The Gainesville City Commission met today to discuss the findings in an Equal Opportunity report that concluded City Manager Lee Feldman had retaliated against Interim Finance Director Diane Wilson.
In a lengthy opening statement, Mayor Lauren Poe started by saying he didn’t think the report supported the recommendation to fire Feldman: “I understand, from the accuser’s perspective, why she may have felt retaliated against… From my reading, the findings of retaliation were inconclusive… I very much believe that out of adversity, we grow stronger… we will emerge from this… a better organization, and I am excited about that prospect. We have too much important work to do as a City… to lose sight of those larger goals now.”
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The commissioners refused to discuss the facts of the case because of other pending cases against the City. Equal Opportunity Director Teneeshia Marshall said, “There are other other pending, open complaints that are not being handled by my office; they are being handled by the City Attorney’s office, that have been filed with a federal agency.”
Commissioner Gigi Simmons said she took the recommendation of the report “very seriously. When we had a third party initiate this investigation, and we currently have an ongoing federal investigation, in addition to another investigation outside of this investigation, something is seriously wrong here… Some things I saw in the report were extremely disturbing.”
Commissioner Reina Saco said she had prepared a motion before the meeting: “We acknowledge that we have received this report, that we find it inconclusive at the moment; we request that the mayor recommend and review a professional development program for the City Manager, to ensure consistency with the adopted core values of the City; that the City Auditor, in consultation with other charter officers, recommend a policy to the city commission on how to deal with complaints regarding charter officers… that the City Auditor, in consultation with the other charter officers, review a policy on authority to hire by charter officers and suggest modification to the procedure if there is an unclear or contradictory procedure; and fourth, that the City Auditor propose a cultural audit to the city commission for the entire organization.”
Commission Gail Johnson said, “Yes, I agree with the findings of this… We believe in second chances here. Ok, I’m a big believer in second changes. But I also understand that there is a cost to that second chance and also there’s… clearly a problem… about organizational culture… There are also some very deeply, deeply disturbing things in this report.” She said she’d been very clear with Feldman, from her very first interview with him, about her expectations. “I can already tell how this is going to go down, based upon what many of you said, but for the record, I am disturbed by some of the findings, I think that there is a question about whether [we can get] the outcome we want, because ultimately we can have all the fancy plans we want to, but if the foundation is quicksand, no matter what we do, we will fail in the long term.”
Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “I find the conclusion shaky… We can’t fire our way out of a culture problem. We have tried to; we can’t do it… We can’t solve that problem tonight; I think clearly we all intend to go down a path of getting some help on that, but that is a separate issue, I think, from what’s in front of us, with the Manager’s tenure here.” He said they needed to have a discussion about what “professional development” consists of.
Saco said of the report, “I don’t consider it sufficient to go to the nuclear option of termination… I don’t want us to set a dangerous precedent where if someone is not hired, even though they aren’t the best-ranked person for the job, that they feel slighted, that they then allege discrimination or harassment or retaliation.”
Simmons replied, “We keep throwing around the words ‘professional development,’ ‘learning curve,’ ‘needs sufficient training,’ – how much professional development does a professional with 20+ years of experience need?”
Commissioner David Arreola said he couldn’t support the motion “because the motion does not adequately address conduct that was found in the report… there is no professional development counseling idea that changes those facts… I will not look the other way.”
After receiving public comment from a number of people who spoke both for and against the motion, the commissioners voted for the motion 4-3, with Simmons, Arreola, and Johnson in dissent.