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City commission repeals vaccine mandate

Robert Arnold, CWA

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Today’s General Policy Committee meeting started with changes to the agenda, as Commissioner David Arreola immediately made a motion to remove the item regarding a Strong Mayor Charter Amendment and move member comment to the beginning of the meeting. Previous published versions of the agenda for this meeting also included an increase in city commissioner salaries and a proposal to add staff for each commissioner, but both of those items dropped off the agenda before the final version was published. Arreola did not give a reason for removing the strong mayor item. The motion to adopt the agenda with the proposed changes passed unanimously.

During member comment, Arreola immediately made a motion to “reconsider” the commission’s action on August 5, “specifically rescinding all previous direction for COVID vaccination policies.” A second part of the motion was to give direction to the charter officers to “engage with union leaders and return to the commission with an employee vaccination plan similar to President Biden’s administration that includes reasonable alternatives.”

Mayor Lauren Poe clarified that “By considering the motion, we will be essentially re-voting on that motion.” He added that he didn’t think it needed to be in the motion, but he wanted the legal staff to give an opinion on whether the City falls under the President’s executive order.

Poe immediately moved to public comment on the motion. Nathan Skop said that Poe has “disrespected your City employees. You’ve disrespected the collective bargaining members. Commissioner Saco flipped them off despite them exercising free speech and the desire to protect their bodies; you issued a mandate and you lost in court. And you provided no evidence to support the City’s position; you got smacked down. You lost.”

Poe responded, “I’m going to implore our speakers today to avoid ad hominem attacks… Ad hominem attacks means attacking another person. If you would, please stick to the policies and the positions and the issues in front of us.”

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Tristan Grunder, president of Gainesville’s Fraternal Order of Police, thanked Arreola for making the motion: “It’s going to make people feel a lot better, especially since we can roll it back, if we can roll it back, which is what we would like. The conversations we’ve had about doing things other than the mandated vaccine, to include antibody testing, to include weekly testing for those that are unvaccinated. I believe that’s the direction we need to go in.”

Robert Arnold, president of CWA Local 3170, also thanked Arreola for making the motion: “The conflict I have as a union leader is safety in the workplace and the rights of my workers. Bam. We had the biggest clash in the world here. Well, now the law of the land has spoken, so why don’t we just rely on our family ties here and let’s fix this thing. We can do it. I have full faith in my members to do the right thing, and I think if everything is incentivized and — some of us don’t even need an incentive. I’ve already done it. But I think that we should all work together and move forward and let’s put this as a bad chapter behind us and let’s fix this thing and learn from this as we move forward.”

Pastor Ron Rawls thanked Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Gail Johnson for voting against the mandate. He said the commission is “unwilling to listen. There’s so many things that you make a decision on, and you’re unwilling to listen.” He said he’s vaccinated and encourages others to get vaccinated, but “it’s people like the majority of you that makes my people not listen to government because you force what you want and don’t listen.”

Nick Gonzalez, president of the Gainesville Firefighters, said that the past six weeks have been difficult because “missteps have been made, toes have been stepped on, relationships have been strained… We can manage this. But we must lower the temperature in the room… I’m asking for a hard reset. I’m asking that you please repeal ‘vaccinate or terminate’ and do what we have should have done from the beginning. Let’s come together, let’s collaborate, let’s listen to each other’s concerns, and let’s come to the table, formulate a plan, and let’s move forward voluntarily. We can come up with reasonable alternatives and we can move forward if we remain calm and we lead from the front.”

With no discussion from the commission, the motion passed 6-1, with Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos in dissent.

Johnson apologizes 

After the vote, Johnson said, “We owe you all an apology—to Tristan and Nick and Mr. Arnold and our employees… Every step of the way we should make sure to involve the people most affected in our decisions. And we didn’t do that. And here we are. But I’m happy that one, Commissioner Arreola, you made that motion, and two, I’m really hoping that, like Nick said, there can be a reset. I understand that trust has been lost, that there’s damage that’s been done… So I’m apologizing to you. And I’m hoping that in the future we will do a better job of including our unions, including our employees, including the people that are most affected by the decisions that we make, in our decision-making. And so I hope you accept that, and I hope that we can all move on and figure out how we can be a safer city together.”

Agenda mix-up

After some advisory board presentations, the commission moved to the “City Commission Guidelines” item, but none of the charter officers had anything prepared, and finally the Clerk said, “I have no idea why this is even on this agenda. I thought it was something maybe someone else requested. But I have no context.” The backup documents were from 2019. Alachua Chronicle went back and looked at the Agenda Review meeting, and this item was mentioned but not discussed. Poe didn’t ask any questions about it at the time. 

Interim City Attorney

The final item on the agenda was a discussion about an interim City Attorney, added by Duncan-Walker. The commission had previously decided to advertise for both the Interim City Manager and City Attorney positions and consider the applicants in October. Duncan-Walker said she was concerned by an email from City Attorney Nicolle Shalley and asked Shalley to elaborate.

Shalley said that if the Interim City Attorney is not selected until October 12, by the time an external applicant goes through the onboarding process, Shalley might only have four work days to spend with that person before her last day on November 10. And if they selected someone internal, that person would need to transition off their current responsibilities before they could take over the City Attorney’s duties. She said that she had recommended two current employees for the position.

Arreola moved to appoint Sean McDermott as the Interim City Attorney, and Commissioner Reina Saco seconded the motion. Commissioner Harvey Ward said he hoped the commission would give instruction to the mayor that day to begin negotiating a contract for Interim City Attorney. He said he would have preferred Daniel Nee, but “both are extremely capable.”

Duncan-Walker said that she had intended to make a motion to appoint Nee, so Poe said they would consider that motion if Arreola’s motion failed. Poe added that he would have preferred to interview both candidates before making a decision: “This is such a critical position, as are all six of our charters, that to be asked to make a decision without having the time to sit down with both of the recommended candidates that the Attorney gave us, but also to see who else out there might be both qualified and interested, just like we did for Equity and Inclusion.” He favored appointing an Acting City Attorney and that they “continue to take our time” in appointing an Interim. 

Shalley said she would not recommend appointing an Acting Attorney because that would require the Acting Attorney to transition off all their duties to a different attorney, then serve as Acting Attorney for a short time, and then transition all those duties to the Interim and go back to their former duties. 

Poe reiterated that he was “not prepared to make this decision today… I’m just not prepared to do that. I’m just not. I just need to have those conversations [with the applicants].”

Ward said that “in deference to anybody’s need to have conversations… with all of the… candidates, I will defer and not support a motion and not hire someone today.”

Hayes-Santos pointed out that they have a meeting scheduled for Monday. Arreola said he was fine with taking time to have the conversations, but given that they needed to appoint multiple interim charter officers, “now is the time to have those conversations.” He pulled his motion “so that we can allow for this decision to be made on Monday” but then changed that to amending the motion to put the item on Monday’s agenda. The motion passed unanimously. 

Poe for Congress?

During general public comment, Debbie Martinez asked Poe if he is running for Congress. He responded, “I have not filed to run for Congress… I plan to serve out the remainder of my term as mayor and then take an incredibly long nap. That’s my plan.”

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