Alvin Jackson has only been city manager in Bunnell for three years. But he’s the dean of the current class of managers and administrators in Flagler County: The school superintendent has been in office a year and a half, the interim or actual city managers of Palm Coast and Flagler Beach and the county administrator have all been in office less than a year, some of their tenures made even more tenuous at times by fickle politics.
For that relative stability, Jackson has earned the admiration–and gratefulness–of his four city commissioners and the mayor.
“My 28 years on this commission allows me to reflect on previous managers and he is one of the strongest we have had in my experience,” Mayor Catherine Robinson wrote.
“I was pleased with them,” Jackson said today about the evaluations. “It is not just me, it is really the performance of my team and my organization, so basically the performance evaluation as far as I’m concerned really represents the team, not just Alvin Jackson.”
There are some hints of discord in the ranks, with two commissioners–the commission’s two newest arrivals–pointing out what a previous commissioner had complained about repeatedly: that Jackson plays favorites with his staff, if not with commissioners.
Jackson is being evaluated on his third anniversary. The five evaluations combined add up to an average rating of 2.75 out of a possible 3, placing him in the “exceptional range.” He got perfect or near-perfect scores from Commissioner Tina Marie-Schultz, Mayor Catherine Robinson and Commissioner John Rogers. He was “highly effective” in the eyes of Robert Barnes, and merely “effective” in the eyes of Tonya Gordon, his harshest grader. His merit raise recommendations range from 1 to 3 percent, averaging 2.4 percent.
Dean though he may be, Jackson is also the least-paid local government executive: the end of September, his salary was $87,000. He got the same 2 percent cost-of-living raise that other employees got on Oct. 1, bringing his current salary to $88,754. Any merit increase approved this evening would be in addition to that.
The evaluation Bunnell commissioners use is a detailed analysis of 18 categories covering such things as job knowledge, customer focus, professionalism, communication, budgeting, emergency management, problem-solving, “diversity appreciation” and safety. Jackson gave commissioners a bit of help: he provided them with a list of 23 accomplishments rich in words like “successful,” “implemented,” “completed,” “revised” and “replaced.”
“Mr. Jackson has led the staff through a very difficult year with [unforeseen] issues that [have] been difficult to resolve,” Mayor Catherine Robinson wrote in her sum-up. “He has developed a plan to work through the finances for upgrading the wastewater treatment plant, finding temporary space for staff with long-term plans for permanent space.” Robinson was referring to Bunnell government’s other crisis this year: the discovery that its once-vaunted city hall on Moddy Boulevard is actually a leaky sieve, its roof too expensive to repair, its work spaces no longer safe. Jackson had to move various operations, including his own office, to the strip mall behind the Chicken Pantry (the one owned by Bob Newsholme, the tax accountant being investigated for fraud). The city in November is closing on land along Commerce Boulevard, where it will build a new city hall for over $7 million. The commission raised property taxes 23 percent this year to finance the plan. The new building may also include the police department.
Robinson noted the securing of grants to rehabilitate the old Coquina City Hall (which the city had to evacuate in 2009 for the same reason: water leaks), and she underscored Jackson’s experience in economic development “to move us toward our future.” Several businesses are planning to come to Bunnell, she wrote. Robinson gave Jackson exceptional marks in 15 of the 18 categories, notching down to “effective” in matters of staff accountability and building a “diverse and inclusive community by demonstrating respect in the workplace.” Oddly, Robinson also gave Jackson–the only non-white executive in local government, where all but one elected official is white–mere “effective” marks in the “diversity appreciation” category. “The are trainings that were done. Books have been shared and the city manager has led by example,” Robinson wrote.
The one criticism, or “area of improvement,” Robinson had for Jackson was not really a criticism: she was displeased that he worked to such a point as to lose personal leave time. She’s urging him to plan better so he could take the time off.
Robinson also laid out a work plan for the coming year: completing the land buy for the new city hall and designing the building, developing a plan for a new police department, and completing a finance plan for a new sewer plant. The mayor is recommending a 3 percent merit raise.
Rogers had been Jackson’s biggest champion three years ago, essentially reviving Jackson’s candidacy from the dead: the commission had at one point ruled him out. He gave him exceptional marks across the board but for one category: safety and security, though Rogers did not explain the lower mark, nor did he lay out areas for improvement. In a brief phone interview, Rogers explained that in that particular category, Jackson hadn’t done anything on which he could be evaluated: “nothing concerning or nothing amazing,” Rogers said.
Schultz’s evaluation was a perfect score reflected in her brief sum-up: about Jackson: “Trustworthy, Respectful, Ethical, Approachable, Excellent Management, Communication and Leadership skills. Most importantly I’m impressed with your integrity.”
Three commissioners appointed Schultz and Barnes in late July to fill out the terms of Commissioners Bill Baxley, who had resigned and moved to New Hampshire, and Donnie Nobles, who resigned for health reasons.
Barnes’s evaluation was somewhat more measured, toggling between effective and exceptional, finding positives in every category but curbing enthusiasm in some regards: in matters of safety, emergency management, teamwork, innovation, contract management and a few other categories, Barnes emphasizes the satisfactory rather than the exceptional. Barnes elaborates in a summary of areas that need improvement: “Focus on additional engagement and building trust with all employees in all groups will provide benefits,” Barnes wrote, shedding a bit more light on what other commissioners–with Gordon’s exception–only hint at: a bit of tension here and there in Jackson’s ranks. “Additional focus on improving safety and reducing expenses with improved operation and maintenance of city equipment and facilities should be a priority.” Barnes is proposing a 2 percent raise.
The clearest indication of Gordon’s dissatisfaction with Jackson is in the one-line comment she left in the needs-improvement box: “Communicate equally with Commissioners.” That’s usually the Achille’s heel of government executives balancing the interests of the commissioners at whose pleasure they serve. Some are very good at keeping all politics or favoritism out of their equations. Some are less so, either because the elected themselves tend to isolate themselves–or voice dissent–or because of calculations that make winning over an outlier less critical, though such calculations are risky on boards whose complexions can change on a dime. Armando Martinez, a city manager several years ago, was notorious for playing favorites, and eventually paid the price. Jackson is not known for playing favorites, though one other previous commissioner, Jan Reeger, had made a similar charge.
The favoritism Gordon is concerned with appears not to concern only commissioners. In the category about collaboration and teamwork, Gordon was quite critical: “All employees should be treated equal,” she wrote. No favoritism. Letting certain employees leave early on or before holidays and still collect pay and others cannot leave early. Going to bot for some employees or departments and not others.” Gordon is also concerned about a certain lack of communication from the manager, or his blame-others manner of communication: “We have had numerous conversations on calls from businesses and citizens with complaints on a department,” Gordon wrote, explaining her lesser mark in the management category. “When we spoke, you turned it on the complainant instead of correcting it within. After it was said and done, it was the department head that was at fault. I expect the truth at all times and for it to be corrected, not blaming others.” On the other hand, she commends him: “You’re qood at helping solve on issue or finding an answer when a problem arises.”
Jackson said he had “no idea” what Gordon was referring to, and that he treats all commissioners “and all staff equally.”
Gordon in her evaluation pointed to what looked like an alarming purchase, like the Pentagon’s once-infamous $640 toilet seats: detail about costs during covid: “Some purchases are not necessary. Example: $5,000 for a thermometer,” Gordon wrote.
Jackson said the cost was actually $6,165, but it was not for a hand-held thermometer as commonly imagined, but for three “thermal imaging” devices used by local agencies to detect people’s temperatures. The devices were used during the height of the covid pandemic. “Covid dollars paid for those,” Jackson said.
Jackson spoke of his evaluation and his staff this afternoon with the same ebullience that is reflected in his organization’s mission statement, one of whose tenets states: “We do the coolest work on the planet.”
The full evaluations are below.