Commentary: What a Mess We Are In, Fernandina!

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!”

51 Comments
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Diana Herman
Diana Herman (@guest_67624)
6 months ago

When personal agendas take precedent over the needs of our rapidly growing community the result is chaos and suspicion. Many city residents do not have trust in the newly elected commissioners. Suzanne Tramm refers to Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello. They were funny, this is not.

Paula Mutzel
Paula Mutzel(@paula-m)
6 months ago
Reply to  Diana Herman

Agree 100%…this is not funny…this is frightening and it seems to be happening a lot in Florida…a small group of people in positions of power think they can manipulate the system to get what they want. They defy the longstanding laws and procedures and just forge ahead. We have seen this from the very top tiers of state government to the local levels and if residents don’t speak out against it they will find themselves in a situation other than a democracy.

Conrad
Conrad (@guest_67625)
6 months ago

My wife and I are retired and we were considering to buy a home on Amelia Island. When we have visited, it seems like Paradise. We loved it. But now it seems politics and poor decision are taking over. We have this were we live now so why move. Paradise seems to be going there as well with what we read in the Fernandina Observer.

Pierre Laberge
Pierre Laberge (@guest_67631)
6 months ago
Reply to  Conrad

Conrad make sure to buy outside the limits of Fernandina Beach , meaning go to Nassau county and compare the amount of taxes you would be paying, unbelivable

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
6 months ago
Reply to  Conrad

We were in the same situation, but not now. FB has been crossed off the list.

Dave Scott
Dave Scott (@guest_67688)
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Vogel

Good. If you are influenced by this mindless babble, then please stay where you are.

Michael Carabetta
Michael Carabetta (@guest_67645)
6 months ago
Reply to  Conrad

that is a crazy decision. You are reading commentary from some biased people.

Christine Harmon
Christine Harmon (@guest_67647)
6 months ago
Reply to  Conrad

Conrad, my husband and I moved to Fernandina Beach 9 years ago. The first year, like many people, we also thought we had found “Paradise”. Five years later, we realized we had not. Two years after, we moved back to where we came. My advice: determine your priorities. If they are golf courses and locating in an “adult Disney World, move there. If you are concerned about the environmental impacts of development and tourism, don’t move there. Also, research insurance rates and the flood zone in which you are locating. Consider Amelia Island is two miles wide at its widest. Finally, consider the political priorities and mentality of the people. My husband and I were eager to move there – and just as eager to leave. I am no longer humming “Dueling Banjos”.

Jason Collins
Jason Collins(@jc18holes)
6 months ago

Dueling Banjos? LOL Well, Key West we are not and will never be!

Troy Walker
Troy Walker (@guest_67686)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Collins

I believe this Christine is refrencing Backwoods simpltons.

Shelley Brady
Shelley Brady (@guest_67687)
6 months ago
Reply to  Conrad

Good choice. We’re from NC. My family has visited Amelia Island events for years and I have a very close lifelong friend who owns a home there. Fernandina Beach is not a place I would recommend to anyone. It’s one of those places where people pay ridiculous taxes but get nothing of real value in return.

Lucy Peistrup
Lucy Peistrup(@lucyp74)
6 months ago
Reply to  Shelley Brady

You are 100% correct! The whole of Nassau County is this way. I’ve lived here my whole life and it is INCREDIBLY frustrating to see this beautiful place be raped and pillaged by the wealthy while the working class people who have ALWAYS been here receive NOTHING in return. It’s like they are gentrifying our whole community right out from under us and don’t even care. I couldn’t afford the home I live in now had I not built it 20 years ago. Taxes keep rising, insurance keeps going up, yet they still allow DEVELOPERS all the perks and place ALL the burdens on the citizens. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s beyond heartbreaking. I miss the days when I could get off of work at 11pm, go and park at the beach and listen to the waves… can’t even do THAT anymore.

ANTHONY VELLUCCI
ANTHONY VELLUCCI (@guest_67627)
6 months ago

Great article but I believe the correct quote is “another fine mess,” so I would imagine this is not the only one – and more are on the way.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_67633)
6 months ago

This Commission is fiscally conservative and will bring spending under control….Dale Martin demonstrated over his 7 year tenure that he did not support that approach and further demonstrated that he would act independently of Commission wishes.

Jim
Jim (@guest_67641)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Good point. Were the specifics of his (Martin’s) spending outlined as a reason for his termination? Can he just spend whatever he likes?

Betsie
Betsie(@betsie-huben)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim

No he cannot spend whatever he likes. No specifics. Lots of innuendos. And that is 100% the problem with this entire matter. Martin had 7 years of satisfactory reviews and yet, here we are. But wait! There is more to come. Now we need the state AG to tell us if we have problems with our impact fee schedule after numerous successful audits. New signs will need to read Crazy Town, USA…

Faith Ross
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim

According to our City ordinances and Charter the City Manager can only spend what is budgeted to him or her. The City Commissioners approve the budget.

Christine Harmon
Christine Harmon (@guest_67648)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Al, will you provide specific instances where Dale acted independently of the Commission?

Dave Scott
Dave Scott (@guest_67655)
6 months ago

Christine, you contributed nothing but handwringing nonsense when you lived here. Even though you moved two or three years ago you continue to share your empty-headed contributions. Don’t you have reasonable people in your new community to annoy? However, I admit that your claptrap is good for a chuckle or two as it is so preposterous. .

Faith Ross
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
6 months ago
Reply to  Dave Scott

I wish Dave could say something constructive for a change.

Trudie Richards
Trudie Richards (@guest_67684)
6 months ago
Reply to  Faith Ross

Not much chance of that. Dave has built what little reputation he has by using vitriolic insults to attack fellow citizens. And he thinks he’s funny.

Trudie Richards
Trudie Richards (@guest_67685)
6 months ago

Thank you Suanne for providing much-needed context to this sorry situation.

The Casual Observer
The Casual Observer(@betsie-huben)
5 months ago

Waiting along with you Ms. Harmon for the list of decisions or spending done independent of the commission. So far, all I hear are croaking frogs…

Faith Ross
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Al, you may want to read the article again. Only the Commissioners can approve spending. They all voted to approve the budget. You might want to talk to them about it. Mr. Martin told them what they needed to spend to keep the Atlantic Rec Center, the Martin Luther King Center, the Lighthouse, the Peck Center from falling down, still keep up the parks and all the sports equipment and sites, and the marina and golf course in the black, they still aren’t fixed. You might want to start making donations. This is a City of Champagne Taste with a beer drinker’s budget.

John Findlay
John Findlay(@jfindlay)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

The budget is determined by the City Commission, not the City Manager.

Janet Neckyfarow
Janet Neckyfarow (@guest_67637)
6 months ago

As new members of the community (we moved here April 1, 2022), we really enjoyed and appreciated all if the information and insights provided by Dale Martin in regular articles for the Fernandina Observer. It was refreshing to see such openness and extraordinarily so when it comes to government business ANYWHERE. He is sorely missed!!!

Margaret Kirkland
Margaret Kirkland(@kirkland-mrk)
6 months ago

Excellent article, Suanne! Thank you. Yes, the Commission Workshop was slapstick commedy. Most of the commissioners demonstrated a lack of understanding of the nature of searches and the search process. This doesn’t bode well. And apparently, no one did their research prior to deciding to fire Dale at this particular time. Four of the five commissioners lack substantial experience in that role, and Fernandina Beach is but one of many coastal Florida communities currently involved in City Manager searches.

Christine Harmon
Christine Harmon (@guest_67651)
6 months ago

Thank you, Margaret. I watched the workshop and disappointed in the lack awareness most of the commissioners demonstrated re: process and time required to hire a new city manager.

James brooks
James brooks(@james-brooks)
6 months ago

suzanne I have appreciated your coverage of both the county and the city the last many years. Thank you

If you believe that the accusations that have been leveled against the current commission are true, maybe you should start a recall effort. I believe fl 100.361 would apply but it does require a significant number of signatures, but would be a good indicator of how broadly your position is held. I personally felt the dismissal was poorly handled by this commission, but the city has not appeared to have the strength to address critical issues. Hopefully the next city manager negotiates a contract that allows them to lead Vs being whip sawed. Clearly a challenge to work for five bosses that have different visions.

Jim
Jim (@guest_67642)
6 months ago
Reply to  James brooks

Is anyone considering legal action?

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
6 months ago

Any decent candidate who may be considering the job will likely step away when they see the mess that has accompanied the debacle surrounding the dismissal of a well qualified, communicative manager. Good luck, folks.

Sheila
Sheila(@srcocchi)
6 months ago
Jason Collins
Jason Collins(@jc18holes)
6 months ago
Reply to  Sheila

Fake news…..And again there is nothing wrong with voters, friends and supporters of one Commissioner expressing their concerns/opinions to other Commissioners. SMH

Sheila
Sheila(@srcocchi)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Collins

Sounded like a threat to me.

Jerry Torchia
Jerry Torchia(@agtorchia)
6 months ago

Suzann Tramm,
Great job. Keep after these rascals.

Ray Dice
Ray Dice (@guest_67658)
6 months ago

It would seem to me that many folks who are replying are basing their comments on emotion rather that facts. I do not know the facts and I would believe that the same can be said by most commenters, ….including the author of the article.
However, I do know one thing about government and leadership. Good managers- in this particular situation, the City Commissioners- basic function is to appoint and manage the employees who run the city.
One thing that I discovered in my time as an elected official is that a good City Manager finds ways to reduce the tax burden on it citizens. That can be obtaining contracts, getting grants, maximizing department efficiency, increasing business and minimizing legal exposure. Those few, of tos just asking for problems that it w;lhe ,any functions of a City Manager, require skill and expertise. The ONLY way to accomplish that is to employ a Consultant who specializes in that field/. Even appointing an individual to that position on an interm basis will require the eventual manager a lot of time to repair. Keep the politics out of employment and allow professionals to do what they are trained to do.

Sheila
Sheila(@srcocchi)
6 months ago
Reply to  Ray Dice

The Commissioners DO NOT manage the City staff by way of the Charter. The City Manger manages the staff.

Faith Ross
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
6 months ago
Reply to  Ray Dice

Ray, Facts require that the City Charter be consulted. Charter expressly forbids City Commissioners from interfering “in any manner” in the hiring, firing, or appointment of City employees. Mayor Bean was on the Charter Committee, this was one of their Charter Amendments that passed in the 2020 election cycle. Please don’t blame the City Manager for following the Charter of the City, you will frighten off ANY new prospective candidates for the job.

NEIL A. Borum
NEIL A. Borum (@guest_67660)
6 months ago

Seems to me this paper is not reporting but is offering an opinion.

Julie Ferreira
Julie Ferreira(@julie-ferreira)
6 months ago
Reply to  NEIL A. Borum

An opinion? The question why Bradley took it upon himself to find an interim city manager is a question we should all be asking.
Was the job first offered to Charle George, the deputy city manager, and he turned it down? Mr George may well have not wanted to step in as interim- but inquiring minds want to know why there was no discussion regarding other options and potential candidates? At least Mr. George has some experience under his belt.
And since when is a retired police chief qualified to create next years budget so it can be adopted by the Commission in October?
Something doesn’t quite hold up to the smell test IMHO, but only time will tell.


Betsie
Betsie(@betsie-huben)
6 months ago
Reply to  Julie Ferreira

If I recall correctly – Mr. George has stated that he was not offered the job – which should raise a lot of questions in and of itself.

Kent Piatt
Kent Piatt (@guest_67689)
6 months ago
Reply to  NEIL A. Borum

That’s why it’s labeled “Commentary.”

Michael Coll
Michael Coll (@guest_67672)
6 months ago

does the city charter allow for a recall vote on the city commissioners and mayor? perhaps. that’s an avenue to explore and get decent officials in there.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
6 months ago
Reply to  Michael Coll

The recall of elected officials is covered by state statutes unless there is a local ordinance. The city charter has no language regarding recall of which I am aware so the state statutes will apply.

Tammi Kosack
Tammi Kosack(@tammi-kosack)
6 months ago
Reply to  Dave Lott

Dave you are exactly correct. During our last charter review 2 years ago, our committed discussed having a specific recall section added to the charter. Several of the members dissented, saying recall was covered under state statute and having it in the charter would be superfluous. I personally thought we should at least have a section that pointed to the state statute so citizens that questioned the process would have direction.

Jck
Jck (@guest_67674)
6 months ago

Calm down people! This article is one big negative post! The sky is not falling…the city is not imploding! Firing the city manager was not a rash decision. The voters elected two new city commissioners for change….change is happening…and it’s good!

Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery(@douglasm)
6 months ago

My guess is the next City Manager is someone who already resides within the City limits…..and probably has for quite awhile.

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

And is related to someone else in city government.

Charlie
Charlie(@charlie)
6 months ago

Dale should of been fired years ago, he and councilman Chip were the insane ” Chip and Dale” show. They were the Boss Hogg and J.R. Ewing of Fernandina.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
6 months ago
Reply to  Charlie

How so? WHAT exactly did Dale do? Why was he never cited in his performance reviews? Obviously, in a democracy everyone will have an opinion, but calling names without any clear examples of wrongdoing and a lack of evidence is just conspiracy theory. I still don’t see where the commissioners who voted Dale out have a case.

Dwight Collins
Dwight Collins (@guest_67753)
6 months ago

I don’t see the Fernandina Beach City Manager position posted on the City of FB’s website fbfl.us under Employment Opportunities. I checked the Colin Baenziger & Associates Executive Recruiter website and they only posting they showed was the old 2105 City Manager posting. Is the City Manager position even being advertised at this time?