BY JENNIFER CABRERA
During their May 20 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission approved a contract amendment for Director of Equity & Inclusion Teneeshia Marshall, who has submitted her resignation.
The amended contract prepared by City Attorney Nicolle Shalley’s office included 20 weeks of severance pay along with 20 weeks of the City’s contributions to health insurance, life insurance, and retirement, along with a “Covenant Not to Sue” paragraph, a provision for temporary employment during a transition period, and a lump-sum contribution of $59,745.31 because the City never set up a retirement plan for Marshall as provided for in her original contract.
Shalley, however, told the commission that Marshall did not wish to give up the right to sue the City in exchange for the severance pay, so both the severance pay provisions and the Covenant Not to Sue were removed from the amended contract.
“We have charter officers that are reporting that their workplace is toxic and hostile and citing specifically one charter officer at the core of that issue, and that’s the City Manager [Lee Feldman]”
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker spoke about Marshall’s resignation, saying she was “deeply disturbed by reported actions of our team and some of my colleagues.” She reminded the commission that she said at the May 6 meeting that she didn’t accept Marshall’s resignation “because it had come to my attention that Ms. Marshall felt that she was being bullied. She felt like her work was being interfered with, and she felt like she was being retaliated against and that she was being pushed out of her job… Commissioners, we have a problem. The resignation is a symptom of a much larger, internal, major problem… We have charter officers that are reporting that their workplace is toxic and hostile and citing specifically one charter officer at the core of that issue, and that’s the City Manager [Lee Feldman]… She is not the only charter officer who has felt attacked, retaliated against by the City Manager… We are setting ourselves up for more resignations, future lawsuits, and failure.”
Duncan-Walker moved that they accept the amended contract as presented, appoint the Equal Opportunity Manager Sylvia Warren as Interim Director, ask the City Attorney to amend the proposed complaint procedures to allow charter officers to file complaints against City Commissioners and other charter officers, inform the community of the process of hiring the next Equal Opportunity Director, and include a process that would allow the public to ask questions of the finalists for the position and provide a ranking to the commission prior to the final selection.
Commissioner David Arreola said he wanted to name an Acting Director instead of an Interim Director. Both Arreola and Commissioner Gail Johnson spoke about needing to fix the “serious issues” among staff, charter officers, and commissioners before moving forward to hire a new Director. Johnson specifically said she didn’t want to begin the search yet, and because of that, the Interim is likely to be in the job for quite some time.
Johnson also asked that Duncan-Walker remove the part about amending the proposed complaint process until after the commission was able to have a discussion about that. Mayor Lauren Poe said it could be on the next commission meeting when all the charter officers were present, which could be May 27. (That item was on the General Policy Committee agenda for May 27 but was again postponed – for the fourth time – this time at Marshall’s request; she said her office would bring it back “in the next couple of weeks.”)
The final motion was to approve the amended contract, appoint Sylvia Warren as Acting Director of Equity & Inclusion, direct Human Resources to advertise for an interim position to include internal applicants and former/retired employees of the City, and “work with… a community engagement process for hiring the future Director of Equity & Inclusion.”
“I really like working with you all, but it becomes impossible to do that when I feel like my officers are being retaliated against, and I have to wonder myself, am I next for that retaliation?”
After public comment, Arreola said he couldn’t vote for the motion because the Mayor was the only one to “even attempt to respond to the comments that I made, but we’ve obviously got real problems… I believe it’s a matter of leadership… I really like working with you all, but it becomes impossible to do that when I feel like my officers are being retaliated against, and I have to wonder myself, am I next for that retaliation from either commissioners or charter officers who work for me? That’s the seed of doubt that has been planted. It has been there since November… This commission even asked for our Manager to go through professional development, and I never heard that that got completed.”
The motion passed 6-1, with Arreola in dissent.
Flat rate fee for garbage
The commission also decided to reconsider their earlier decision to ask the City Manager’s office to prepare a flat rate garbage collection schedule. Commissioner Harvey Ward brought forward the request to reconsider: “I believe with greater discussion, we can provide a solution that addresses both equity and sustainability.” Ward then amended the motion to ask for a Special Meeting on the topic. The motion passed unanimously.
Joint Food System Policy Board
They also unanimously approved an interlocal agreement that created a Joint Food System Policy Board, with Duncan-Walker and Commissioner Reina Saco as the City’s initial members of the board. Johnson was nominated but said she would “have to decline that,” although she has been the most outspoken proponent for local food policy on the commission. Johnson later said she would be “scheduling multiple Sunshine meetings to see the work you’re doing there.”
The advisory board “will provide guidance to the County, the City of Gainesville, and other municipalities located within Alachua County as to innovative approaches, policies, and target goals within Alachua County for purposes of developing food systems, which includes improving access to a variety of food options in underserved areas, supporting local agriculture, and improving availability of food to individuals.”
The commission heard the first reading of an ordinance that requires certain openings of vacant structures to be covered with clear or semi-clear shatter-proof polycarbonate material instead of plywood; existing structures that are boarded up will have 90 days from final passage of the ordinance to replace the plywood with polycarbonate. The ordinance passed 5-1, with Arreola in dissent and Johnson absent.
Open container ordinance
This item was previously requested by Poe because the commission temporarily repealed the City’s open container ordinance during the COVID-19 period, and he wants to repeal it permanently, saying it’s “an unnecessary ordinance that in many communities, perhaps even ours in the past, has been used to particularly target people with brown and black skin and low income folks.”
Ward suggested prohibiting open glass containers because they can break but allowing plastic, and Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos agreed with that. Arreola was concerned about large block parties, “all drinking outside… if we don’t add restrictions for that, we’re just going to see more problems, and when that many people with alcohol gets involved, and you don’t have appropriate security parameters, you can get into serious danger to bodily harm and life itself.”
Saco also said she’d heard concerns about broken glass on the sidewalk, so she supported the change but wanted to designate it to certain zones: “In some neighborhoods it has had that negative impact where folks would prefer that just outside of their homes is not a venue for… partying.”
Duncan-Walker says she has also heard from people in her district who are concerned that people from other communities that have open container laws are coming to Gainesville for parties. She suggested more community engagement before moving forward with anything specific.
Poe said he didn’t want to regulate all glass bottles – “to me it’s not a high priority for law enforcement officers.” He agreed that they needed to find a solution to large, disruptive gatherings.
Saco asked about permits for large gatherings, but Shalley said that the permit process requires the planner to be an entity with insurance and so forth, but the block parties are “social media generated… So then it becomes a law enforcement issue on what you do with a large crowd for an un-permitted activity.”
Arreola moved to repeal the open container ordinance and ask staff to bring back “solutions to public nuisances.”
Poe said the term “public nuisance” is “problematic… I think nuisances are gatherings that jeopardize public safety, is what we’re really getting at. ‘Nuisances’ can become discriminatory.”
Arreola brought up the earlier discussion on HB 1: “We should talk about how this commission expects law enforcement and large gatherings to proceed… I won’t have my City participating in the kinds of things that they’re trying to get us to do”
The motion passed unanimously, with Johnson absent.
During commission comment, Saco reminded the commission to use the term “neighbor” instead of “citizen”: “We’ve… frequently been using the term ‘citizen,’ and I’m personally disappointed by that because when I thought the City made the move to ‘neighbor,’ it was more welcoming, it was more inclusive of the very diverse community who calls Gainesville home, who comes to work, play, and live in Gainesville.” Poe replied, “Thank you, words matter.”