City Commission selects new City Auditor after sparring with public

Ray Washington speaks during public comment while his wife, son, and Kaimowitz listen.


This story has been updated to reflect the response from the City about the podium lights.

During a brief but drama-filled meeting on December 18, the Gainesville City Commission selected their preferred candidate for City Auditor.

After each of the three remaining candidates (Virginia “Ginger” Bigbie, Michael Hill, and Melinda Pensinger; Holloway withdrew) had a group interview with the commission in the morning, the meeting reconvened at 1:00 to select their preferred candidate. The meeting opened with public comment. 

Gabe Kaimowitz spoke first, pointing out that the meeting was publicly noticed for 8:00, with no mention of the 1:00 meeting on the city calendar. (In fact, the 1:00 session was not mentioned on the city calendar or in the text of the agenda but was hidden in an attachment to the agenda.) Kaimowitz also asked whether the candidates for the City Auditor job had been briefed on “what occurred and why it occurred to the previous auditor whom they are seeking to replace.” He also said he had requested a meeting with the City Manager and had received no response. He then left the podium, breaking his usual pattern of refusing to leave and having to be escorted out.

Ray Washington came up next and asked Mayor Lauren Poe whether he could speak for his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Benjamin, who were sitting in the audience, for a total of 9 minutes. Poe replied, “We don’t yield time. They can get up and speak if they would like.”

Washington said that he understood the ruling but added, “You can probably have your officer ready to take me out, because that’s probably going to be necessary. Washington went on to speak about Adderley vs. Florida, a Supreme Court case in which the court upheld the convictions of Florida A&M students for trespass when they attempted to use a public forum to speak out against incarceration of other African Americans for trying to integrate public theaters.

Right on the dot of three minutes, Poe said, “Mr. Washington, thank you very much. Your time has expired.” For a minute or so, the two continued to talk at the same time, with Washington proceeding with his statement and Poe repeatedly saying that his time was up. Poe finally gaveled the meeting into recess, the commissioners got up and left, and the video turned off for close to 30 minutes.

During his remarks before public comment began, Poe described the way the lights at the podium usually work: speakers see a green light for 2 minutes, a yellow light for 1 minute, and then a blinking red light. However, the light system was not working that way during this meeting. The green light stayed on for 3 minutes, then the blinking red light turned on. In response to our question about whether this is a deliberate change, the City wrote, “The timing of the lights may have been reset and is something we will check prior to the next meeting. The change wasn’t deliberate.”

Also, although new rules were just passed to require speakers to register, that rule was not in effect for this meeting. Public comment came before the motion was made, although no announcement about a change in that procedure was made (normally, the commission makes and seconds a motion before public comment begins). 

According to Washington, the GPD officer in the room went out to get reinforcements while he continued to give his statement. When his 9-minute statement was completed (with the video streaming off), officers physically led him out of the room. He was later allowed to return, after the meeting had resumed and it became clear that there would be no further public comment. 

In an interview, Washington said that Poe has the authority to extend time. The agenda for that meeting said, “In general, speakers will be limited to 3 (three) minutes per agenda item. Additional time may be granted by the Mayor or by the City Commission as directed.” Washington said that it was clear that only he and Kaimowitz were there for public comment, so allowing him to speak for 9 minutes would not have caused any disruption. Washington said that Poe was the one who caused the meeting to be disrupted for 30 minutes; giving him an additional 6 minutes of time to speak would have been much faster than the 30-minute recess.

When the meeting resumed, Poe said, “Thank you for indulging us for that brief recess; we will now call this meeting back to order.”

With public comment out of the way, the commissioners discussed their preferred candidates, beginning with Poe, who spoke about Ginger Bigbie: “I was especially impressed, in my personal interviews, with the attention and understanding of our equity goals and how the auditor’s office could fit within the efforts to increase equity both internally and externally in our community, and how the auditor’s office could work with the rest of the organization to do that. And so, for me, Ms. Bigbie was my pretty clear choice. And, you know, I just believe that through her many years of experience in a variety of settings, will be able to transition into our organization and into what we need from the auditor’s office at this point in time at the City of Gainesville.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos agreed: “For me, the municipal experience in internal auditing, that’s kind of one of the things I was looking for, and I am as well supporting of Ms. Bigbie.”

Commissioner David Arreola apologized for not being present during the morning group interviews, saying that he wasn’t feeling well. “I knew exactly what I was looking for in our next audit office. Since I’ve been on the commission, the auditor’s office has been a huge key to helping this commission understand how we can better serve our citizens, and so, for me, the candidate that best fills my vision for the auditor’s office was Virginia Bigbie.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he was impressed with all the candidates: “I’m very, very pleased with you all, and the kind of internal scoring system that I had running in my head made it very difficult. You all three bring different strengths. I am excited that this is a community you want to be in. And that’s important to me, that you’ve chosen this community for those reasons… when all was said and done, I think Ms. Bigbie’s experience at running a large municipal auditing department… puts her over the line. Again, it was very tight for me, but I do support Ms. Bigbie as a choice.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons also said that Bigbie stood out to her because of her municipal experience.

Commissioner Helen Warren said, “I also did go with Ms. Bigbie, with the experience, the number of years that she’s been in, the corporate and governmental experience, forensic, treasury, I just felt like it was such a broad list of experiences, that coming down to this city now, from Minneapolis, will give her an opportunity to really look at the way that this community works, that this office works within the community. We’re going through a lot of changes on how communities are being defined and the type of services that we work with each other, to reach the quality of this city that we all want to be in. So, I’m in agreement with the others here…”

Commissioner Gail Johnson added, “I feel Virginia Bigbie—or Ginger Bigbie—would be a great fit for our city, and I also spoke with the team that she would be working with, and everybody that would be working with her thought the same thing… unanimously amongst the folks that would be working with her, that they would love to work with her, so I think that’s an exceptional vote of confidence for her.”

Hayes-Santos moved to select Bigbie as the City Auditor and authorize the mayor to negotiate an employment agreement with her. 

Poe interjected, “I want to… before I drop the gavel for the last time of the decade, offer everyone a Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Sensational Saturnalia.”

The commission then voted unanimously on the motion to select Bigbie.