It was Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez’s 11th hour, literally: at a few minutes before 11 p.m. Monday, Bunnell City Commissioner Elbert Tucker made a motion not to renew Martinez’s contract when it expires in October. Commissioner John Rogers, after a long silence, seconded.
At 27 minutes after midnight, Martinez had lost, 3-2: his contract would not be renewed in October. But he appeared—in a rushed request for a “consensus” from the board, not a vote—to have saved his five or six-month severance package, valued at over $45,000. That may give Martinez the last laugh: he’ll be on Bunnell’s payroll at his full salary for almost a year more.
Tucker, Rogers and Bill Baxley voted not to renew the contract. Mayor Catherine Robinson and Jenny Crain-Brady voted against the motion. The vote followed almost two hours of discussion by commissioners and members of the public, including pleas by Mayor Catherine Robinson to her colleagues to reconsider, and equally impassioned pleas by members of the public for clearer explanations about the firing.
“OK, so what is the purpose behind not wanting to renew?” Robinson asked, beginning yet another defense of Martinez—defenses she’s carried out before several times on his behalf, successfully.
This is the same board that voted unanimously, with Baxter’s exception, to renew his contract last year, Robinson said. “The man has done an outstanding job,” she said, and the least he was owed was an explanation. If money is the issue, “we’re right in the middle of cities that are 10,000 or less,” she said, referring to his salary. “What is it that he’s done that would not warrant a renewal of his contract?” Robinson asked.
She rifled through papers—obviously prepared for her ahead of the meeting—to summarize achievements during Martinez’s tenure, from reductions in property taxes to savings to solid waste income to increasing reserves. She reminded the audience that until Martinez’s arrival, the tenure of city managers was between one and two years. “We had some real losers, I’m going to say that,” Robinson said, refusing to name names. “Mr. Martinez is not one of them.”
But Tucker would have none of it.
“I’m not going to argue. My motion stands,” he said. “If you don’t want to vote my way, then that’s your 20 percent.”
Martinez, too, was prepared, again bringing out a dossier of his accomplishments.
“I was kind of surprised when this issue came up so soon again after it was put to rest,” Martinez said, beginning his own defense: he spoke of his 10 departments (up from seven), employee raises, going from “dire straits” financially to a city on a sound footing
“It wasn’t easy to get people to work here. We had a bad reputation,” Martinez said, speaking of his success in hiring high performers like his grant director, Judi Stetson. By the time he was done he had taken on the rhetorical rhythms of a preacher, cheerleading his own and his staff’s doings, pounding the air (or the dais) with his index finger and rifling numbers from his set of notes. “I don’t like to put myself in a position where I’m talking about myself, but I think you need to know,” he said. Some of the accomplishments he described were major, like Bunnell’s annexation of 87,000 acres. Some were not—like upgrades from Word 2003 software.
He said he was also perplexed about Tucker’s move, especially over his salary, which he said had not been an issue before. That was not accurate: Tucker has been making an issue of Martinez’s salary since he was hired, and did it again when a bare majority gave Martinez the $6,000 he was supposed to have given up when he gave up a second job title he had not been supposed to have kept after he stopped being Bunnell’s police chief. Martinez’s list of accomplishments also left silent major scandals that took place on his watch, including the arrest on felony charges of two cops, a state investigation of the police department, which had been riven with mismanagement, and the reversal of a commission policy that had amounted to a shakedown of drivers merely suspected but not necessarily breaking laws.
“I have yet to hear an intelligent, and I do mean an intelligent reason for this to be occurring,” James Fisk, a resident of Palm Coast and a member of Bunnell’s centennial committee, said. “What wrong has he done? Your citizens deserve an explanation.”
Numerous Bunnell city employees, among them police officers and department heads, spoke in defense of Martinez, describing more stable times and greater respect for the city on his watch, but in vain.
Baxley offered a few explanations: he charged Martinez with “lying” to the people of Plantation Bay, on an issue he did not explain (though Martinez did, conceding only that he may have told an incomplete story, but not lied). Baxley blamed Martinez for not following the city charger on managerial succession—or who would be in charge in Martinez’s absence—and he blamed Martinez for costing the city $18,000 in legal fees, so far, in a dispute between Palm Terrace, the mobile home community, and Bunnell over water issues. “A good city manager would have headed this off, would have done what was done tonight with the saw mill estates people,” Baxley said. Martinez defended himself, saying all he did was at the commission’s direction.
Rogers said he’d brought up issues to Martinez’s attention before only to be shot down, with Martinez saying he only needed three votes. “To be honest with you the pleasure is gone for me, and he serves at our will, and our pleasure,” Rogers said.
By the time Tucker had taken up his item the meeting was four hours old. Tucker’s item had been preceded by a nearly two-hour discussion about what passes for the decaying sewer system in Sawmill Estates, the wealthiest subdivision in Bunnell, where three of the five commission members live. By then the air conditioning system seemed to have stopped functioning in the commission chambers, too.
By the time the vote was taken, the chamber had turned into a hothouse of claims, counterclaims and fresh resentments.
The vote was quickly followed by another: to hire Lonnie Groot as the city’s new attorney, replacing Sid Nowell, who announced his resignation last month.
This being Bunnell, no meeting ends without final-minute theatrics, which in this case were authored by Crain-Brady, who said she’d have questions to Groot about Sunshine law violations–she said the vote to end Martinez’s contract was pre-arranged–and about making bribes to the city manager. She did not elaborate, but briskly walked out of the chamber as soon as the meeting was over. Martinez said that in April, after the original motions to fire him (which failed) a commissioner he did not name offered him severance if he’d resign.