Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 7, 2018 5:15 p.m.
As he begins his fourth year as Manager of the city of Fernandina Beach, Dale Martin sat down with Fernandina Observer co-editor Susan Steger and reporter Suanne Thamm the day after the 2018 General Election to highlight some of the accomplishments and challenges he has experienced over his first three years on the job.
City staff and organization
Martin expressed pride in the city staff, citing the number of successful new hires for key positions over the past three years. This is especially important in view of anticipated retirements that will occur in the next few years. Newly hired managers are getting an opportunity to thoroughly learn the operations in their departments from employees who have worked for the city for many years. This will put the managers in a better position to backfill positions as the need arises.
The City Manager reported that the city is embarking on a wage survey to ensure that city employees are adequately compensated for the work they do in comparison with others similarly situated in the region. He said that today’s employees are more concerned with “money in their pocket” than pension benefits, which motivated workers in past years. Without adequate compensation in entry level positions, turnover increases resulting in additional overhead costs for hiring and training new staff regularly.
Martin explained that in order to better serve citizens he recently reorganized the Community Development Department by dividing it into two distinct departments: the Building Department, headed by city building official Jud Allen and the Planning and Conservation Department, headed by planning manager Kelly Gibson.
No current reorganizations are underway, although Martin allowed that might change following a consultant report on the Parks and Recreation Department. He said that City Commissioners might need to weigh in on whether the department should be focused on providing services internally to city residents or to have a broader scope in providing programming or events as revenue generators for the city.
The Code Enforcement Department has become a focal point for many commissioners as they receive complaints from citizens. Commissioners have expressed a desire that code enforcement become more proactive. “As the community grows,” Martin said, “the quality of life expected calls for a raising of the bar.”
The biggest challenge
Martin recapped the City Commission’s process for setting its annual goals. The commissioners meet in public setting with the Charter Officers and city department heads in January to identify and prioritize goals for the coming year. Those goals are the basis for marching orders sent out to the different departments. They are also officially agreed to by all commissioners and adopted by resolution of the city commission.
However, commissioners often interject personal goals during the year that detract from the formally adopted goals. Because the city has limited resources that have already been committed to routine work of the departments, pursuing additional goals puts a strain on accomplishing the goals that the commission collectively adopted in January.
Martin was quick to point out that he is confident that all city commissioners are well intentioned and motivated to do well on behalf of the citizens. He sees no charter violations or attempts to undermine staff. But he allowed that commissioners, like citizens, sometimes lose sight of the “busy-ness of City Hall.” City staffers have many tasks to accomplish in the course of their workday. As added tasks are added to their workload, progress toward meeting collective goals slows.
City Advisory Boards
Now that city boards all meet at City Hall and their proceedings are recorded for public viewing via the city’s website, Martin expressed his belief that the boards are operating more effectively. He allowed that the city could do a better job in training board members on responsibilities and expectations. He cited the need of boards to be mindful of master plans and other guidelines in the performance of their duties. “Citizen engagement through board service is critical,” Martin said. “The City Commission also needs to exercise proper oversight with respect to performance and appointment of members.”
The space limitations of City Hall become a bigger problem as new equipment is added and more staff is hired. City staff are currently spread out around the city to compensate for the inadequate office space at City Hall. In order to address the need for space, the city has continued to pursue obtaining ownership of the Historic Post Office Building at 4thand Centre Streets. City Hall would then move into that building, allowing activities like Utility Billing and others to return to a centralized location.
In commenting on the current state of negotiations with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to obtain their historic building, Martin informed us that the USPS has determined that it still needs a downtown presence somewhere between the waterfront and 11thStreet and between Alachua and Beech Streets. They are looking for 24,000 square feet that would enable them to accommodate a 1,200 square foot building, a loading dock and parking.
The city is working with USPS through its lobbyist to identify such a site and work out conditions that would benefit both parties.
Martin said that currently he believes the city has enough space to meet its needs throughout its various buildings for the next 1-2 years.
Martin cited the progress made at the City Golf Course over the past few years to improve course conditions, operations and management. He expressed confidence in the Golf Course’s future despite the existing debt load. He said that the city course is the only remaining walkable course on the island and expressed confidence that even as interest in golf appears to wane in younger people, the city course will always remain.
Despite two years of frustration and red tape, the long awaited repairs and changes to the marina’s south basin are imminent. Fernandina Beach was only one of many communities frustrated in post Matthew recovery efforts. Martin said that following Hurricane Matthew experience, the state made major improvements to the disaster recovery process. As a result, reimbursement for Hurricane Irma expenses is coming through more quickly. While acknowledging the many obstacles that the city had to overcome, Martin expressed confidence that the necessary repair work caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 will soon be visibly underway.
Martin expressed great satisfaction with the city’s partnership with Fernandina Beach Main Street. He said that work was going “fantastically well” and credited Arlene Filkoff as the reason. Filkoff, who serves as Executive Director of the Main Street Program, brought to the job an understanding of government and downtown business. Martin said that she came to the job knowing the players, giving her an exceptional advantage to move the program forward.
Martin appears to have adapted well to life in Fernandina Beach, relishing both the Florida weather and the many community assets, not the least of which are the city residents, who engage with him both on and off the job on a regular basis.
He said that last month alone he received 2,100 emails from all sources. He calculated that if he spends 3 minutes on each one, that alone accounts for half a workday every day. He meets individually with commissioners once weekly and holds regular staff meetings. In between meetings, phone calls and emails, he does his “desk work.”
Martin obviously enjoys the personal interactions that his job requires and derives satisfaction from seeing the city able to maintain the quality of life that citizens demand through the effective interactions of the City Commission and city staff.
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.