Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 18, 2015 2:41 p.m.
There was a hot time at Fernandina Beach City Hall last night as Fire Department issues continued to smolder, trying the patience of citizens and commissioners alike. Although City Manager Joe Gerrity had promised the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) a 30-day update on his efforts to resolve problems that have been ongoing for about 18 months, he cancelled the earlier meeting called for that purpose claiming, “There is nothing to report.” His final report is now due in 30 days.
During Public Comment, local resident and former candidate for city commission Roy Smith asked, “We’d like to know as taxpayers what’s going on [in the Fire Department], because it’s a very serious problem.”
City Manager Gerrity said, “I can respond to that. I’ve spoken to several commissioners one-on-one this week and will speak to the rest of them before the end of the week. At this time I don’t have anything to report other than everyone is back to work and healthy, which is the first time that has happened in 2 1/2 to 3 months. I will also say that we had a fire this afternoon in the Historic District and Shift A did a great job in containing the fire to two bedrooms. I am very proud of them. They did their job, and they did it to the best of their abilities. When I have something to report, I certainly will bring it forward.” Gerrity’s comment about return to work was a reference to FBFRD Chief Jason Higginbotham’s long absence due to medical reason, and Operations Chief Peter Bergel’s extended absence to deal with family matters in South Florida.
John Pelican, husband of former City Commissioner Sarah Pelican, also spoke to the Fire Department controversy, stressing that he was speaking for himself. He said that in reviewing the public comments and the Fire Department matters as discussed during the last few FBCC meetings, he “saw this little kabuki theater playing out.”
“It’s my belief,” he said, “that Mr. Poynter and Ms. Lentz both made promises to the Fire Union during their campaigns, before and after. And [the union is] becoming impatient with their lack of fulfillment of those promises, most likely regarding firing the chief or chiefs. … Pretty much every meeting [Fire Fighter’s Local President] Chet Lyncker and [Retired FBFRD Captain] Tommy Spicer get up and they repeat the lack of qualification and experience, safety issues and retaliation without any proof. … I’d just like to talk about Tommy Spicer a little bit. He retired on 100 percent of his final salary as a Fire Captain–$73,000, I believe. So he worked the system to get those kind of numbers out. As well as receiving $400,000 from the DROP program. So he’s hardly a fiscal conservative when it comes to the city’s money. … I do not believe he cares about the city’s finances, unless it’s his own finances.”
Pelican, whose wife lost to Robin Lentz in the November election, continued. “So the dilemma we have now is, you made the promises, so what do you do now? The only thing you can do is break them. They were inadvisable and wrong promises to make. And you obviously made them. You wouldn’t have gotten that help in the campaign to the degree you did [without them]. … It all comes with a price and we know that that price was and is. You pretty much need to break those promises because in 30, 60 days you’ll be hearing the same things from Tommy Spicer, without any new evidence to back any of them up.
“So here’s what you need to do. Give the Fire Chiefs a year at least—no 30, 60 days. … You need to do the right thing, renege on those promises, and do a fair evaluation after a decent time interval. Thank you.”
Commissioner Poynter spoke first in reply. “Look,” he said, “I don’t have any issue with you saying what you said. My issue is: I never promised anyone anything. And if you read into what’s been going on, there are issues with the Fire Department. You can’t dismiss them. You can’t say, ‘None of this stuff is happening.’ We are trying to get to the bottom of it. So I made no promises to the firemen. They supported me because they believed in what my vision is for this community. Not for the Fire Department, but for the entire community. … I defy you to find one thing anywhere that I made any kind of promises. So you can say anything you like, Mr. Pelican, but do not come up and accuse me of doing the wrong thing. That I won’t take.”
City Manager Gerrity asked to speak. He raised his voice and said toward the audience, “I’m going to ask everybody just to stand down here, take a step backwards and let me do my job. This is my responsibility and I will do what is right with my staff. I have had commissioners tell me who to hire, who to fire how I should hire people. I’ve had people from the street come up and tell me how to do my job. I’ve been here since the beginning, I understand what needs to be done, and I will do it. I was given 60 days, so let me do it. … I’m very confident in our Fire Department’s ability to do the job. I’ve said that several times.”
Mayor Ed Boner next recognized Commissioner Robin Lentz. “I just wanted to respond to Mr. Pelican,” she said. “I didn’t make any promises. I listened. I have never had a conversation with Tommy Spicer. I’ve had conversations with multiple firemen. Not just two or three: a lot. I’m doing my due diligence by talking with the city manager. I’m not trying to micromanage him. But when we set a deadline [for a report] of 60 days, these problems have been going on 18 months. I’m at the end of my rope with 60 days.”
Mayor Boner added that people come up to him all the time and ask why things are or are not being done. “It’s not always that simple,” he said. “You need to acknowledge that the city manager is the one who is in charge of this, and it is his job. We do need to give him a chance and acknowledge that there is a chain of command we should be following. We may set policy but [the city manager] is the man in charge. We are not going to dictate what he does with individual employees—that’s a violation of the Charter.”
Commissioner Gass said, “I would like to stop having subordinates come up here telling us what’s wrong in their department. We wouldn’t allow anyone from the Community Development Department to come in here and start ragging on Adrienne [Burke, CDD Director] … There is a chain of command, a way to get things done. File a grievance. Put in a letter … For us to allow them to stand here undermines the authority of every department head, and I don’t think it looks very professional on our part and it doesn’t help Joe get his job done. If you have a problem, take it up the chain of command and it will be taken care of properly. If not, there is a way to handle that also. This” –pointing to the podium—“isn’t it.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller also weighed in. “I don’t have any problem with people addressing me personally and asking me, or giving me, their feedback.” He explained when he uses email or face-to-face settings to deal with individuals and problems. “I don’t want to leave this discussion with the feeling that city employees can’t come to us [with problems], because not only are they city employees, but many are also city residents. I want them to feel free to come to me. The only thing I’ve had a problem with is that I really don’t like when people question people’s leadership in a public setting.”
Miller often calls on his experience in the United States Navy to illustrate his position. “Our [Navy] management program starts at the bottom and moves up. There’s no way to introduce new blood. If you have this hard charger who just graduated from the Naval Academy, he’s got to wait. He can’t just jump up and become a commanding officer somewhere. In the process of waiting, he learns from the system at each stage … What’s great [here] is that City Manager Gerrity could act on the advice of a former chief, take someone who is younger, has new ideas and put him in a position where he can actually do that. I can see how such a move can get negative feedback from the guys who have been there longer. Maybe those guys should have stepped up a little bit more, I don’t know. But when you question someone’s leadership ability, when our Fire Department is getting these great assessments, response time is low … and not one person from the community has complained about our Fire Department. Let’s stop this thing before it turns into a 4-alarm fire. Let’s let the city manager do his due diligence and let this thing get out of control. But at the same time let’s take it easy before we start sending the message to our chiefs that we don’t think they are effective leaders. I haven’t seen anything that shows we don’t have a successful Fire Department. It makes it difficult to be a leader when you have people who sort of have control over you telling you that your leadership skills aren’t up to par. In the military you wouldn’t [have that].”
Toward the end of the meeting during Commissioner Remarks, Commissioner Pat Gass once again returned to the topic of the Fire Department. “I’ve remained quiet about this,” she said, “but now I’m not going to.” She went on to read a prepared statement that she later posted on Facebook. The post is contained here in its entirety:
After reading the homophobic and factually inaccurate screed the Folio Weekly published last week, and hearing about a City Commissioner demanding of the City Manager that a department head be fired, I feel it is time I spoke up. Our Mayor has allowed individuals to present to us, at our commission meetings, slanderous remarks about the head of the Fire Department, Chief Jason Higginbotham. Chief Higginbotham has been accused of being too young, too inexperienced, and of not having the training to handle the position that he is presently holding. In comparison: Commissioner Poynter, with no known restaurant experience, opened a restaurant in 2005 and we the public allow him to feed us. He has a college degree but not in culinary arts. Commissioner Lentz graduated college with a degree in journalism the same year that Chief Higginbotham graduated with a degree in criminology. In 2007 Lentz obtained a master’s degree in Education and in 2004 Higginbotham left the State Attorney’s office in Tallahassee and joined the FBFD. We allow Commissioner Lentz to guide our children but she thinks Chief Higginbotham is too young and inexperienced to save their lives? Chief Matt Graves of the Nassau County Fire Department was 33 years old when he was made chief, the same age as Chief Higginbotham when he was made chief. If Chief Graves became a firefighter right out of high school he would have had about 14 years as a FF before becoming Chief, but no college degree. Chief Higginbotham had 8 years of Fire Fighting experience, a four year degree and two years work experience outside the field. Jeremiah Glisson is 33 years old; he worked in maintenance about 10 years or more before becoming the Fleet and Facilities Maintenance Director. Adrienne Burke is about 33 years old; she had been with the city about 5 years before she became the Community Development Director. I just cannot imagine the Mayor allowing one of these other department heads’ employees to stand at the podium and make slanderous comments about their leadership ability. Especially if those department heads had a SPOTLESS employee file as Chief Higginbotham does. That would undermine Mr. Glisson’s and Mrs. Burke’s authority just as Mr. Lyncker has been allowed to undermine Chief Higginbotham’s authority. Chief Higginbotham has brought our Fire Department into compliance with standards set by the State of Florida, which is more than the FIVE chiefs before him could or would do. Because of Chief’s Higginbotham’s dedication and professionalism he has caused our homeowners’ insurance rates to decrease. Chief Higginbotham continues to train, continues to have his men trained, and seeks out additional education. As I said, he has a spotless personnel file. In any other city in the nation, he would be looking at a long and rewarding career. But in the City of Fernandina Beach he is being slandered, harassed and ridiculed. After reading the Folio Weekly article it now appears to the public that the Fernandina Beach Fire Department, three sitting City Commissioners, and a couple of former city employees are discriminating against Chief Higginbotham based on his perceived sexual preference and the City is doing nothing to stop the attacks. What a fine state of affairs. If there is REALLY a management problem in a department then at some point prior to this hoopla, the proper channels would have been followed and a Letter of No Confidence would have been filed.
“I finally had my day. Thanks. I’m done,” she concluded
Mayor Ed Boner said, “Since a number of these remarks were addressed to the commission and to me, I’d like to ask the city attorney whether I can stop people from speaking.”
“We can’t stop people from exercising their Constitutional rights, especially if they are not on duty,” City Attorney Tammi Bach responded.
Boner said that if speakers were trying to incite the audience, or yelling comments from the audience, he could declare them out of order, but otherwise they have the right to speak.
Gass said she understood and she stood corrected. “But I’m over it,” she said. The mayor replied, “We are all over it.” Gass said she was “waiting for some professionalism to kick in again.”
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.