Ward’s bid to make interim charter officers permanent fails to gain support from new city commission

Commissioner Bryan Eastman proposes delaying the recruitment of new charter officers


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – New Mayor Harvey Ward’s first attempt to steer the direction of the new Gainesville City Commission in a meeting failed last Thursday when his suggestion to keep some or all of the interim charter officers was rejected by the other commissioners.

Earlier in the January 5 meeting, Ward had said that he intended to follow the commission’s previous rule that they should hear from the public before making a motion: “When there’s an action item, have the item presented, have the presentation, and then hear from the public, and then collaborate as a commission. We slipped back into the other way of doing it, and my hope is that we will do what we said we were going to do and follow that procedure… And if we want to change that, we’ll have an opportunity to do that at some point in the future, in a discussion… I’m glad we had the opportunity to clarify the way that that’s supposed to be.”

Recruitment of charter officers

The agenda item was advertised as a discussion of a recruitment plan for the five charter officer vacancies; City Clerk Omichele Gainey will be the only non-interim charter officer beginning January 13, when City Auditor Ginger Bigbie’s resignation is official. 

But before City staff could make a presentation on their plan to fill the charter officer positions, Ward said, “Prior to starting this, I just wanted to put an idea out there.” He said it would cost about $250,000 (about $50,000 per position) to do national searches for the charter officer positions. “We have four charter officers who have been serving in interim positions; three have been serving more than a year in interim positions, and we have one who has been serving almost a year in that position – admirably.” He asked whether “there is a will and an interest for someone to make a motion that we remove the interim and make permanent any of these… So is there any appetite for bringing on any of our charters permanently as a motion right now?”

Commissioner Reina Saco said she would “welcome conversations on keeping the others permanently… but there is one that I think should go without too much argument, that Mr. Cunningham be kept as permanent General Manager of GRU, given his skill set… I don’t think we’ll get anyone who will understand Gainesville and GRU the way Mr. Cunningham does right now… Mr. Cunningham is great.”

Ward responded, “I don’t think anybody disagrees with that.”

Saco made a motion to make Cunningham the permanent General Manager for GRU and said she welcomed any amendments to add more charter officers to the list, but the motion died for lack of a second. 

Eastman proposes delaying the decision to February

New Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he thought the interim charters officers were “very, very good at their jobs,” but “I want to ensure that, for us coming in, that we’re putting a good message out to the community that this is a new commission with a new way that we’re going about doing things. That we are going to be listening to the community. That we’re going to be making decisions that are deliberative.” He proposed bringing the agenda item back at the February 16 meeting with a vote on whether to keep each interim charter officer or advertise the positions, “which would give me and at least the two other new city commissioners time to interview them, talk with them.” However, he did not make a motion to that effect.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said the money for a search firm would be well spent “because I want to hear the new ideas. Everyone knows that lowering GRU rates for people is my top issue. I want to hear what other people out in the country have to say about that.”

Chestnut added, “I just hope that the recruitment company we choose is not the one that recruited the previous permanent City Manager.” 

New Commissioner Casey Willits also supported waiting to make a decision, saying that he wanted to talk to City employees about their experiences with the charter officers. He also said he was “not much of a fan of ‘That’s too important, leave it to the new commission,'” and some interims had served a long time as a result of that attitude. “If the previous commission would have decided that they were ready, that they should be permanent, they could have done that. But knowing that they did not, I support the idea of giving us some time to make a decision.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she’d gone back and forth on the issue, but “For me, it is incredibly important to make sure that – and I’m just going to use this position as the example here – that whoever our City Manager is, is an individual who does not just use the word ‘equity’ as a buzz or catch phrase.” She said her district, District 1, has received a “different type of attention” under Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry, as compared to former City Manager Lee Feldman. 

Staff plan would stagger the five searches

Laura Graetz, Human Resources Director for the City, presented a plan that would take about 15 weeks to fill each position; the staggered searches would begin with the City Manager search starting in late January and would end with the City Auditor employment agreement being approved in mid-September.

Graetz recommended using GovHR USA as the search firm for the City Attorney, City Auditor, and Director, Equity and Inclusion positions and BakerTilly for the City Manager and GRU General Manager positions. 

Saco wanted to recruit for the City Manager and the GRU General Manager at the same time, to make sure the two candidates are “compatible with each other.” Graetz said she thought that was “doable.” Graetz also said her staff could work on job descriptions to “be ready to hit the ground running” if the commission decided to proceed with recruitment in February.

Public commenters recommend a more transparent interview process

During public comment, Jo Beaty said that interviews with candidates have typically been one-on-one with commissioners, and she suggested having a public group interview so each commissioner and the public could benefit from hearing the questions and answers: “Transparency really says you should be doing it in front of us.”

Tana Silva agreed with Beaty and added that “it’s so important… to get a thorough process, a serious, serious process for putting these most important employees of the City in place.” Silva also said they should not delay the decision until February but go ahead and start the recruitment process. 

Eastman’s motion fails, Chestnut’s motion passes

Eastman made a motion to “give our new commission a chance to interview each charter officer, include the public reception that was included in the proposal so that the community can meet each charter, and return on the February 16 agenda with a vote on whether to make permanent or re-advertise for each role.” Willits seconded the motion. 

Saco said she wanted to recruit for the City Manager and GRU General Manager first, but she didn’t want to bring someone in at the height of budget season, so she wanted to wait until August to start the searches. 

Eastman’s motion failed, with Willits, Ward, and Eastman voting in favor and the others in opposition.

Chestnut made a motion to approve the recruitment plan for all vacant charter officer positions as presented by staff, beginning immediately. Willits seconded the motion. The vote was 6-1, with Saco in dissent. 

Commission sunsets two subcommittees, adds a new one

In other business, the commission voted to sunset the Digital Access and Environmental Justice Subcommittees and add an ad hoc Public Safety Committee focusing on police and fire services. Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut made the motion, and it passed unanimously.

  • Harvey “Two Face” Ward, and who is questioning how appropriate the name?
    Liberals, you’re so gullible.

  • Thank you Jennifer. I would like to see everyone on AC with a story to tell that meets the AC guidelines get their message out so we really can see worthwhile public comment. Just the facts and not the same old hyperbole. For instance, I have had several emails with PRR sent to Ms. Curry who has never even responded to my emails nor has she produced the documents requested, which is a violation of state statutes and the Sunshine laws. Ironically, my last request was for a copy of the latest report the city reviewed titled, “Ethics Update 2022: Navigating Rough Waters” and was published 12-7-22 which is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. An interim city manager that cannot follow the law should not only not be considered for the position, but she should also be removed immediately.

    • It sounds like she should not have fired all three of the assistant city managers like she did. That seemed really sketchy. And now she can’t even answer emails.

  • Out-of-town prospective officers who ask, “Can I work from home… back where I live now” should not be hired. Red flag.

  • Ward basically trying to covert interims to sycophant suck-ups, that’s all this was about. The legal officer is probably the only one who should stay. The others, including one who hasn’t even taken over, should be let go or kept in their prior position. Need new blood, not from Gainesville.

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