Bunnell City Commissioner Jan Reeger Monday evening again pressed for her colleagues to fire City Manager Alvin Jackson or accept his resignation by the commission’s next meeting. But Mayor Catherine Robinson, while professing herself willing to speak with individuals concerned about issues at City Hall, maneuvered to end Monday’s City Commission meeting before Reeger had a chance to finish her argument.
The move was reminiscent of Robinson’s at-times questionable maneuvers on the commission during the turbulent tenure of Armando Martinez as city manager until 2013, when she used her position to limit or prevent discussions by other commissioners that might undermine the city manager. And it again echoed those times, when City Hall was in turmoil, though the city administration has known other periods of instability since, particularly during the brief tenure of City Manager Dan Davis.
But the strife within the administration hadn’t caused deep dissent on the commission since the Martinez days–until the last few weeks, when a sharp split emerged between Reeger and her colleagues over Jackson, even though Reeger had been a Jackson champion when he was hired. Robinson’s outmaneuvering Reeger on Monday recalled a time in 2013 when Commissioner John Rogers, who’d been newly elected, called a special meeting to discuss the fate of Martinez (he was considering a vote of no confidence). But Robinson, citing a technicality, stopped him from discussing the issue, even though commissioners’ own comment segments in any meeting, on any local government board, may not be proscribed.
Robinson was Martinez’s closest advocate and ally (and by 2013, one of his last remaining allies), a closeness that sowed resentment among her colleagues and eventually helped lead to the end of Martinez’s tenure. Robinson has been developing an equally close business relationship with Jackson, who, wise to the gavel’s power, has been cultivating it in turn. Like Rogers in 2013, Reeger is the commission’s rookie, and like Rogers, she was outmaneuvered Monday.
Unlike Rogers–who is still on the commission, but was absent from Monday’s meeting–Reeger’s case against the manager has lacked specificity and has barely been echoed by other commissioners. She’s charged that there are financial irregularities, that Jackson is unresponsive to complaints and that employees work in fear of retaliations, or getting fired. But she has yet to produce any solid evidence. She made similar claims again Monday, though this time she was echoed by two residents who addressed the commission–Stephen Woodin and John Day.
“I hate to say that something stinks within our city hall, but that’s kind of where I’m standing at this point,” Woodin said. “So I would like to see something done as far as investigation, Commissioner Reeger is kind of on target with what she had to say at the meeting last time.” Woodin accused city staff of spreading false information about him–that he had been the author of numerous code enforcement complaints, though he said he had not filed any. He said he tried to meet with Rogers to discuss issues but both had had scheduling conflicts so far.
When Day asked the commissioners if any of them were doing their “due diligence” regarding Reeger’s allegations, one of them, Donnie Nobles, also in his first year, began to say that “we’re in the process,” but was immediately shut down by Robinson.
No other members of the public spoke on the issue. The commission conducted its usual business. Then came the commissioners’ turn to speak, present reports or discuss items not on the agenda. Elected officials on all local boards periodically use the segment to raise issues, at times serious issues, they wish discussed, and at times call for votes, as Reeger did two weeks ago. And the commission did, in fact, entertain a vote, with one commissioner seconding her motion to fire Jackson, then retracting it. The item had not been on the agenda, but Robinson did not stop it from going forward, as she did Monday after Reeger laid out part of her argument.
“It’s our responsibility to hire an effective city manager. It’s a powerful position, and our current city manager is abusing the power,” Reeger said. “If we had issues as city commissioners, or see or hear about problems with the operations, we report them to the city manager. Over time, I’ve been doing that.” But she said she’s received only cursory replies, with no follow-up.
“Madame Mayor, I believe you may have been more surprised about that motion,” Reeger continued, referring to her motion to fire Jackson two weeks ago, “in many ways because I think you’re treated differently than the rest of us. A grave example of this happened this last week. I was surprised to see you and Mr. Jackson at the Flagler County legislative delegation meeting, and I was surprised to see the city of Bunnell on the agenda. It is my belief that all of us commissioners should have weighed in on what our city was presenting, and we should have been invited, and should have gone to stand with you and behind you.”
Reeger complimented Robinson on the mayor’s presentation to the legislative delegation (a show of support for Palm Coast’s potential partnership with the University of North Florida). “But I think it is something that should have been brought to all of us, and I don’t know if it was brought to anyone else, but it was certainly not brought to me. Communications problem. There are times when I should have been called and wasn’t.”
Robinson appeared to misunderstand Reeger’s point as she described how she as mayor had always appeared before the legislative delegation, though Reeger had been alluding to the fact that the administration had not informed her of the meeting.
Reeger then reiterated charges about Jackson’s administration, focusing especially on the Community Development Department and its director, Rodney Lucas, where Reeger said interaction with the public is “rude.” She said she had a personal experience, meeting with Lucas and Charlie Faulkner, to develop a plan for an affordable housing project. Lucas, she said, was not helpful. She spoke of employees’ fears and read an anonymous letter she’d received at home–and distributed to fellow commissioners–asking her to “dig further” into city activities and the hiring of Lucas.
“I am requesting that this matter be placed on the agenda by next meeting for further discussion, or possible motion for the termination, or possibly asking for a resignation and providing severance pay per the employment agreement,” Reeger said. She did not make the statement in the form of a motion, nor did Robinson asked her if it was one, as she might have had the matter been less controversial.
Instead, Robinson asked Reeger if she’d met with Jackson. “Over time I have brought things to him but I never get any answers,” she said. “I don’t get responses. Yes, I have brought many of these things up to Mr. Jackson. I don’t get any kind of response [that] anything is happening.”
Robinson was not convinced. “It’s a problem when you don’t sit down and discuss issues specifically with the city manager who runs the day to day operations of the employees,” the mayor said. “And when you have to set a meeting at a certain date and time to try to get you to slow down and talk to him, that’s a concern. And if people are coming to you about any of our staff members, the person you need to go to is the city manager. So to talk about, you know, these situations and not talk to him specifically, I have a problem with that. So I think that that’s the first place that this needs to go, is to sit down at the appointed time that he has allotted for you to sit down and meet with him, so that you can discuss these situations with him, especially if it’s staff oriented or customer service oriented. The issues about the finance department is a whole total, separate thing. There are disgruntled employees out there who are not happy, and so they are negative, and that comes back to roost.”
Never asking if Reeger was done, Robinson spoke of her appearance before the legislative delegation then turned to Commissioner Bill Baxley to ask him if he had anything to say in his portion of the meeting. Baxley defended Jackson for now, saying he’s getting the communication he needs. “He’s followed up on everything that I’ve requested for him to do, so as far as his performance to the commissioners, I have no complaints,” Baxley said.
Recalling his recent evaluation of the manager, which was not glowing (it was worse than Reeger’s), Baxley said: “I did leave plenty of room for him to grow, and that’s exactly why I did what I did in giving him the evaluation I gave him, so that I can give him higher down the road, or if he doesn’t improve in these areas that I hit him on the border line, then I’ll have a problem next year at this time. But so far I haven’t heard anything from anybody that I would consider the truth. I’ve heard a lot of hearsay, he-said, she-said, but I just need to have some proof.”
Nobles, whose support of Jackson remains tepid, said: “I believe in giving him a little chance and see, because he got throwed into a hornet’s nest. As long as he don’t try to cut back the police department or have any jeopardy in that, I think we’ll be good. If you go cutting on them, I’m gonna cut on you.”
The moment Nobles was done, Robinson asked for a motion to adjourn. Reeger jumped in, saying she wasn’t done, and that the mayor had misunderstood her. The mayor wryly repeated Reeger’s words and adjourned the meeting.