several years to get a City Manager ‘up to speed’. We seem to fire City Managers frequently. How can we expect to get a decent City Manager if we have a reputation for firing them frequently? Do we really think we’ll get a good replacement? Or is this the first step in getting rid of City govt for a County takeover?
Let’s give him a chance for at least a couple more years.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
9 months ago

It will soon be over for city commissioners, mayor and city manager when Nassau county takes over the control of the city of Fernandina. You made your bed. Now lay in it.

Thomas Washburn
Thomas Washburn (@guest_67215)
9 months ago

Dale Martin has done a terrific job as City Manager, in my opinion.
He communicates well with the community via weekly comments in the Fernandina Observer.
The manner in which this issue was raised was most improper.
I think the present City Commission must consider this issue very carefully, hearing from residents in the community.