“I get home at night and my wife says you look happy. I’m so doggon happy, I can’t control myself. I’m sorry, I like it here,” Lawrence Williams, Bunnell’s new city manager, said toward the end of a city commission meeting Monday. His optimism contrasted with the tone of meeting that deepened rather than mended divisions on the commission. Every attempt Williams made to thaw the cold war Mayor Catherin Robinson has declared against her three male colleagues on the panel fell flat.
Williams’s contract was approved Monday night, but with the same 3-2 vote that sealed his hiring on Sept. 23, with Robinson and Commissioner Jenny Crain-Brady opposed. Crain-Brady later said it was nothing personal. She was merely showing opposition to the commission’s own procedure. “I look forward to working with you,” Crain-Brady told him. “Your staff today spoke very highly of you. They did. And actually said they loved you, and I told them I was very glad to hear that, so welcome.”
Robinson extended no such olive branch. Instead, she refused to sign his contract—a startling move from a mayor who, though not required by the city charter to sign such official documents, signified that her opposition to Williams’s hiring was not over. Vice Mayor John Rogers ended up signing the contract.
Williams will be paid $68,000 a year, or $44,000 less than what Armando Martinez, the previous manager, was getting paid. Williams will have a gas allowance of $200, but no city-issued car. Martinez had a city-issued car, which he used extensively as he commuted daily to Brevard County, where he lives. The contract is open-ended: it will renew annually, automatically, unless the commission acts otherwise.
The contract immediately provoked a debate among commissioners. Robinson was bothered by the absence of a probationary period, while Crain-Brady was surprised by the automatic renewals. Commissioner Elbert Tucker, who was tasked to negotiate the contract with Williams, said the relationship could be ended any time the commission had a majority to do so. It was an inauspicious beginning to Williams’s term, but quite in line with the rancorous atmosphere of the previous half year on the commission.
Robinson did not hold back, going so far as questioning Williams’s capabilities: “I have some concern with the fact that he has not worked for five years and there’s not some probationary period in there,” she said. Nor was she happy about the way he would be communicating with commissioners: by email, communicating the same information to each of them. She had no issue with the fairness of communicating similar information to all, but for Robinson, it will be a significant change of pace: she was on the phone with Martinez daily, many times day. Other commissioners found themselves excluded.
To Crain-Brady, it was “disheartening” that the contract was being approved without mention of a visioning process that would bring the new manager’s ideas in line with the commission’s. “I don’t mean to offend,” Crain-Brady said, “but what I’m saying is to hire a city manager and to not have that visioning to me that implies were just going on the city manager’s vision, and that’s not OK with me.”
Tucker said the vision was set out in the job description. (See below.) “He is not the leader, we are the leaders,” Tucker said. “If you’ve read the job description, that’s what we’re hiring the city manager to do. It’s not his vision. I’m sorry, but I have a difference of opinion.” The job description, Tucker said, is Williams’s guide. Nevertheless, Tucker agreed to a “visioning” session, which Williams himself had mentioned, as a sort of “retreat,” during his interview, saying it would be helpful.
“If we’re the leaders and we’re working individually of each other and we’re obviously a divided board, there is no vision,” Crain-Brady persisted.
“Well Jenny,” Tucker said, “I just said that I’m willing to do it, so who are you arguing with?”
“I thank you that you’re now willing to do that but until we had this conversation you weren’t,” Crain-Brady said.
“I’m only 20 percent Jenny. I’m not the dictator here,” Tucker retorted.
That latest clash drew two people from the audience to comment: Michael Barr, a business owner and frequent presence at city meetings, was worried about the lack of definition in the contractual clause enabling the firing of a manager for “moral turpitude.”
“I’m concerned that this questionable term could come back up again and harm pour new city manager, and I would like you to consider defining what moral turpitude is for this contract’s benefit,” Barr said. Sims Jones, a pastor who also attends almost every meeting, compared the commissioners to children. He admonished them: ““You can’t stand here and ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I’ve got 20 percent, I’ve got 50 percent,’ because the one who’s losing in me, John Q. Public, because we are losing confidence in our city leadership.”
It was at that point that the commission voted 3-2 to approve the budget. Williams sat mostly silent through it all, either looking down and taking notes, or watching the proceedings, expressionless.
He then committed his first misstep: he let commissioners dictate how he would manage his ranks. In a discussion about job descriptions, he said he was interested in freezing three positions in the administration: that of the acting police chief (to keep Lt. Randy Burke fulfilling that role), that of an assistant to the manager, and that of an assistant to the grant director. The freeze would be in place until Dec. 1 to “buy us some time financially,” he said.
Commissioners, who by charter have no place telling a manager how to manage his administration, balked at the idea. Robinson insisted that an assistant to the grant writer (Judi Stetson, who was an applicant for the manager’s job) be hired, because grants bring in substantial dollars. There was more agreement to let the two other positions be frozen. Williams allowed the commissioners to set those terms, opening a door that, ironically, Barr had warned about earlier in the meeting: “This is a policy-making board, this is not a micromanagement board,” Barr had said, surprised that the commission was going so far as to approve job descriptions.
Williams was somewhat more persuasive on two other matters—the cancelling of a centennial gala, which was not drawing the sort of response that would have paid the city’s bills for the event, though here again Williams had to concede to commissioners’ request to replace the gala with a barbecue. And the matter of a loan agreement he was displeased with, because it was attached to a floating interest rate that could expose the city to uncontrollable costs in the long run. Williams prevailed on that issue.
Near the end of the three-hour meeting, Williams took advantage of his portion of the agenda to sum up his good feelings about the city and his staff, saying he hoped to “bring this council together” and describing the pleasure of learning about his staff. He enumerated department directors one by one, with a compliment for each, and summed up: “As far as a 3-2 vote, it’s OK, we’re all going to wake up tomorrow and you know what, today is yesterday. We’re just going to move on and move forward. Hopefully I’ll have a lot of confidence from you.”
Instead, he was rebuked by Robinson. “You didn’t mention Judi,” the mayor said, referring to Judi Stetson, “and I think it goes without saying, she’s not here tonight but she’s an integral part.”
“I’m sorry, I was looking at faces, I wasn’t looking for name tags, and Judi and I probably meet more than anybody else,” Williams said.
Robinson wasn’t done.
In the commissioners’ portion of the meeting at the very end, John Rogers lavished praise on Williams, based especially on what Rogers had heard about the manager from his previous employees in Eatonville. That, too, drew a backhand from Robinson.
“You hired him tonight, you don’t have to sell him anymore, he’s here,” Robinsons aid.
“I’m not trying to sell him, Madam mayor,” Rogers shot back, his voice rising, “but I just wanted to share my experience as you share yours. I’m just 20 percent just like you are, and I just wanted to say my peace tonight too.”
“Well, you did. Anything else?”
“No, that’s it.”