By April L. Bogle
This article highlights milestones leading up to and following the Feb. 21, 2023, termination of Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin, which the News-Leader editorial board described on March 1, 2023, as “at best, a hasty decision and, at worst, on the heels of two new commissioners taking office, the product of a political Machiavellian scheme.”
Information was compiled from Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting videos and transcripts, and from interviews with City Attorney Tammi Bach, Interim City Manager Mark Foxworth, Retired Police Chief James Hurley, City Commissioner David Sturges (via email), Human Resources Director Denise Matson, and City Clerk Caroline Best. Public records and news reports from the Observer and News-Leader provided additional source material. Mayor Bradley Bean responded via email, “Thanks for the opportunity. I have no comment at this time.” Deputy City Manager Charlie George and City Commissioner James Antun did not return Observer calls seeking their input.
Nov. 3, 2020: Bradley Bean elected to City Commission Group 1, David Sturges elected to City Commission Group 2
- Sturges tells City Manager Dale Martin and City Attorney Tammi Bach that during the 2020 election people called for their firing but that he had no intention of coming in and firing them, according to Bach. “He didn’t give us any reasons,” she said.
2021-2022: First term issues for Bean and Sturges
- Sturges discusses with Bean in front of Bach that he doesn’t like that Martin seems to do what Commissioner Chip Ross, Group 3, asks him to do.
- According to Bach, Bean was adamant about wanting to see the millage rollback rate adopted for fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23. Other commissioners did not agree, and the budgets passed 4-1 in 2021-22 (Bean dissenting) and 5-0 in 2022-23.
- Sturges takes issue with the elimination of the Road Maintenance Manager position even though he didn’t have purview over this decision, according to Bach.
September through early October 2022: Martin receives positive performance review
- Mayor Mike Lednovich and Vice Mayor Len Kreger provide written comments; Commissioners Bean, Ross and Sturges provide verbal comments.
- No performance issues are cited.
- When asked by the Observer why he didn’t provide critical feedback, Sturges said, “During his [Mr. Martin’s] verbal performance review all facts were not evident yet. However, in reality bringing these issues to light was not a necessity because the city commission terminated Mr. Martin’s contract without cause.”
Nov. 8, 2022: Bean elected mayor, Sturges vice mayor
- Bean and Sturges are on the city commission election ballot for mayor, with Bean winning the most votes.
- Bean raises more than $11,000 in campaign contributions, including $2,000 from two politically conservative PACs (Strong Leadership and Women Building the Future) based at the address in Tallahassee (115 East Park Avenue, Suite 1) which dozens of conservative PACs list as their office. He also accepts $1,000 from Sleiman Holdings, Inc., a strip shopping center developer based in Jacksonville that has developed seven properties in Nassau County according to the company’s website, including the Shops at Amelia Market (Harris Teeter), Sadler Square (Lott’s Furniture), Villages of Amelia (State Road 200—Home Goods, Ross, TJ Maxx) and the Crossings at Wildlight (Publix).
- Sturges raises no money for the race. “I never intended to actively campaign for the mayor’s position and the fact that Commissioner Bean chose to actively campaign has no bearing on my decision whatsoever,” he said.
Dec. 13, 2022: James Antun elected to City Commission Group 4, Darron Ayscue elected to City Commission Group 5 in runoff election
- Antun and Ayscue promote their affiliation with the Republican Party during the run-off. Some of the information distributed by Ayscue appears to be in violation of state law. A mailer produced by the PAC, Conservative Leadership for First Coast, appears to be in violation of state law. This PAC is located at the same address as those supporting Bean. For more details, see It’s a Non-Partisan City Government – But Are You Sure?
- Ayscue raises $20,000 for his campaign, including $5,000 from developers ($1,000 of this from Sleiman Holdings, Inc., the same amount given to Bean) and $500 from First Coast Conservatives, another PAC based at the address of those listed above.
Feb. 7, 2023: Sturges makes motion to terminate Martin
- Toward the end of the city commission regular meeting agenda, after most of the audience has left and following the city manager’s report, Sturges makes a motion to terminate the city manager’s contract without cause.
- Ayscue seconds the motion.
- Sturges reads a statement containing 10 “reasons that have brought me to this point.”
- Nearly half of the reasons are based on events that occurred during the prior city commission term. The Observer asked Sturges why he waited so long to bring them to the commission’s attention. “I raised some of these concerns to Mr. Martin in our one-on-one meetings over the course of my term. However, there were other concerns that were not brought to light until recently,” he responded via email.
- One claim is that three department heads said Martin had told his staff to “make it look ugly” in reference to a 10% budget cut presentation that Ross was preparing for the budget cycle. Antun asks for proof of this. The Observer spoke with department heads Matson, Bach (she was not in attendance at Martin’s Jan. 19 staff meeting) and Best. None heard Martin make this statement.
- Another reason Sturges cites is the handling of the police chief search, and questions why Deputy Chief Tambasco has not been promoted to the position. Later in the meeting when Martin responds to Sturges’ list of reason for termination, he says, “My plan was to announce the police chief at the next commission meeting…. Our police union does not support Deputy Chief Tambasco. Our union has not offered an endorsement of Deputy Chief Tambasco. And I will let you weigh that. They were going to take a vote and were encouraged not to. So our union does not support the deputy chief. Chief Tambasco remains one the five finalists, but our union does not support him. I personally reviewed 61 applications. I interviewed six candidates. It’s a difficult decision but I take pride in doing the right thing and I will hire the best candidate available for the City of Fernandina Beach.”
- When the Observer asked Sturges why he thought he should be part of the police chief hiring process when it is out of his purview as clearly stated in the city charter, he responded via email, “The city’s safety and security should be important to all high-minded citizens. All citizens are part of the process when it comes to good government.”
- Antun asks the commissioners to comment on the allegations made by Sturges.
- Martin asks for a copy of the list so that he can respond spontaneously.
- Ross offers his counter perspective on most of the reasons in support of Martin, Sturges rebuts and Martin defends his actions.
- Commissioners vote 3-2 to postpone the termination vote for two weeks, with Ayscue and Sturges dissenting.
- Bach said she was “shocked” at Sturges’ motion and believes the other commissioners “were truly as shocked” even though she believes Sturges’ displeasure has been building for two years. “My sense was that he [Sturges] was getting to that point, but normally we try to figure out through the community if other commissioners were saying the same thing and I didn’t hear of any other displeasure, that they were upset about anything.”
Feb. 7-17, 2023: Bach talks with commissioners about Martin’s potential termination
- Bach contacts each commissioner. “It’s not my job to provide any information to help support or defend the city manager, but if a termination is to occur, to help determine next steps and answer any questions.”
- She tells commissioners she assumes Charlie George, deputy city manager, will be given the interim city manager role unless “you all have somebody in mind, and they all said ‘okay.’ No one said Mark Foxworth.”
- She speaks briefly with George and tells him he will be expected to take over; he told her no one had spoken to him about the role.
- She tells Bean that no one has spoken to George. Bean agrees to contact him and tell him they need him and want him to stay. “They did meet is my understanding,” said Bach. However, in the Feb. 24 News-Leader, George is quoted as saying: “It was never discussed or offered to me by anyone on taking the interim position for City Manager.”
- Dozens of residents email commissioners with their opinions about the termination. Commissioner Antun’s responses state he is carefully considering the decision. One example, “I have most certainly been doing my due diligence to get to the truth in this matter. This is not an issue I will vote lightly on, and I appreciate your feedback!”
Feb. 8, 2023: No discussion of Martin’s performance at goal-setting meeting
- The city commission holds its annual goal-setting session, an all-day meeting that is open to the public and well attended. No reference is made to Martin’s performance issues or the motion to terminate his contract, according to Ross’s statement at the Feb. 21 city commission regular meeting.
- When the Observer asked Sturges why he didn’t raise concerns about Martin during this session, Sturges said, “That particular meeting was not the appropriate venue to have that discussion.”
Feb. 10, 2023: Bean asks Martin to resign
- Bean goes to Martin’s office and asks him to resign. Martin refuses.
- Bach says she and Bean had discussed this a day or two before, and although Bean doesn’t have independent authority in personnel matters, he can make suggestions. “When I had spoken to city commissioners individually after Feb. 7 – I don’t know if spoke with all five of them – I had mentioned that resignation was an option. Headlines stay with us forever, ‘City Manager Fired.’ If he didn’t want an actual vote to terminate, that was an option.”
Feb. 17, 2023: Bean recruits Foxworth as interim city manager
- According to Bach, Bean contacts her late in the day about hiring former Police Chief Mark Foxworth as the interim city manager should the commission vote to terminate Martin at the Feb. 21 meeting.
- Bean asks Bach to call Foxworth and discuss terms, which she does, and reports that Foxworth said he would be interested in a 90-day contract, but not a permanent position, and that he didn’t request specific terms.
- Bach tells Foxworth she will draw up a contract, and if the vote to terminate takes place, for him to be prepared to start the position on Feb. 22 at 8 a.m. at which time terms and duties will be discussed.
- “As far as I know, Mayor Bean did not discuss Foxworth with the other commissioners,” she said. “Up until Feb. 17, I thought Charlie George would step into the role until the commissioners could come up with other names.”
- Foxworth confirmed Feb. 17 was the first he was approached about filling the interim position.
Feb. 21, 2023: Martin is terminated
- That evening at the city commission regular meeting, Ross makes a statement supporting Martin, and Sturges waves a page containing 23 additional grievances against Martin sent by an anonymous person.
- Seven residents speak at the city commission meeting. Six are in favor of Martin or at least urge a more professional process that allows time for Martin to attempt to address the concerns. Only Jack Knocke of County Citizens Defending Freedom speaks against him.
- The vote to terminate Martin’s contract passes 3-2, with Antun and Ross dissenting.
Feb. 22, 2023: Interim appointees take charge of city, police
- Foxworth assumes the role of interim city manager. “I’ve not been a city manager before, but I’m familiar with the people and the functions, and I think I can be of help and keep the ship right,” he said. “It’s important to keep in mind the term ‘interim’ – I’m not going to be an applicant for the full-time position. Fernandina Beach has been very good to me, and I felt coming here to help them out during this time was the right thing to do.”
- On his first day, Foxworth appoints Tambasco interim police chief. “We had a police department without a chief, and the City Charter says we have to have one,” said Foxworth, who hired Tambasco as deputy chief in 2021 and worked with him for about a year before retiring. “From what I understand, he had been running the department for about six months, and at this point it wouldn’t have made sense to promote a more junior officer.”
- Foxworth originally hired Tambasco for his knowledge of police procedures. “I was impressed with him and believed it was good to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes,” he said. “Overall, he had very good evaluations, and when he interviewed with every part of the agency, he seemed to be a good fit at the time and 100% responded well to him.
- Foxworth supports Tambasco – he went so far as to say the police union is “neutral” about Tambasco rather than unsupportive, as Martin stated at the Feb. 7 City Commission meeting — but said intends for the permanent city manager to hire a permanent police chief. “I understand this is the largest department in the city with the largest budget, the largest number of employees, and the largest amount of liability. The city manager has to be comfortable with the person running it.”
- James Hurley, who was serving as interim police chief during the launch of the search for a new chief, spoke about Tambasco with Greg Forhan, general counsel for the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA), before Hurley retired Feb. 1, 2023. “He told me directly that more than half of the union members were not in favor of Tambasco,” said Hurley. Hurley says he conveyed this information to Martin, who was his boss, who then repeated the information at the Feb. 7 city commission meeting when addressing Sturges’ reasons for wantng his termination. [Hurley served as police chief for 15 years, retiring in 2021 and returning on an interim basis when Foxworth retired.]
- Observer calls to Forhan to confirm or deny support for Tambasco have not been returned.
- A July 2021 News-Leader article titled, “Deputy chief brings experience, baggage,” outlined a number of incidents throughout Tambasco’s career. That newspaper’s request for “personnel action forms, complaints and investigations” about Tambasco from the Kissimmee Police Department where Tambasco worked from 1997 to 2020 turned up 44 different files numbering hundreds of pages. Among the issues: sending more than 1900 sexually suggestive emails to female employees of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office and a state attorney during a seven-month period in 1999 and 2000, and using department facilities, equipment and personnel while working for his “secondary employer” in 2012. Four days before his retirement in 2020, the Kissimmee deputy police chief sent a 10-page memo about Tambasco’s alleged failures as a leader to the police chief.
- Bach said she was unaware of the specific concerns around Tambasco, but if he exhibits these types of behaviors in Fernandina Beach, it won’t be tolerated. “The officers here have been trained by Jim Hurley and Mark Foxworth. He would be out on his ear in a second,” she said.
- Bach says the commission plans to first focus on the city manager replacement and “see how Tambasco does.”
- The process for hiring a permanent city manager is on the March 7 city commission workshop agenda. Bach says it will “probably be a hybrid approach” that uses a professional search firm and a citizens’ committee.