Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
The final discussion item on the agenda of the Fernandina Beach City Commission’s (FBCC) meeting of September 3, 2013 dealt with former employees’ use of golf privileges at the city’s golf course. City Attorney Tammi Bach placed the item on the agenda following receipt of an email from Commissioner Pat Gass demanding that certain actions be taken with respect to former Fernandina Beach City Manager Michael Czymbor and former Fernandina Beach Fire Chief Chuck Bogle for allegedly taking employee discounts at the golf course following their departure from city employment. Gass’ email followed two letters from the Fernandina Beach Golf Club dated July 26, 2013 to Czymbor and Bogle claiming that they had knowingly taken advantage of city employee rates following their service with the city and demanding remittances of $2,301.02 and $3,401.33 respectively. Bach had advised Gass that her directives could not be acted upon without a decision of the full commission.
Mayor Sarah Pelican started about 50 minutes of discussion by recognizing Jim Powers, a member of the city’s Golf Course Advisory Board and vice chair of the Golf Course Advisory Committee. He explained that he had been actively involved in recruiting outside management for the city golf course and was keenly aware of contract language that authorized the selected firm, Billy Casper Golf (BCG), to make all decisions with respect to managing golf course activities. He read from the agreement between BCG and the city, which has been in place since 2010. He told commissioners that the agreement states that BCG “shall occupy the position of independent contractor with respect to the city; nothing shall be construed that the two entities are partners or that BCG is an employee of the city” and that “Casper shall make all decisions in connection with day-to-day operation of the golf course.” Powers stated that any changes that the city might desire to make with respect to that agreement would need to be negotiated with Billy Casper Golf and reduced to writing.
Commissioner Pat Gass asked, “Well, if that’s the case, why would [BCG] send the letters asking [Michael Czymbor and Chuck Bogle] to pay up?”
Powers replied, “I don’t know that; I would like to know that.”
Gass continued and asked, “So they can decide who will pay and who won’t pay any time they choose, is that your understanding?”
Powers replied, “They are responsible for the operation of the golf course. … With fees, for example: fees are all over the place. You have discounts, coupons, etc. The manager makes the decision on a day-by-day, case-by-case basis. He makes the deals based upon what is in the best interest of the city.”
Gass said, “So we could just do away with [benefits] for commissioners, ex-commissioners and 25 plus year employees because BCG can just give you what he wants you to have any time he wants.”
Powers said, “No, no. Those are your words, not mine. … I did not say that, sorry. That is the contract that is in place, the memorandum of understanding, and if you want to change it, you have to go through a mutually agreeable negotiation to change it.”
At the request of Commissioner Gass, City Attorney Bach responded to Powers, stating that while Powers was reading from a portion of the contract, she spoke to other parts of the contract that talked about BCG working with the FBCC to set fees. She allowed that when she had spoken to some individual commissioners about this matter, she told them that there was room for interpretation, and that it was not black and white what discounts have been allowed and not allowed. “That’s really what we need to hear about,” she said.
Powers granted that there has to be a general fee structure, but there must be room for interpretation on the part of the golf course manager to make the best business decisions on behalf of the operation.
Mayor Pelican then turned toward the city attorney and asked, “Now with regard to the former city employee and the specific terms of his separation contract, with respect to what he’s entitled to …”
City Attorney Bach said, “My interpretation of former City Manager Czymbor’s contract is that golf privileges were not extended beyond the last day of employment. That is what I’ve explained to a couple of you, or a few of you up here. … That’s always been my interpretation but no one really asked me before [the current] issue came up.” In response to prodding by Pelican she added that there is a state statute that prohibits providing benefits to a contract employee that go beyond the terms of the contract.
Gass said, “Well, what I’d really like to see done with this is that the money be paid to the city. These two individuals in my opinion have taken money from the taxpayers of the city and they need to return it. If they don’t return it, we need to do what it takes to get that money back and to insure that the world knows that we don’t put up with this. It’s not ethical, not the way you do business. But first and foremost, I’d just like them to pay up and let’s move on, but they don’t seem to be interested in that.”
Pelican recognized Commissioner Ed Boner. “We’re talking about golf played after the termination date,” he said. “So we are really talking about: ‘Was BCG entitled to bill at the employee rate, or was [Czymbor] entitled to special rates because he brought people to play or for other reasons. ‘ That’s really what this is about. … You’re looking at a period when he was not employed by the city, and that needs to be clarified. Maybe there was a different reason for the rates he paid.” Boner looked toward the audience and asked Damian Brink, former BCG manager of the city golf course, if he would mind coming forward to help clear up the matter.
Damian Brink came forward and said, “I hope that I can clarify. I was general manager of the golf course through February of this year. “ He indicated that after Czymbor left city employment, Czymbor asked how Brink “wanted to handle this going forward.” He said Czymbor never asked for any special deal but that Brink, as course manager, decided to allow Czymbor to continue playing at the employee rate. “I need to point out,” he said, “that employees pay membership rates, so there is no difference between a member and a city employee, except for the annual membership fee ($600 for city residents). Brink said, “Technically the most you could ask him for is the $600 membership fee.” Membership would also have entitled him to additional discounts. Brink said he was not sure how everything was calculated to arrive at the amount the city is claiming Czymbor owes. “I’m not sure if Billy Casper did it, the city did it. But there seems to be no clarification whether he played walking rounds, riding rounds, 9 holes or 18 holes. And that’s pretty important if you are comparing it to a rack rate or what a public rate would be.”
Pelican said, “So you were there and you authorized him to go into certain rates.”
Brink agreed, saying that he probably shouldn’t have called it an employee rate. “It was a business decision that I made in the best interest of the city,” he said.
Pelican questioned this. “’In the best interest of the city?’ Perhaps you should have discussed it with someone in the city.”
Brink clarified by saying he meant in the best financial interest of the golf course and therefore the city.
Pelican continued quizzing Brink on various rates. “Being in the business, someone is not going to pay the full rate for 163 times,” Brink said. “We would have gotten him into some special program to reduce the cost.” Later he added that no person would have played 163 rounds at rack rate without being placed in some sort of special program with reduced cost. “Otherwise,” he said, “the player would go to another course that would give him a better deal.”
Boner recapped and said, “You can assume that people are doing the wrong thing; or you can assume they are doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s better to wait a little bit longer to make sure we have all the information.”
Pelican and Brink got into a back and forth over whose responsibility it was to notify whom regarding people entitled to employee rates. Brink, stressing that he did not want to point fingers, said that he normally got such notification from the city clerk, but said, “I knew that he (Czymbor) was no longer employed.”
Pelican appeared to become more aggravated, “My husband bought a membership and most people who play there regularly do.”
At the time Czymbor was applying for jobs, and Brink said that it was not certain that the former city manager would remain in Fernandina, further complicating the membership issue. “I thought it was in the best interest of the city to do what I did,” he said. “He played 163 times; it was over $2,000 income to the city course. That’s the way I look at it.”
Boner said, “I don’t know Mr. Czymbor at all. If you assume that he paid the rate he was asked to pay, that’s what he did. If you start with the position he did something wrong, and [ask him to] prove you didn’t do something wrong, it puts us in a difficult position. Maybe it’s better to start with the notion that maybe the process for deciding eligibility for city employees needs to be updated and maybe there’s a better way to do that.”
Gass interjected, “Ed, I’m assuming that the city manager knows the rates, the comings and goings and the rules and the whereabouts of the golf course and that he didn’t forget because he was terminated, resigned or whatever upon leaving the city. In order to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s have it investigated. The State’s Attorney’s Office will be tickled pink [to do so].”
Boner countered, “The City Finance Department would probably just determine if billing was reasonable or not, if we have oversight over the golf course or not. If we don’t have oversight, then there is nothing more to talk about.”
Commissioner Arlene Filkoff finally weighed in. She reported that when she had spoken to Mr. Brink earlier this week or last week, no one other than the city attorney had spoken to him. “I have to look at this as a process issue, although its roots are in something much bigger than that. Our list was not updated, so I don’t know if other people got this deal, and I also talked with other golf course management companies. A highly respected local representative of one of those companies said that if BCG is not giving discounts or comp rounds as part of marketing … then they are the only golf course management company in the world that is not. If the city wants to change the way the golf course is being run, we need to clean up the process. There are too many “holey” places, so we don’t need to cast stones.”
Boner reinforced that the golf course management company needs to retain authority to deviate from standard rates when the occasion warrants it.
Further discussion centered on the letters to Czymbor and Bogle signed by the latest golf course manager who had only been on the job a matter of days. Filkoff asked, “Who wrote that letter?” Brink suggested that the author was Dan Zimmer a regional Billy Casper manager who had no daily contact with the course. Brink also said, “Let’s clarify: no one was comped anything. Any time Czymbor came in he paid what was in the system.” He went on to say that former Fire Chief Bogle was one of the first people to sign up for a special player development program instituted shortly after he left city employment, so he was not sure whether that information had been known before the letter demanding payment had been sent.
Gass continued, “We are talking about ethics. What do we need to do to get the money back in public coffers.”
Boner said, “ I don’t think we know all the facts.”
Gass retorted, “I know we are out some money. How do we get to the bottom of all this?” Turning to Damian Brink, who remained at the podium, she said, “When this all shakes down you may end up paying the difference. You or Billy Casper.”
Brink replied, “I think BCG needs to have a conversation with the City Manager and maybe the Mayor to resolve this issue. I can’t believe it hasn’t been resolved this far. I have actually sent several email letters to BCG and have not gotten a response. I can go on the record saying that you won’t see a dime from me. I wouldn’t be here tonight if I hadn’t seen my name in the papers and in an email from a commissioner. At the end of the day I believe that the money we collected from Mr. Czymbor was a good business decision.”
Gass replied, “We need to do something to find out all the information on behalf of the taxpayers. We need the whole story.” To which Pelican asked, “How do you go about getting the whole story when it’s he said-she said?”
Boner replied, referencing Damian Brink’s clarifications, “We are getting a lot of the story right here.”
Gass did not seem satisfied. “To be perfectly honest, this (Brink) is a BCG employee who was let go talking about 2 (city) employees who were let go. I would like to see if we can instruct the city manager to continue looking into this—whether you are the right one or the city attorney to get all the facts, to see if we need to go any further [to find out] what’s been done, what needs to be done and get it done and over with. It’s not pleasant, it’s not fun, it’s deplorable but I’d like to get all the facts to make a decision.”
Pelican said, “ I’d like to think that BCG understands the need to monitor this more closely.”
Boner said, “The only thing we know is that someone was presented a bill and paid what he was asked to pay. I assume almost everyone wants to do the right thing. “
Filkoff returned to process issues and asked Brink, “When you made this decision on behalf of the city, you said ‘play at member rates’, but you did not change his status in the system, correct? So it looked like he was being treated as an employee. To do an after the fact audit without that realization, it might look like something improper had been done. It certainly doesn’t sound like enough just to get a print out of billing.” Brink agreed.
Filkoff and Boner thanked Brink for coming forward to try to help the FBCC understand what had transpired. Brink expressed his willingness to provide future help, if needed.
City Attorney Bach said to the mayor, “The City Manager and I can work together to look into this further. I don’t know if he has any more ideas, because I don’t.”
City Manager Joe Gerrity, speaking for the first time during this discussion, said, “Well, I do have some ideas. I think we need to tighten this agreement [with BCG]. I don’t disagree that the golf course manager should have some flexibility. I don’t think 18 months was a reasonable time for this to go on. It would have been easy to pick up phone and call the city manager, although I wasn’t here at the time. This situation was not on my “must do” list, but on my “should do” list. I would like to work with Mr. Zimmer and the city attorney and tighten this up.”
With that, Mayor Pelican ended discussion and moved on to reports.
September 5, 2013 5:08 p.m.