Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 20, 2015 2:30 p.m.
To the dismay of his supporters and relief of his detractors, Fernandina Beach City Manager Joe Gerrity announced his decision to resign from his position at the beginning of the May 19, 2015 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission.
After being recognized by Mayor Ed Boner, Gerrity began his remarks with a background story in which he discussed advice he had received from management and recruiter friends before applying for the job of city manager three years ago. He reported that everyone he asked had said that it would be very difficult to move into an administrative position in a city where he had once held elected office. “And, in my infinite wisdom, I decided to go ahead anyway,” Gerrity said with a grin. He became more serous and added, “But I did make a pledge to myself that if ever things became all about me, it would be time for me to think about doing something else. And that, combined with what happened here two weeks ago … I spoke to the Mayor last week and told him I thought it was time for me to look elsewhere, do something else. He asked me if I would stay until the end of the year, and I said, no, I won’t. I want to be gone before the election; I don’t want to be a political football, and I don’t think this community needs to go through that.”
Gerrity said he was willing to stay until October 2, to get the city through the FY2015/16 budget approval process and to complete department head appraisals that are due at the end of the year. “But I just think this is in the best interests of the city right now. I’m not angry; I’m not upset. I certainly don’t appreciate the way things happened two weeks ago, but local government isn’t always pretty. I’m here to serve the city. We need to heal; we don’t need to be fractious about anything anymore. I certainly hope that we can start to heal and move forward.”
Commissioner Pat Gass immediately moved to place Gerrity’s resignation on the agenda as an emergency item. Poynter asked, “Is that necessary?” City Attorney Tammi Bach reminded commissioners that it would take a 4/5ths vote to place it on the agenda as an emergency item for discussion or action.
Gerrity jumped in and said, “I’m not interested in that. With all due respect, Commissioner [Gass], regardless of how the vote comes out, my last day will be October 2.”
Gass said she understood, and Gerrity continued, “I do not want to put the FBCC in an awkward position. I’m not interested in putting the community in an awkward position. I’ve had a sense for some time that it is time to move on and think about something different.”
Gass said that she would just like each commissioner to “make plain their stance, for or against, but get off the fence, so we’ll know where everybody is coming from and where everybody is going.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller seconded her motion.
Mayor Ed Boner said that during his private meeting with Gerrity, he had discussed how with the departure of every city manager there is a political component. He said that for a manager to be effective he needs to generally have the sense of support from five commissioners. “Otherwise, it undermines [the city manager’s] ability to do the job.” Boner said. He added that through their entire conversation, Gerrity expressed his concern for the community and how to make the correct transition.
Commissioner Robin Lentz said that she did not agree with Gass’ reasoning for her motion, since Gerrity has resigned. But she did want the FBCC to discuss related matters such as the search process, how much longer Gerrity would serve, etc. Bach said that under an emergency vote, the FBCC could add Lentz’ issues to the agenda or add those items to the next Regular Meeting agenda. Poynter asked, “So if it doesn’t get on the agenda tonight, what we are saying is that we are accepting his resignation and at the next meeting there will be discussion on how we move forward, issues with time frames, interim city manager, etc.?” Bach said, that if that was the will of the commission, that’s what would happen.
Gass still wanted to pursue her motion. Poynter said, “We don’t need an item on the agenda to accept [Gerrity’s] resignation.” The city attorney agreed, and Gerrity added that it could be accepted by consensus. Both Gass and Miller wanted to proceed with a vote on Gass’ motion, which they agreed could include plans for the future. The motion failed on a 2-3 vote with only Gass and Miller voting in favor.
Following the vote, Miller agreed with Mayor Boner, citing a similar private conversation with Gerrity. He said that he told Gerrity that he did not support his decision to resign. Miller said that he believed it would be in the city’s best interest for him to stay on. “What I find unfortunate,” he said, “ is that two commissioners [Lentz and Poynter] decided they could not work with him; they don’t like the way the ship is being driven.” Miller said that what they characterized as “dragging of the feet” he believed to be a conservative approach to spending money, and issues in the Fire Department. “Members of the commission have given up on him, and he understands that.”
Miller expressed concern that Boner’s confidence in Gerrity’s ability to do the job seemed to be swayed by the lack of confidence expressed by Lentz and Poynter. “Instead of dealing with the person you’ve got, we’re just going to get rid of him and move forward. Here we go again.” He expressed concern that potential applicants would be hesitant to apply for the position if they watched the previous meeting during which Lentz and Poynter laid out their performance issues with the city manager. “I would not want to walk into that situation if I were a potential city manager,” Miller said. “I would recommend however that we bring in a professional person—like [an ICMA] ranger—and that we take his recommendations seriously.” He said that if the previous commission had done so, the city might not be in the position of losing another city manager now.
“Hopefully, we don’t have anyone preconceived for this job when it goes forward; I don’t think we do.” Miller said that he has been called naïve, and cited some things he had been told about Gerrity’s actions and goals as a city commissioner. He said some people had questioned Gerrity’s motives and goals based upon personal associations. “I wasn’t here for that, and I don’t care about that,” Miller said. “I care about what has happened since I’ve been here,” he said, citing emails praising Gerrity for improvements at the airport. “I’m completely convinced that this gentleman has acted in the best interests of the city, he has had no need to accomplish something because he felt he had someone to please.”
Miller ended his comments by directing the city attorney to look into drafting a City Charter amendment that would require a 4/5ths vote to hire a city manager, attorney and clerk. He expressed his hope that such a change would allow managers to stay longer than 3 years. He concluded his remarks by thanking and praising Gerrity. “I thank you for the things you’ve done for this city as both a city commissioner and a city manager. Thank you, sir.”
The audience responded to Miller’s remarks with applause.
Gerrity said, “I don’t know if I said this earlier, but I am not a member of ICMA—the International City and County Managers Association–but I do try to live up to their standards and codes of conduct. Quite frankly, one of their ‘rules’ is that if you have lost the support of two commissioners, it’s time to move on. I feel very strongly about that. Again, I’m not angry, I’m not upset. I just want what’s best for the city. I’ve been told, ‘You need to fight, you need to do this or that.’ I don’t want to sit up here with two commissioners who don’t want me. That’s not a personal thing, it’s just a professional thing. It’s for the betterment of you other three, too. We all need to work together on some of these things and not be divided. If removing me from the equation makes things a little less divisive, I’m going to do that. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference, but I’m going to try.”
Boner said he agreed with Gerrity, adding that a split commission caused local lobbying efforts directed toward commissioners to intensify, undermining the manager’s ability to do his job.
Poynter said, “For me, it’s very simple. I believe the city can do better in moving forward. There is nothing personal.” He questioned some of Miller’s statements about alleged motives behind Gerrity’s actions. He said he had never heard any of those claims. “I’m just simply sitting here as a commissioner trying to move things forward and looking at the speed at which we are going. I think we can do better. That’s it—there’s no other motive in it. I believe I have worked with Joe to try to get things going. This is not uncommon for city managers to jump around. … New people get elected, different ideas come in. That’s how Joe got here. [Work] life expectancy for a city manager is 3-4 years.”
Miller clarified his remarks to Poynter. He said that the short tenure of city managers was news to him. He said that even though he disagreed with Poynter and Lentz on Gerrity’s performance, he said that the commission needed to move forward as a team and that he looked forward to working with them in hiring a new city manager “we can all agree on.”
Boner said that while he did not agree with Poynter and Lentz, he agreed that it is difficult to move forward without full support. He said he looked for the least adversarial way to solve the problem in the best interests of the city.
Commissioner Robin Lentz reiterated her personal like of Gerrity despite professional reservations. She said that based upon her private conversation with Gerrity, she knew he chose to resign to avoid a prolonged public conversation. She told Gerrity that she appreciated his professionalism.
Gerrity thanked her and said, “Once again, this city is my home, and we need to do the best we can.”
Six of the 11 speakers during Public Input used the opportunity to thank and praise City Manager Joe Gerrity’s accomplishments with an emphasis on airport improvements. Speakers said that under Gerrity’s leadership, the airport is in better condition and running better than it ever has. Gerrity thanked the speakers, indicating that he spent only a few hours a week there, but that the airport Operations Manager Bobby Kozakoff deserved most of the credit for improved services and operations.
City manager and commissioner reports
Toward the end of the 3.5-hour meeting and under his report, Gerrity addressed some of the criticisms that Lentz and Poynter had directed toward him during the previous meeting. He said that while they had questioned his tenacity in getting things done, he reminded them that some of the larger problems involved dealing with other entities, such as the railroad, where the city had to abide by their rules. He stressed successful annexations of The Palms and Gateway complexes, which he said resulted from a careful approach that covered all the city’s legal bases, along with the enforcement of an annexation agreement with Baptist Nassau.
He took issue with Poynter’s criticism of the city’s permit process, claiming that the Community Development Department and the Building Department have turned around during the past three years and that there are many testimonials to that effect. He did admit that criticism about the lengthy time to complete the Broome Street parking lot was justified.
Commissioner Robin Lentz responded that her reason for speaking at the last meeting about her unhappiness with the city manager’s performance was to “begin and honest conversation” in the Sunshine among commissioners. She also used the opportunity to refute allegations of Sunshine Law violations that have appeared on social media, saying that other than deciding who would speak first, she and Poynter had not discussed their mutual concerns privately The city attorney had assured her that the discussion between her and Poynter which was on procedure only did not violate Sunshine Law.
Commissioner Tim Poynter thanked Gerrity for his service and wished him luck in future endeavors. He said that he has always known that Gerrity loves the city as we all love the city.
Commissioner Pat Gass, who had been absent for discussion at the previous meeting due to the death of a family member, delivered fifteen minutes of prepared remarks. She began by saying, “Robin, the elephant in the room is not pink; it’s fire engine red.” Gass proceeded to delve into details of the Fire Department problems. She detailed retired city fire captain Tommy Spicer’s personal issues with department leadership, tracing them back to 2009 and issues with his retirement plan. She said that because department leadership, supported by Gerrity, had made a decision that ran counter to Spicer’s request regarding converting leave, Spicer filed a grievance and did not prevail. She said that following this event, firefighter exit interviews became negative and issues never before raised were cited as problems in the department. “It would appear,” she said, “that Mr. Spicer does not react well to change, nor does he like being told ‘no.’”
Gass said that contrary to what many have been told, the turnover rate among firefighters has been less under Chief Jason Higginbotham and Deputy Chief Fino Murallo than under previous chiefs. She said that many surrounding fire departments offer jobs with higher salaries and benefits. “Money is usually the number one reason for changing jobs,” she said.
Gass went on to recount numerous upgrades and improvements to department equipment and training that Higginbotham and Murallo had instituted. “It appears to me,” she said, “that Jason Higginbotham and Fino Murallo care deeply for their department, employees and community. They have provided a higher standard of professionalism than this community has ever witnessed. For their tireless efforts, one retired firefighter and a handful of faithful followers have made their lives hell. The morale of the Fire Department is probably not nearly as good as it could be, and letting a few employees go might be called for. But I don’t think Higginbotham and Murallo are the ones who ought to be on the chopping block.”
“If you’re wondering where Tommy Spicer was through all the labor committee meetings, equipment updates and training, I’ll tell you. For the most part, he was absent. As it turned out, Mr. Spicer needed all his sick leave. He used it all, if not most, on FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act] during the 3-4 months before he retired. When he was present, he was helping out with assertions like ‘We did this long ago without procedures and we don’t need them now.’ Mr. Spicer suggested or let us believe that no training had been provided to the department, when the truth is he called in sick to avoid necessary training and even encouraged rebellion [among other firefighters]. I’m only sorry that Tommy Spicer couldn’t have retired earlier and missed all the updates and modernization of the Fire Department. … We wouldn’t have been in this made-up mess in the first place. Certainly receiving 101 percent of your base salary would soothe the wound from such change and being told no. But alas, he still protests.” Gass became emotional as she added, “It’s been heartbreaking to watch Jason Higginbotham and Fino Murallo drug through the dirt. It’s been equally as heartbreaking the see the fine reputation of our firefighting department soiled with all these false accusations.”
Gass went on to commend Gerrity for keeping Higginbotham and Murallo “at the helm of the Fire Department.”
Gass moved on to discuss criticism leveled at the last meeting by Lentz and Poynter. She said that there is a 70 percent chance that the city will never have a Quiet Zone along Front Street, and that is just fine with most of the population. “If you don’t like railroad tracks and all that comes with them, then don’t build next to them,” she said. She said that if the cost of building a Quiet Zone would not kill the project, then the liability issues should.
She turned toward Commissioner Poynter. “Mr. Poynter,” she said, “the city manager works for all of us, not just you. He does what 3 out of 5 commissioners direct him to do. Being rude, stomping your feet and pointing your finger does not mean 3 out of 5 commissioners are in agreement. We never directed the city manager to come up with a job description for airport manager; nor should we. That would be a violation of Chapter 10 of the Charter.”
She then addressed Commissioner Lentz. “Miss Lentz,” she said, “I understand that you would like to see government move more quickly. When I first took office I, too, was uncomfortable with the speed at which things got done. But I found it is in the best interests of the people if things move slowly. No matter who is the city manager, government moves slowly and it is supposed to. … “If you are thinking about the Forward Fernandina plan, which by the way nobody thought was a bad plan, just improperly financed—that’s all within the Community Redevelopment Area and everyone will have to wait until the money is available. … Forward Fernandina is coming, but not next week.” She also expressed concerns over the wisdom of opening the Alachua Street rail crossing.
“Just because we had a goals workshop and set priorities does not mean that the city manager has his marching orders and the Commission will simply check in later. If we want it done we need to find out how much it will cost, check to see if it is feasible and most importantly: find a funding source. In the case of borrowing money, be prepared as in the case of Forward Fernandina to explain to the taxpayers that you aren’t going to ask their opinion about it. Just tell them that you know best and you are not raising their taxes, just raising the franchise fee by the cost of a cup of coffee. At Starbucks. Every day.”
“Joe Gerrity is doing a fine job. Just think what he could do if we all worked together as a team. She went on to suggest a refresher course on city government and the charter as a way to help.”
Gass apologized for missing the last meeting but said that at least her absence avoided “a Gass explosion” and gave her time to get her thoughts together.
Neither commissioners nor the city manager responded to Gass’ comments.
Demonstrating both class and grace in the eyes of this reporter, Gerrity sidestepped what could have been a divisive issue in furtherance of what he characterized as the best interests of the city. When I expressed that to him following the meeting, he reinforced his love for the city and his belief that the time has come to move on.
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.