By Suanne Thamm
Confused. Frustrated. Unhappy. Angry. Suspicious.
These are just a few of the adjectives describing reactions in the Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach community to the sudden termination of City Manager Dale Martin’s contract on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Antun and Ross dissenting. To date, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) has offered no plausible reason for its precipitate action, other than to state that the city needs to move in a new direction.
What is that new direction? Why couldn’t the same end have been achieved through dialog with City Manager Martin? In the intervening weeks following Martin’s termination, the FBCC has only further muddled the situation with a workshop reminiscent of the old Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s On First?” [For those of you too young to understand the reference, check out the routine on YouTube.]
It is no wonder that Fernandina folks are suspicious. Vice Mayor David Sturges, who seemed to be the prime mover behind this action, moved to terminate Martin without cause. He then proceeded to list a series of grievances, including a lengthy list of issues from an anonymous source that was not included in the agenda packet. There were no smoking guns in anything he cited. Yet without any evidence of wrongdoing, Commissioner Darron Ayscue and Mayor Bradley Bean joined him in the vote to dump Martin.
Martin’s supporters still ask why this was done in this manner at this time. Remember that Bean and Sturges rated Martin’s performance as fully satisfactory during Martin’s last performance review in October 2022. The two newest commissioners, who came on board in December 2022, barely had enough time to learn how the city runs, much less to declare Martin’s performance worthy of termination.
A review of the emails sent to commissioners after Sturges’ announcement of intent to fire Martin revealed that by and large people were happy or at least satisfied with Martin’s performance. The bulk of emails that expressed support for the termination were obvious form letters that provided no insight into why the action was necessary. Who was behind the form letter campaign? The lack of transparency by our commissioners only raises more questions.
The biggest criticism raised during Martin’s tenure seemed to be the claim that he was always looking to raise taxes. Allow me to point to a couple of city manager duties as specified in the city charter (Section 29):
- To recommend to the commission for adoption such measures as deemed necessary or expedient in the interests of the city.
- To keep the city commission fully advised as to the financial condition and needs of the City and to submit for its consideration an annual budget and five-year capital improvement plan.
The city manager can only recommend budget increases; the city commission has the responsibility to approve proposed tax rates and budget increases. If the anti-taxers have a beef with the tax rates, they need to direct their complaints to the city commission, not the city manager. That’s where rubber hits the road.
The role of the mayor is also defined in the City Charter (Section 17). Two pertinent sections are listed below:
- The mayor has a voice and a vote in the proceedings of the commission but no veto power.
- The mayor does not exercise any administrative power, unless specifically set forth in this charter.
The mayor may not override decisions of the commission. S/he may not act in an administrative position within the government.
The charter (Section 25) is specific on requirements for a city manager applicant:
“The city commission must appoint a city manager who is the administrative head of the municipal government under the direction and supervision of the city commission and holds office at the pleasure of the city commission. The city manager must be chosen solely on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications without regard to political belief .… The city manager must have prior management experience, and the commission must consider more than one (1) qualified candidate for city manager. The city manager must be a member in good standing of a professional organization such as the International City/County Management Association prior to appointment or within six (6) months after appointment. …”
Does this charter language rule out selection of a “favorite son” to be city manager? No. But it does set some guidelines for the review and selection process.
Underlying the local uneasiness over Martin’s termination is a widely held belief that the only way the commission could have acted so quickly over the termination and hiring of an interim city manager with so little public deliberation would have involved Sunshine Law violations.
Who authorized Mayor Bean to find an interim city manager? Why was there no discussion about this action when Bean presented it to his fellow commissioners? Were other options/candidates considered? More reasons to question whether commission business is being conducted outside the Sunshine.
What is meant by “Sunshine Law”? Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine law (Chapter 286 Florida statutes) provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels. It applies to any gathering of two or more members of the same board to discuss some matter which will foreseeably come before that board for action. Violations of the Sunshine Law can result in removal from office, noncriminal infractions, and criminal penalties (possibility of a second-degree misdemeanor which can include imprisonment and/ or a fine).
In practical application, this means that two or more city commissioners cannot discuss privately (in person or via electronic means) any matter that they will be required to vote upon. Nor may they use an intermediary to poll the commissioners on a proposed vote.
Sunshine Laws also apply to any board or committee appointed by the commission to recruit, review, interview, etc., applicants for the city manager position. All the deliberations of this group must be publicly noticed and conducted “in the sunshine.” Members of the public, including city commissioners, may attend these meetings.
At first this might sound like a good idea, but think about it. This means that confidentiality about applicants goes out the window. This is a potential deterrent for interested applicants who do not want their current employer to know they are applying for another job. That is an important issue for manager searches and one of the reasons most cities use search firms. Most of the city commissioners seem willing to consider hiring a professional search firm, despite Mayor Bean’s almost frantic urgings at the most recent chaotic workshop on the manager search.
It will take months to hire a new city manager. During that time, the city must craft a budget proposal for FY 2023/24. The city also has two vacant department head positions: Airport Manager and the Police Chief (currently filled by an interim). There is ongoing work involving waterfront projects. It also seems that the interim city manager might leave following his initial 90-day appointment. So the FBCC will have to appoint at least one more interim.
Caught in the middle of this maelstrom is a demoralized city staff without a permanent leader.
To adapt a quote from Laurel and Hardy: “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, city commissioners!”