Commentary: A Good City Manager is Hard to Find — And Too Easy to Fire

Editor’s note: This commentary first appeared in 2015, but it’s as fresh as it was then — and will be 20 years from now. Some things never change.

THAMM-O-GRAMM By Suanne Thamm

One of the toughest jobs in public life is that of city manager.  While not an elected official in most cases, the lucky person who holds this title must be constantly aware of political trends, agendas of local elected officials and the needs of both the electorate and the bureaucracy entrusted to him or her.  While most of us have had occasional heartburn at having to meet the demands of one boss, imagine how much worse it must be to work for five bosses, each of whom has his or her own ideas and priorities for the city.  Then add a layer called the Sunshine Law, which makes it impossible for the manager to work behind the scenes to try to get consensus among the Big Five.

In the 48 years since 1975, the city of Fernandina Beach has had 16 permanent or interim city managers:

  • Grady Courtney (1975-1983)
  • Ferris Jones (1984-1989)
  • Larry Myers (1990-1994)
  • Zachary Zoul (1995-1997)
  • Jerry Greeson, interim (1997-1998)
  • Richard Diamond (1998)
  • Fred Hays (1999-2000)
  • Andy Barton (2000-2001)
  • Scott Moye, interim (2001)
  • Robert Mearns (2002-2005)
  • Jerry Sinclair, interim (2005)
  • Michael Czymbor (2006-2011)
  • David Lott, interim (2011)
  • Joe Gerrity (2012-2015)
  • Dale Martin (2015-2023)
  • Mark Foxworth, interim (2023 – )

Some have served a very short tenure, either because they were only interim managers (Greeson, Moye, Sinclair, Lott, and Foxworth) or because quickly it became apparent that the manager and the city were not a good fit (Diamond, Hays and Barton).  The remaining 8 served multi-year terms and achieved successes on one or another front: Courtney (8 years), Martin (7 years), Jones and Czymbor (5 years); Myers (4 years); Mearns and Gerrity (3 years); and Zoul (2 years).  The period of greatest turmoil was between 1997 and 2001, when the city went through three permanent and 2 interim managers.  Since the year 2002, Fernandina Beach has been run by managers who have served 3 or more years each. While this may sound terrible to some, in reality, city managers generally expect to serve 3-4 years in a particular position before changes in the political scene and community priorities cause them to move on.

And politics has generally been the driver here in Fernandina Beach.

There have been various attempts to introduce changes in an attempt to increase political stability in the City. Some of those changes were recommendations from citizen-based Charter Review Committees, such as:

— Changing the term of City Commissioners from 3 years to 4 years, thereby eliminating the need for annual elections

— Moving the time of elections from spring to fall, to coincide with state and county elections, in hopes of increasing voter turnout

— Providing for direct election of Mayor for a 2-year term.

Additionally, the current commission is considering an ordinance that would place races with three or more candidates per seat in with the August primary election. The top two finishers for each seat would then proceed to the November general election, thereby eliminating the need for—and cost of—a runoff election.

Many people over the years have claimed that things would run much more efficiently in Fernandina Beach if only we would change our form of government from Council-Manager to Strong Mayor. I remain skeptical. The system we have works tolerably well for most small cities in America.  It insulates the bureaucracy from politics and insures that a professional manager—trained and experienced in fields like public finance, land use and planning, public safety, and organizational management—makes sound recommendations on policy to the “deciders,” the elected officials.  A strong mayor system would add another layer of politics and probably raise the cost of government, because the mayor would have to bring in a “City Administrator,” “Chief of Staff” or other such-titled person to do the work now done by a city manager.

So can we achieve more stability in local city government without changing our form of government? Must we chew up and spit out city managers like sunflower seeds following elections? Is there a learning curve in Fernandina Beach or are we doomed, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” to keep repeating things over and over again and getting the same results? Each time we part ways with a city manager we spend time and money trying to find the perfect replacement. And what is perfect for the five folks making the hiring decision may not remain perfect when a new commission is seated in 2 years. Is there any way to break this costly, unproductive cycle?

During a period of turmoil and unhappiness more than 20 years ago, citizens voted to change the City Charter to impose a limit of two consecutive terms that any commissioner may serve. While this change solved a particular problem at the time, it has not necessarily had positive, long-term results. The voters, in my opinion, are the ultimate term-limiters. As long as an elected commissioner is performing to the satisfaction of the electorate, his or her continued service adds to continuity in local government, historical perspective and an element of trust from the electorate. These factors are especially important in a small town, where there may not be a large pool of qualified, dedicated citizens willing to serve—in good times and bad—for the salary of $12,000 per year. But as multiple recent elections have proven, the electorate is not willing to eliminate term limits.

Along with the charter changes already adopted, I would add two more relating to the hiring and firing of charter officers. Currently, the manager, attorney and clerk can be hired or fired on a simple majority vote. I would change the charter to require a 4/5ths vote to do either.  When an individual makes the commitment to serve our city, s/he should enjoy the support of most if not all of the commissioners. Otherwise, that person is put in the position of constantly counting votes to make sure that one of his or her three supporters doesn’t turn tail and join the opposition. People who move to new jurisdictions incur expenses in terms of moving households, changing schools, and finding new employment for a spouse or partner. It does not seem unreasonable to ask for the support of a super majority of the commissioners before requiring successful candidates to make these major life changes. Perhaps such a change would encourage more dialog—and dare I say it: compromise—between the commissioners and the charter officers.

But in the final analysis, the blame for government instability, wasteful spending, failure to respond to legal mandates or the will of the people, rests with two groups: the five elected people who preside over the general government of the city and the voters who put them there. Over my 28-plus years of observing local government in action (or inaction) here in Fernandina Beach, I have concluded that duties and responsibilities outlined in our City Charter are woefully misunderstood. Various commissioners and citizens pick and choose which part of the Charter to cite, much as people use Bible verses to justify a particular point of view:

— At various times, practically every commissioner has accused fellow commissioners of either not understanding or violating various charter provisions. A commissioner once suggested that other commissioners needed some training on how government works. Local elected officials in Florida are required to participate in annual training on this very topic. But in the past this requirement has not always been met in a timely manner.

— There are those among us who want all decisions to be taken to the people, claiming that we live in a democracy. Sorry, but while everyone has a voice in electing city commissioners, those five representatives—not the citizenry at large—are charged to make most decisions on behalf of the electorate. Our form of government is a representative democracy. The commissioners are expected to rise above short term goals and petty complaints to ensure the general welfare of future residents and taxpayers, as well as today’s.

— Some commissioners seem to believe that the charter officers are there to do their individual bidding. That is also not true. Individual commissioners may have more access to charter officers than the rest of us, but as individuals, they have no more power or right to direct Charter officers than the rest of us. Their power—and subsequent direction to charter officers—comes from the decisions that they take collectively by vote or consensus at public meetings.

— Some commissioners have believed that their office automatically entitles them to speak for the city in dealing with other government bodies or organizations. While commissioners, like citizens, have every right to express a personal opinion, they can only represent the city’s position or commitment if authorized to do so by direction of the entire city commission.

— Many citizens believe that the “way to get things done” is to call a city commissioner. Commissioners make policy, but the city manager is responsible for most of the day-to-day problems that citizens encounter: potholes, drainage, permit delays, etc. Involving a commissioner in these matters blurs the lines established in the City Charter between the commission and the manager.

— In addition to misunderstanding the manager’s role as CEO of the city, many people also misunderstand the role of the mayor, which is largely ceremonial. The mayor receives no more compensation than the other commissioners. The mayor is expected to preside over meetings, represent the city in case of a declared emergency resulting from a catastrophic event like a devastating hurricane, and show up for public relations events like ground breakings, dedications, etc.

— Unlike larger cities, our city commissioners have no publicly funded staff. If you call or email a commissioner, there is no middleman. They are responsible for doing their own constituent outreach, maintaining their calendars and clarifying any questions about agenda items with the city manager. If they deliver a speech, they probably wrote it themselves. There are few procedural rules binding commissioners, with the exception of rules for conducting public meetings, which they set themselves. They have traditionally balked at using a common form or evaluation system to rate the performance strengths and weaknesses of the three people they supervise: the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.

Over the years I have heard commissioners both bow to and reject public input in making their decisions to support or oppose various measures proposed by city staff through the city manager. Commissioners have claimed, and rightly so, that they have an obligation to act on behalf of the best interests of the entire city, not just the vocal citizens who show up at commission meetings. Other commissioners claim, as Woody Allen did, that 80% of success is showing up. Those commissioners will weigh more heavily the opinions of the people who speak. And there have been other commissioners who believe that the general public really doesn’t want to be bothered with civic responsibilities, that they rely on commissioners they trust who are more interested and informed to make decisions in their best interests.

But after all is said and done, the responsibility for making our city run rests on the shoulders of the city manager, not any individual commissioner or group of commissioners. The most important job the commission has is to bring us the best city manager we can afford. Let’s wish this commission Godspeed in doing just that in the months ahead.

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Medardo Monzon
Medardo Monzon(@mmonzon)
1 year ago

The unfair way the city manager was fired by not following well-established and accepted human resource procedures, combined by the self-admitted inability of some city commissioners to manage the city manager are clear signs of their autocracy and own incompetence.

Ronald Kurtz
Ronald Kurtz (@guest_67463)
1 year ago

Residents, Commissioners and voters of the City of Fernandina Beach would do well to read and study this article. We are making the same errors of procedure over and over. Chaos ensues when you do not allow people to perform the job the City Manager has hired them to do.
The way the City Manager was terminated was unethical. It reflects poorly on all but one of our current commissioners.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ronald Kurtz

all but 1 when 2 voted against termination? In other words, you are blindly parroting the liberal line without thinking for yourself.

Mary Ann Howat
Mary Ann Howat(@mahowat)
1 year ago

I guess behind the scenes one or more commissioners, new or old, were not pleased with the performance of our most recent city manager who actually was here for a number of years more than previous managers had lasted. This observation is made by me after reading Sue Ann Thamm’s manager list.

Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_67465)
1 year ago

Let’s not dwell on the firing of the City Manager, put the best man in & move forward.

Lynne Anderson
Lynne Anderson(@lynne-anderson)
1 year ago
Reply to  Margo Story


Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_67483)
1 year ago
Reply to  Lynne Anderson

Sorry Lynne, or woman…….

Nicholas Velvet
Nicholas Velvet (@guest_67466)
1 year ago

Great article! Brought home the sad fact that “The Voters are the Ultimate term limitors”…not. My experience here for the past 12 years is that the Voters get to year after year pay dearly for study after study, Welcome Centers,and southern style p.o.r.k. One ever constant is that the word “budget” means nothing to our form of city gobernment. Keep your checkbook in hand……you’ll need it.

Marlene Chapman
Marlene Chapman(@crew2120)
1 year ago

I so agree with your comment about paying dearly year after year for study after study. Hiring consultants and paying dearly for them is nonsense when we don’t listen to a word they have to say! Now we are bickering over spending money, yes, a large amount for an audit that is very much needed considering that we once again may have stepped out of bounds regarding the law. We need to get our act together now!

Noble Member
1 year ago

I find it curious that 3 commissioners could vote to fire the city manager and have his interim replacement hired in the same meeting without having behind the scenes consultations. Can anyone explain how there was not a violation of the Sunshine law?

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
1 year ago

Probably the best recommendation in Suanne’s piece now 7 years old to increase the stability of the position of the charter officials is to require a super majority vote (4 of the 5) to terminate a charter official. If that had been in place certainly Michael Czymbor would not have been terminated and I suspect that Dale Martin would not have either. Bob Mearns and Joe Gerrity both resigned after sensing a lack of confidence from only two commissioners. Of course, the flip side of that argument is that if there are 3 commissioners that don’t support the city manager, there will be an incredible amount of tension in the management of the city.

1 year ago
Reply to  DAVE LOTT

well said

Robert Edmund Sherretta
Robert Edmund Sherretta (@guest_67475)
1 year ago

Here, here!