Just 14 months into his tenure as Flagler Beach City Manager, William Whitson is on a 90-day probation period. The City Commission isn’t calling it that specifically, though “probation” may be putting it mildly.
“My recommendation is to do an immediate evaluation of William and review his progress in 90 days,” City Commissioner Deborah Phillips said this evening. “And if there is not proven results, the Commission can take a vote to terminate his contract or not after the 90 days.” The commission agreed.
Phillips last week had called for a special workshop this afternoon to discuss “the future of the city manager.” She and Commissioners Eric Cooley and James Sherman, along with Mayor Suzie Johnston, have been with varying degrees disenchanted with Whitson since the July 4 fireworks fiasco, followed by the city’s failure to apply for a $739,000 tourism grant available since Whitson’s arrival. Signs have gone up around town calling for Whitson’s firing. Social media has piled on, as it is prone to, in manichean terms.
Phillips isn’t at the firing line yet. She’d intentionally asked for a workshop, where no vote could be taken, so no commissioner would be tempted to make a motion to fire him (though any commissioner can do that at any business meeting).
The commission had been in a very similar position two years ago, with then-City Manager Larry Newsom. He’d been acting erratically and rudely toward constituents, to the point of being asked to leave a commission meeting. Mealy called a special workshop to discuss his behavior. There was talk of a probationary period. It never got that far. Newsom went on leave, and died two months later, precipitating the search that resulted in Whitson’s hiring.
Today Whitson was at the receiving end of the commission’s doubts. He sat at his usual seat, but without a tie this time, and listened to Phillips make her case.
“A good manager, which I truly believe you are, Mr. Whitson, has to be in sync with the desires of the commission, be responsive and lay out a course of action for each project so nothing is lost,” Phillips, a former bank executive said. “I have no desire to lynch our city manager, as many of our residents appear to want, by putting out a petition for his removal, yard signs that he has to go and many negative comments on social media for the general public.” She asked for the manager’s project list to be more broadly disseminated and regularly updated so both commissioners and the public can keep track of timelines, a move Whitson, who is aclose-to-the-vest sort of manager, will not relish.
She invited Whitson and the rest of the commission to speak, but had cautioned at the start of the meeting that there would be no public comment. That would be held to the 5:30 meeting.
Whitson made no apologies, portraying himself instead as the victim of circumstances and an overworked administration. He said there ere 31 projects on his list when he started the job. The number of projects were up to 71, with 22 completed and 49 in “various stages of completion, so it is a pretty heavy workload for a small staff.” He said the city had secured $14.5 million in grants since his arrival, with another $1.8 million in the pipeline. He did not offer any examples, though the claim was intended to offset the failure to apply for the $739,000 Tourist Development Council grant.
He again took no direct responsibility for the fireworks fiasco, subtly shifting the blame, again, to his staff, though the two members of the staff who were most directly involved in that issued a timeline-memo rejecting that blame-shifting. “I was told by the staff that there was a gentleman who was on their team that regularly contacted us,” Whitson said of the fireworks company’s contact. That did not happen. “Now I don’t give you that background by way of an excuse. I’m just saying that’s what happened. I’m new on the block, I didn’t know what their process was, I didn’t know what our regular contact was, okay. So that ball got dropped.” In other words, he was not the one who dropped it.
“When it became clear that it was dropped, I made every effort that I could to bring you back some options for what we could do with a fireworks show. And that option was presented and was turned down by the Commission,” he said, again not mentioning the slipshod ways that contract went through various motions.
As for the TDC grant, “never was it mentioned and nor was it on my initial project board,” he said, “which you all have been in my office and you see the whiteboard that I put up, that there was a desire to do the south end of the boardwalk.” He said if that’s the commission’s desire, then it can be applied for next year. In fact, it was not the commission’s job to know what grants were available, and Whitson had been apprised of it months before by the TDC’s executive director (Bryan serves on the TDC board). He then spoke about what he does focus on, literally “things happening, underground, the drinking water pipes, the sewer lines, the transmission system.”
“So, yes ma’am, I want to work here. I want to do well, I want to take care of the backlog. I want to make this community proud,” he said. “But when times get tough, teams pulled together, and they say okay, it’s not easy, but let’s step up and let’s work together to get these things done.”
Cooley spoke like a commissioner ready to fire Whitson. “My heartburn is information. I feel like you are choosing who gets what information,” Cooley said. His example wasn’t from the fireworks error or the TDC. It was about taxes and revenue information that was part of the context of Wednesday’s daylong budget workshop: “I requested the latest quarterly budget report because you can’t set new taxes if you don’t know where you’re at on the current taxes. I never got that,” Cooley said, even though the administration had the new data. “That’s just one example.” He referred to the Funky Pelican’s dumpster reconstruction project and the utter confusion over whether it was a mere reconstruction or an expansion, and to the fireworks. “It’s intolerable to have staff with information that is requested, and still not given,” he said. “That leaves me with Why. Why am I not being given the information that I asked for.”
Cooley voted for Whitson and still has confidence in his ability to do the job, but said he considers it an ethical and procedural problem when Whitson doesn’t provide documents when requested. “It’s happening even after I called it out. It’s still happening as of yesterday.”
“I gave my word that if this was going to continue that I was going to make a motion to terminate,” Cooley said.
“I’m not here to debate,” Whitson said. “Every commissioner, I try my best to meet with you.”
Since commissioners were speaking in turn, his two supporters were next. “I’ve never been denied anything that I’ve ever asked for,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said, whether from Whitson or from other staffers delegated to answer the questions. “So it’s possible that in Mr. Whitson’s efforts to provide us information he doesn’t always know what exactly we’re looking for. And this is just my thought. I don’t know if that’s true.” But even Mealy’s words were less the rousing endorsement she had spoken of Whitson previously than a more measured take.
As were Bryan’s, who insisted he was not defending Whitson. “Does he have a problem with priorities, communications? I’d say yes, because I’ve had some issues with him as well,” Bryan said. “But you know what I do? I don’t get on the internet. I don’t get on social media. I go down to the office, I talk to him.” Bryan cautioned his colleagues about the year-long process that preceded Whitson’s hiring. “If we were to go through this process again, God knows what’s going to happen because we have a lot of balls in the air right now.” It wasn’t exactly a rallying cry for Whitson. It was a plea against the torture of a manager search, which no elected body enjoys.
James Sherman, the first-year commissioner, spoke like Phillips: “I think that we need to get this right and we need to get it right, immediately, and that’s all I have to say.”
That left the mayor, Whitson’s severest critic. As Wednesday’s workshop illustrated, there’s now bad blood between the two. She did not mince words. She never does.
“We’ve lost grants. I’ve been lied to. And we are starting to see trends and red flags,” Johnston said. “I come from a corporate environment where if you are sitting in this position after a short 14 months, you would not be getting a note in your file. And you wouldn’t be looking at a 30 day review. This is an executive position that pays $127,000 a year. This is a small city of 5,000 residents. We cannot have major misses.”
Phillips gave Whitson the right of reply. “No response,” Whitson said.
A city or county manager’s fate is often better measured by the public response he or she is getting than by one meeting’s bluster on the dais, especially in a town like Flagler Beach, where managers rise and fall on the tides of a very engaged electorate. But the public response, once it was heard at the 5:30 meeting this evening was relatively mild.
There was criticism, but nothing fit for Golgotha. Two former city commissioners criticized him. A former mayor gave him the benefit of the doubt, and questioned whether it wasn’t the commission itself that needed a reset. There was also praise for Whitson, if especially from an employee: “Give the guy a little slack,” Lee Richards, program coordinator for engineering services, told commissioners.
“I am not as kind as this gentlemen that just left the podium,” Jackie Mullingan, one of the former commissioners, said. “I have a higher expectation of the way things should be working.”
Some even suggested how to improve the project list by color-coding it, some suggested starting an employee-of-the-month award, an economic development mentor offered the services of SCORE, the business-counseling non-profit, and some said the “communications is out of control,” meaning that the public is not kept in the loop. No one called for a firing.
“As far as resetting on the commission here, I think we all got the message and hopefully this is an opportunity for all of us to reset, start communicating more effectively with each other,” Bryan said by way of closing out that discussion. For now, anyway. “I agree, a year ago this the city was roaring, we were all working together and everything was positive and there’s been some miss steps. we’re going to get over it. We’ll get through it, and we’ll keep moving forward.”
But that was a few hours before the meeting’s curveballs: commissioners’ comments. This article published before then.