Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 6, 2015 3:19 p.m.
Following the presentations and the routine business portion of the May 5, 2015 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC), meeting watchers were jolted awake as two commissioners—Robin Lentz and Tim Poynter—launched into a full blown discussion of their frustrations and trust issues in dealing with City Manager Joe Gerrity. Citing Gerrity’s alleged failure to move in a timely manner on FBCC direction with respect to issues ranging from unrest in the Fire Department, to hiring an airport manager, downtown issues involving CSX (“sidewalk to nowhere,” waterfront park proposed parking along railroad right of way, opening Alachua Street rail crossing) and overall leadership issues. Vice Mayor Johnny Miller and Mayor Ed Boner, while expressing some concerns over the Fire Department unrest, which has continued despite the removal of the most recent chief, did not appear to be as troubled as Lentz and Poynter. Commissioner Pat Gass was absent from the meeting due to a death in her family.
The discussion, which lasted almost an hour, was uncomfortable for both commissioners and Gerrity, but Lentz did her best to de-personalize criticism while encouraging an open discussion in the sunshine among all commissioners over matters of concern that she has noted during her first five months as commissioner. She provided examples of Gerrity’s “foot dragging” on important issues and cited her problems in trusting Gerrity to maintain confidentiality of their private discussions. Poynter, also citing what he believed were unnecessary delays in moving forward with projects like reissuing a revised RFP for the airport welcome center and Gerrity’s failure to craft a job description for an airport manager in more than 5 months, spoke to the need for more action-oriented meeting agendas. He refused to be boxed into a discussion centering on problems in the Fire Department, citing multiple problems in various departments, which have been the cause of citizen complaints or embarrassment to the city.
While not as concerned about Gerrity’s performance as Lentz and Poynter, Mayor Ed Boner expressed concern that “two commissioners are not comfortable with the City Manager.” Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, acknowledged problems in the Fire Department, but said that he did not personally have problems with Gerrity.
Following the discussion Gerrity, who sat patiently through the discussion, said that he understood commissioners’ impatience in making progress in certain areas. He said that he was not prepared to respond that evening. “I’d like to take my time,” he said.
There was no vote of confidence taken, in deference to absent commissioner Pat Gass. Gerrity has scheduled vacation for the remainder of the week. It is unclear at this time how he will respond to commissioner concerns.
Commissioner Robin Lentz initiates discussion
Lentz began by disclosing that it was a matter of public record that she had not supported Gerrity’s hiring as city manager three years ago. She cited the advice of the recruiter who recommended against hiring a local person or a person, such as Gerrity, who had previously held elected office in the same jurisdiction. “It’s hard to be objective,” she said, “when you were once in the position of representing the people.” After 5 months of working with him, she said she has concluded that she really likes Gerrity personally. “You are a very nice person, someone that I would run with or have a beer with,” she said as she looked at Gerrity. “But professionally, I’ve had many reservations about moving forward with you as the captain of this ship.”
Lentz acknowledged that Gerrity’s performance was a difficult item to tackle publicly, but that she felt that it needed addressing in full discussion with all the commissioners. She expressed regret at Commissioner Gass’ absence. She referred to Gerrity’s performance repeatedly as “the pink elephant in the room,” noting that she felt that her relationship with Gerrity was strained because of underlying mutual distrust. She said to Gerrity, “I think you have always regarded me as the champion for a group of your adversaries.” She went on to say that when she asks questions, Gerrity sends her to department heads, adding to her frustration. “I feel you should be a one-stop shop, according to our Charter,” she said.
Addressing her remarks directly to Gerrity, she said, “You drag your feet. You don’t act swiftly. I don’t know the reason. But this is not the type of leader I can rely on to see us into the future. … I know this is a difficult job. But I am constantly wondering if I can trust you. I question your tenacity sometimes.” She also wondered whether some of the projects, like the waterfront, are not a priority for Gerrity because they were not priorities for him when he served as commissioner and mayor. She questioned whether his personal opinions and earlier political decisions might cloud his judgment on implementing FBCC direction.
She turned to the other commissioners and said, “I know this is an awkward conversation, but I am tired of the pink elephant in the room. I just want to let you guys know that this is where I am coming from. And I would like to know where you all come from. Are you happy with Joe’s leadership and direction? Again, this is not personal. If you don’t feel like giving your opinion, I guess I’ll know from your silence.”
Commissioner Tim Poynter echoes Lentz
“I ran again to try to get re-elected, because I wanted to move the city forward. There were some projects that the city had talked about for the last 40 years that didn’t quite happen during my first term, and I think these are still important projects,” Poynter said. He went on to say that the current commission had clarified these goals in their recent planning retreat in February. “Five months into my second term,” he said, “I truly believe nothing to speak of has been accomplished toward meeting these goals.”
Poynter said he was taken aback at the last meeting when Gerrity indicated that the only department he has a problem with is the Fire Department. “I’m not sure what city he’s in,” Poynter said, “but I’ve got to tell you that I’ve heard an awful lot of people from an awful lot of departments with an awful amount of problems. We’ve had a Rec[reation] Department that tried to put on a rock concert at Fort Clinch that the city got blamed for, but the city had nothing to do with it; I’ve had nothing but architects and builders come up to me complaining about how long it takes to get a building permit in this town. These are things I have brought to the City Manager, somewhat to deaf ears. I understand that we have rules. But if the rules are wrong, we [need to] change the rules. We have issues in this city that need to be resolved. We have projects that aren’t going anywhere. A month and a half ago we talked about borrowing the money to open Alachua. I asked you [Gerrity], ‘Where do we stand on the money?’ … Where are we? We talk about the sidewalk from nowhere. It’s not just that sidewalk. It’s the entire waterfront. Where are we? We need to deal with the railroads on the entire waterfront. We’ve got water issues. Where is the plan? It is so disjointed we can never get an answer.”
Poynter continued addressing Gerrity directly. “Why is it taking so long to get things done? To me, we do not have the leadership we need at the helm. Again, it’s nothing personal with you. I was not supportive in the vote to hire you, because I wanted someone who had done it, been there, with years of experience and you didn’t have that. I was dumfounded when [at a previous meeting] you indicated you didn’t lower the standards to hire a Fire Chief, you just hired someone who didn’t meet them. I think that’s worse, actually. This is not the way you manage and the way you run the city.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller weighs in
Speaking next, Miller commended Lentz for bringing up a difficult conversation. He said, “I guess the difference for me is that I don’t have the experience, and I don’t have a historical perspective of the city.” He said that he based his opinion on what he has experienced since joining the FBCC and talking with citizens. “I try to follow the rules and not go around Joe,” he said. “If I ask Joe something, I get an answer immediately or soon thereafter.”
Miller went on to discuss the Fire Department issues. Based upon his experience in the military, he concluded, “Morale is a gray area. I haven’t seen that public safety is impacted, although I’ve heard people say that it may be. I don’t see that it’s a major problem.” He cited emergency response time of less than 3 minutes.
“My opinion is that it’s really hard to address all of this at one time when he’s getting lots of things thrown at him all at once. I would like us to put together all the problems that we are having so that [Gerrity] can respond to each issue one by one, instead of trying to answer everything all at once. I don’t have anyone to compare him with [because] I’ve never worked with any other city manager.”
Mayor Boner speaks
Mayor Ed Boner turned to Gerrity and said, “I like you too. You wouldn’t have been my first choice. I think you’ve done a good job. I don’t have anything to compare you to because you are the only manager I’ve ever worked under—or above. Two people here are uncomfortable; that bothers me.” Boner went on to say that upon reflection he probably did the wrong thing by asking to see copies of resumes for Fire Chief applicants at the previous meeting, thereby implying that he was concerned about Gerrity’s judgment in filling the position. He acknowledged that he may have been out of line and that the responsibility for hiring the next chief was the city manager’s.
“But there shouldn’t be two commissioners who are here who are unhappy and one ambivalent and asking questions and feeling uncomfortable about things that have happened, particularly in the Fire Department.”
Lack of progress on Commission goals
Poynter spoke next in an attempt to clarify his stand on the ongoing problems in the Fire Department. “I don’t want to confuse the issue. It’s about when the whole department is unhappy. You cant keep saying ‘there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong’ when for two years people have been complaining. At some point, you have to think, maybe there’s some truth to this. It can’t just all be dismissed.”
“What has happened since our visioning session?” Poynter asked. “There isn’t anything. Our commission meetings are filled with proclamations … I look at these agendas set by the City Manager and ask ‘What are we doing here?’ I take this job incredibly seriously. I didn’t seek this job to do nothing. I want to move this city forward in a good, positive way. And that’s not happening. “
Poynter asked why there is not even a job description yet for an airport manager. He said that following his election in November one of the first things he said was that the city needed to get an airport manager so that Gerrity could shed that responsibility and devote fulltime to being city manager. “Five months to review a job description,” Poynter said. “Now we re getting ready to begin another budget cycle, and where have the discussions been about how many more people we might need [to get the work of the city accomplished]. We haven’t had any conversations. Where are we on stormwater? There are priorities [that have been identified by the FBCC], and we have no funding for them, no ideas for funding for them, no plans for them. Where is this stuff? It’s not just the Fire Department. … That’s where I have the lack of confidence in moving forward with the current city manager.”
Lentz referred to what she has seen as Gerrity’s lack of tenacity, and failure to surface ideas to solve problems proactively. She also said that she cannot get past her lack of trust. “It’s no secret that the former city manager [Michael Czymbor] lives across the street from me. I’ve been accused of wanting to fire Gerrity to bring Czymbor back. Absolutely not true. I wanted to give this a fair shake. I went in with an open mind. But I’m just not getting the results. I don’t want to spend three years sloughing through. I’m full speed ahead and want to get things done. I’m tired of skating around things and pretending that everything is okay.”
Lentz said that the only person she had discussed her concerns with was her husband. She did not want to make the city manager’s performance an agenda item to avoid politicking. She wanted an open, honest discussion.
Fire department problems continue
Miller seemed skeptical that the entire Fire Department has a morale problem. He asked, “Do you honestly believe the entire department has a problem?”
Poynter replied in the affirmative and explained why. “When I say the department is in disarray, that’s what I mean, because there are people on this side of the fence, that side of the fence.”
Miller interrupted, “But do we need a department where everyone is happy to come to work and everyone gets along? That would be great, but I don’t think there are people dying to get to work so they can sit next to their coworkers.”
Poynter continued. “When I look at a department and see a lot of infighting, I’m not saying this side vs. that side. I’m just saying that overall [the department] is not being run at the level it should be run at. When I was a commissioner the last time, the only time I saw a fireman at commission meetings was to receive a proclamation. I have never before seen the number of firemen who have shown up meeting after meeting with continuing concerns. They keep trying to get someone to listen to them, but their complaints fall upon deaf ears because nothing is happening. For two years this has been going on, way before I thought about running for office. And there have been consequences with people leaving, the Human Resources director being fired. This city could be doing better, and it’s not. And it starts at the top.”
Miller seemed puzzled, suggesting that he was hearing that commissioners now wanted the city manager to come up with ideas and bring them to the commission. Poynter replied that he just wants the city manager to do his job of running the city. “It’s not up to us [FBCC] to run the day to day operations of the city,” he said, citing Miller’s well-intentioned attempts to follow through with CSX on moving sidewalk plans forward.
Lentz raised other examples.
Boner circled around again to the Fire Department, expressing frustration that he cannot do anything other than listen. He said he has come around to believing that there are problems, reinforcing his sense of urgency in bringing in an experienced, qualified outsider to get things back on track. He said that Gerrity always responds to him immediately, a point reinforced by Lentz.
City Manager Gerrity explains from his perspective
Finally, City Manager Gerrity requested an opportunity to speak. “With respect to the Fire Department,” he said, “You are never going to get a chief that everyone loves and embraces. It’s like getting a city manager. As far as Front Street and Alachua, the priority was to open up Alachua and get the sidewalk built from Centre to Alachua. Those plans are at CSX awaiting approval. We’ve got numbers from First Coast [Railroad] to do signals and pave the road there. We are making progress from 2009 when the survey was done.
He turned to Poynter and said, “And that nothing has been done in 6 years, you should be frustrated, sir. But I will tell you that I am not prepared to respond to your concerns tonight. Part of the reason is that in my 9 years here [6 as elected commissioner and 3 as city manager] I’ve watched literally hundreds of thousands of dollars—probably millions—be wasted because of hasty decisions. Because of changes in commissions. When I get the cost for all the projects along Front Street, I’m going to come back to you and say, we are going to need to borrow $1.5M. But I’m not going to say we need to borrow a million dollars just to mollify the crowd and then come back to you and say we need another $250K, where are we going to get that? I don’t work that way. I like to take my time, know that what we are doing is right, and that we will get maximum value for the taxpayer dollars. I certainly will respond. I don’t feel there is a pink elephant in the room.”
Lentz said that people would soon begin qualifying for the two commission seats up for election this fall (Gass and Boner). That creates yet another potential for change in direction. “Then you are back to not getting anything done again,” she said.
Poynter agreed. “That’s what happened the last time. We dragged our feet. I was on the commission. We dragged our feet enough that the next commission gave the money [borrowed to complete the projects] back. They stopped the opening of Alachua, and it was all politics.”
Gerrity tried to object, but Poynter continued. “It’s the same street with the same problems and the same arguments. But now it’s a good idea again. It wasn’t a good idea, now it’s a good idea? That’s just politics. I’m trying to take the politics out of this by just getting something done. So many commissions have sat up here so many times with so many excuses: it’s not the right time, or we’re not sure exactly how much money it will cost. You are never going to be that sure about anything.”
Gerrity asked, “Well do you want me to bring you back a resolution designating a $2M loan for Front Street projects and Alachua Street opening?”
Poynter replied, “Actually, I want you to do your homework, do your numbers, and come back to the commission and say, ‘After what I’ve done, what I’ve researched, the engineers I’ve talked to, this is what I’m recommending to you to move this project forward.’”
Gerrity reminded commissioners of his desires for Front Street articulated earlier in the meeting with respect to sidewalks and lighting. Poynter countered with his frustration over the fact that the Broome Street parking lot, authorized 5 years ago, is still not completed. He added that the delay in reissuing the airport welcome center RFP seemed unfathomable. “Things are just not getting done,” he said. Gerrity replied that he understood his frustration, but that he was not yet ready to respond to Poynter. Poynter said, “Actually, Joe it’s not important that you respond to me, but maybe to the community because an awful lot of people come to me saying, ‘When are you guys going to get something or other done?’
Gerrity to FBCC: Alachua rail crossing will be opened by November elections.
Gerrity said that he felt comfortable saying that Alachua would be open and paved before the November election. Lentz expressed skepticism, citing the sidewalk issue with CSX. But Gerrity said the sidewalk was different because it wasn’t “a sure thing.”
“I don’t want to respond, because I think it is important for me to think about these things. But I will get back to you. I do not feel a pink elephant.” He looked toward Poynter and said, “This guy has never liked me but that doesn’t matter because I like him and I think he’s a good commissioner.” Poynter interrupted, “Wait a minute. Joe, I’ve got no issues with you on a personal level, but I have a lot of issues with you on a professional level.”
“That’s fine,” Gerrity replied. “I accept that. That has always been the case and I probably misspoke.”
Boner asked, “Is everyone happy?”
Miller explains attempts to pressure CSX
Miller asked for an opportunity to clarify his intent in forming a group to demand action from CSX on the sidewalk to nowhere. He explained that he felt he could act like “that crazy commissioner who shows up with a bunch of people trying to get something done” because he only has a year and a half left on his term, whereas Gerrity might need to take a more formal approach.
Gerrity said, “But when CSX comes upon this stuff in Facebook world, I get a call from Mr. Holder [of CSX] saying ‘Fernandina is rapidly becoming my most unfavorite place in the world’, I’m in damage control mode.” Gerrity that there has also been a citizen calling CSX regularly.
Miller apologized to Gerrity for any difficulties caused by his Facebook posts, but added, “I’ve got a problem with CSX having a problem with us complaining about their lack of action.”
Gerrity said that CSX has been more responsive to him in the last two weeks than they have in the previous two years.
Miller said that was probably not a coincidence. Poynter agreed, saying that Miller should not have had to form “his posse” and that Gerrity should have visited CSX months ago to get things moving. He said that Gerrity should have explained in person to CSX, ‘We’ve got issues here. This needs to get resolved and I don’t care what I’ve got to do. I am the manager of this city and this matter has got to get resolved.’ But that’s not what happened. Poynter said that commissioners and citizens “just kept waiting and waiting and waiting. Another letter. Another letter. It is surprising that in the last two weeks all of a sudden that not this city manager but other people have managed to get CSX engaged.”
Lentz said, “I think Tony Crawford calls them every other day.” Gerrity said he does but “I’ve got to tell you that doesn’t help either.”
“But,” Poynter continued, “we did get the Ash and Centre Street crossings repaved in record time with the help of Tony. Yet we can’t seem to get a sidewalk 25 feet. So don’t tell me that being aggressive in response to the community is not the way to go. I’m not throwing down on you, Johnny, for getting the posse together, but apparently, that’s about what it took.”
Miller tried to clarify the best means to move forward, asking Gerrity if he needed a list of specifics for a response. Gerrity replied that while he would always welcome input, he wanted time to think about his response. Poynter emphasized that his concerns did not require a point-by-point response because his dissatisfaction centers on a pattern of failure to lead and move forward that he has observed during the last 5 months. “There’s nothing that you can say, because you can’t undo or redo the past 5 months. As far as I’m concerned, you had your shot. You did not succeed in my eyes. Personally, I’d like to see another city manager. That’s where I’m at.”
At Miller’s request, Lentz elaborated on her previous comment regarding Gerrity’s problem with keeping a private conversation confidential. Only she and Gerrity were involved in the conversation, but she got three angry calls from others accusing her of directing the city manager to include former airport manager Richard Johnson on a committee, when she had only asked him to explain the staffing of the committee. Poynter said that he had had similar instances where private conversations had been carried to others, but that he was not willing to elaborate.
Lentz said that she believes she has had trust issues with the city manger partly because she is viewed as part of a group that does not support him. She said she put all that aside when she joined the commission last November, and tried to approach working with Gerrity in an open and constructive manner. She contrasted this with the actions of the previous commission, which terminated the city manager at the time before even meeting with him. She stressed that was one of the reasons that she wanted to give Gerrity time so that she could judge performance based upon her own experience. “But all I’ve seen is feet-dragging and lack of trust,” she said. She stressed that she liked Gerrity and his wife, but that she was not sure that Gerrity is the right person “to captain this ship.”
Gerrity asked to meet with Mayor Boner following the meeting. Gerrity is scheduled to be on vacation the remainder of the week.