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General Policy Committee approves paid time off for employees to vote, punts on Ombudsman position, discusses RTS app

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Bottom line: At their May 12 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission, sitting as the General Policy Committee, voted to give City employees 1-2 hours off to vote during early voting and on Election Day, asked a future city commission to consider funding an Ombudsman pilot program for FY24, and asked staff to prepare an RFP for a new RTS app in case the app is still generating complaints three months from now.

Election holidays for City workers

This item was on the agenda because the commission had previously voted to give holidays to City employees on election days, but the City’s Human Resources Department wanted clarification on which elections would be considered to be holidays. HR also wanted to know whether employees who have to work on holidays would get premium pay. They estimated that the premium pay alone (not considering the opportunity cost of employees not working) would cost $516,603 for a holiday, based on the cost of the most recent holiday observed by the City (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday). They also said that any additional holidays had to be negotiated with every collective bargaining unit. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos favored allowing employees to take 1-2 hours off to give them time to vote on Presidential Preference elections, primary elections, general elections, and any special elections within the city limits. Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said she would also support giving them that time during early voting, so that was added to the motion. 

The vote was 5-0 in favor of the motion, with Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and David Arreola absent.

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City Ombudsman

The Policy Research office gave a presentation on the role of an Ombudsman, who typically provides citizens with a confidential avenue to address complaints or resolve questions. 

Hayes-Santos said he generally supported the idea, but he was concerned about the recurring cost of adding a new position, particularly in a “tight budget” year. Chestnut said it was “a solution in search of a problem… It seems to me MyGNV answers many of these issues.” She said the Equity Office also addresses many of these issues. 

Mayor Lauren Poe said he saw “very little downside to putting a pilot out there… I feel like there needs to be a neutral third party with specific professional training and experience, accreditation, that can do the intake for these kinds of disagreements and work towards a lasting and meaningful resolution.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he could “see potential for it… I can see a value to this.” He proposed trying to find funding for a pilot program “through unfilled positions or something like that.”

Mayor Pro Tem Reina Saco, who was running the meeting because Poe was attending remotely due to an illness that was later disclosed as COVID-19, said she would “rather try something else first” before starting a pilot program. She suggested adding a step to the MyGNV process that communicates to the citizen making the complaint that the City had taken some action and asking whether it solved the problem. She also suggesting contracting out for the services as needed.

Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said the piece that’s currently missing is the “general coordination” of responding to complaints. 

Hayes-Santos made a motion to ask the next commission to consider an ombudsman pilot in the FY24 budget.

During public comment, City Commission Candidate Jo Beaty said there is a group of citizens who regularly attend commission meetings and act as informal ombudsmen to try to help other citizens with their concerns about City government, and they “really get iced out… There are those people that come to all the meetings and, you know, they carry less weight with [Mayor Poe] because we’re always saying the same thing, we’re trying to get your attention… A lot of us have been before you for years, trying to get your attention, trying to say ‘Please don’t do this,’ you know, we can’t afford it, you’re hurting the least able to afford it in our community the most… I think you have a lot of people that could help you with solutions.”

The motion passed 4-1, with Poe in dissent, although the minutes show that it passed 5-0.

RTS App

Curry told the commission that the vendor for the RTS (bus) mobile application has addressed a number of reported issues, but there are still concerns with its usability. She said that because the vendor provides other services to RTS, the app is provided at no additional charge, but it would cost about $125,000 on a recurring basis to contract with another company to produce a new app. She also said it would take about 18 months to develop a new app. Curry said the current app functions and does not cost the City anything extra, but “we have an app that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that maybe other cities have.”

Hayes-Santos says he has to delete and reinstall the app every time he uses it, and it doesn’t “meet the standards we have for our city.” He said he wouldn’t vote for the City budget this year unless they budgeted for a new app. He also said he didn’t believe it would take 18 months to build a new app. 

Curry said the app has 4800 active users per day, “so it is being used. And I’m not quire sure what kind of complaints we’re getting right now.” She said the commission needs to “hold steady” on the budget: “I’m concerned about the increments going forward.” Increments are additions to next year’s budget that are not in the current year’s budget.

Poe said he was “very disappointed” in Hayes-Santos’ comment that he wouldn’t vote for the budget unless they approved a new app: “I think [that] sets a bad precedent for our budget deliberations.” He said it was important to him to add at least a part-time ombudsman, but “I’m not going to vote against the budget because you all didn’t okay that.” He suggested allowing the company more time to improve the current app. 

Saco noted that the bad reviews of the app had stopped in mid-April: “We haven’t had any new reviews, good or bad, I think that’s helpful. Usually when people are content, they don’t take action one way or the other… I like that it’s included in something we already pay for… We don’t have that money. We don’t.” She said she wanted to give it six more months. 

Hayes-Santos said the app could be “detrimental in the long-term viability of our transit service.” He pointed out that other cities using the same vendor also have low ratings for their apps. “For something that’s used so much every day, I think it’s worth the $125k a year.” He said he didn’t think the app could be improved to an acceptable level because it’s web-based and not a native app. He made a motion to ask staff to start working on an RFP for a new app and put the budget increment for a new app in the FY23 budget. 

Chestnut said she would rather give the vendor six more months to fix the app: “An increment is going to be problematic in this budget… I will not be supporting the motion.”

Saco proposed a “middle ground” of giving the app developer another 3 months to make fixes and putting a “place holder” in the budget for a new app. The motion then was changed to start working on an RFP for a new vendor and put a placeholder in the budget and review toward the end of July. Chief Operating Officer Tony Jones told the commission that New York City uses the same app, along with about 20 other communities.

The motion was approved 4-1, with Chestnut in dissent.

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