Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 1, 2016 12:38 p.m.
Last week Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin made the decision to cancel the Beach BBQ and Blue Grass Festival scheduled for June 11-12, 2016 after he received anonymously a brochure that had apparently been mailed to potential event vendors —but not made available in this form to the general public. See below:
In his email directing the cancellation, Martin said, “…the instruction to have vendors prepare checks payable to an individual is inexcusable. As I indicated, I had the unfortunate opportunity to be part of a community [in Connecticut] which suffered a significant incident of embezzlement. I will not tolerate the perception of financial improprieties with regard to [Fernandina Beach] City issues and events.”
In addition to advertising the event, soliciting participants and offering thousands of dollars in cash prizes, the final line of the brochure advised interested parties to make checks payable to Jay Robertson, not the city of Fernandina Beach. In his email apologies to both would-be event participants and his coworkers, Robertson acknowledged responsibility for making “a seriously careless mistake.”
He also claimed that he thought the “make checks payable to Jay Robertson” instruction had been edited out of an earlier version, based upon advice of a coworker. But he acknowledged that he had mistakenly not saved the edited version.
In a May 25, 2016 email to Nan Voit, Robertson’s supervisor and Parks and Recreation Department Director, the City Manager directed cancellation of the Beach BBQ event scheduled for June 11-12. He directed her to provide him with an accounting of moneys received and a report that participants had been notified of the cancellation. He further advised her that he was also concerned about financial issues related to the Slide Into Spring event, requesting additional information that would be shared with the Fernandina Beach City Commission during its June 28 workshop on city special events.
Information taken from the BBQ event flyer required entry fees for the teams as follows:
Pro Division: $65 for each of 4 different categories. That price rose to $75 for registrants after April 30.
Backyard Division: $50 for each of 2 categories, rising to $60 after April 30.
According to information provided in a Voit email, 82 teams had registered for the barbecue event. Depending on the team and the number of categories in which it desired to compete, entrance fees for 82 teams could have ranged from $4,100 (all backyard division competing in one category and registering early) to $24,600 (all pro division, competing in 4 categories and registering late).
Yet Robertson’s accounting to Voit, shown in the email below, indicates that two teams had paid the city a total of $225, he was holding checks made out to him from entrants in the amount of $10,490, and that unspecified, outstanding payments were due in the amount of $6,860 “by the end of next week.” There are other income sources listed for sponsors and non-competing vendors.
The City Manager has received additional input on event finances from Voit; the Fernandina Observer has not yet received those public records.
To date, Robertson has been suspended for three days without pay for his role in this event and placed in a Performance Improvement Plan. Also, he has been relieved of special event planning responsibilities until his supervisor determines that he has made the required improvement in performance.
This action followed a written reprimand that he received on February 19, 2016 following Robertson’s problems in dealing with overspending on the Slide Into Spring event’s entertainment because of his failure to get written commitments from verbal promises of sponsorship, resulting in “substantially less projected profit” for the fundraising event. At that time Voit claimed to be working with Robertson to determine a plan of action.
Other questions about Robertson’s involvement in special events date back to the cancelled Umphrey’s McGee concert in 2015. [See http://fernandinaobserver.org/2015/05/28/the-story-behind-the-cancelled-umphreys-mcgee-concert/. ] Despite serious questions relating to Robertson’s representation of the city’s role in this event and questions raised by FBPD Chief James Hurley, no records can be found indicating that then-city manager Joe Gerrity took action to revise city special event policies and procedures or discipline city employees.
City Manager Dale Martin issued Nan Voit, Robertson’s supervisor, a written reprimand dated May 31, 2016 citing shortcomings in department activities, and providing her with a list of tasks and expectations. However, Martin added, “You are a recognized asset to this community and to the municipal leadership team. I want, and expect, you to be a great value and resource to the City. I hope that you welcome these new challenges.”
The investigation into both the Beach BBQ and Slide Into Spring events is in its early stages. At least one band that was scheduled to play at the BBQ event has contacted the city manager asking to be compensated for its $900 in lost revenue. In the absence of contracts with the city, such claims are being referred to Robertson to sort through.
In his May 25 email to the people and organizations disappointed in the cancellation of the event, Robertson wrote: “I appreciate your support for my well being and I want you to know that I will be ok no matter what. With that said, I accept what will come to me and as a City employee, should have corrected the mistake once it was realized as I have learned the hard way, perception is everything. Please do not harbor any ill will towards the City or the City Manager as I believe that although it was an unpopular decision, it was one that probably saved me from a great deal of public persecution. Everything happens for a reason and I hope that this was a way of God saving me from a great deal of heartache.”
Martin has sent a letter of apology to the Florida Bar-B-Q Association.
City Commissioners will discuss the status and future of city involvement in special events workshop scheduled for June 28, 2016 from 5-8:00 p.m. at City Hall.
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.