HomeLocal government“You’re supposed to be dead already”: argument between commissioners leads to multiple recesses and postponement of Weyerhaueser tract decision; commissioners also voted themselves a raise
“You’re supposed to be dead already”: argument between commissioners leads to multiple recesses and postponement of Weyerhaueser tract decision; commissioners also voted themselves a raise
November 22, 2022
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The November 17 meeting of the Gainesville City Commission began with a conflict over the agenda and ended with several major items being continued to a new Special Meeting on November 29 when Commissioner Reina Saco left and did not return after exchanging heated words with both Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut and Mayor Lauren Poe.
Commissioners exchange heated words during approval of the agenda
During the approval of the agenda, Chestnut asked to move an item from the consent agenda to the regular morning agenda; the item changed the use of the commissioners’ $5,000 annual travel and training allotment to allow “an expanded use.” Since Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos had made the motion to adopt the agenda and Saco had seconded it, Poe asked whether they agreed to amend the motion. Hayes-Santos was fine with it, but Saco just said, “No.” Since it is routine to accept agenda amendments from other commissioners, Poe seemed taken aback but moved to a vote on the original motion.
However, Jo Beaty, a citizen who frequently attends meetings, called out from the audience and pointed out that Poe had not taken public comment on the motion. Among other things, Beaty asked the commission to explain the public purpose of the trip to Israel that three outgoing commissioners (Poe, Hayes-Santos, and Commissioner David Arreola) will be taking in December. Beaty also said the motion belonged to the body, so Saco should not have been able to stop an amendment to the motion.
Poe then called for a vote on the motion, and Hayes-Santos voted nay. Poe said, “Your own motion, you’re voting against?” Hayes-Santos responded with something inaudible, Beaty made a comment from the audience, Saco said, “Hush!”, and Poe said to Saco, “Please, let me run the meeting.” Saco replied, “Then run the meeting.” Poe responded by gaveling the meeting into a 10-minute recess.
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Saco: “And you’re supposed to be dead already. You’re a waste of air.”
The video and audio typically stop when Poe gavels the meeting into recess, but this time the audio continued for a few seconds, and commissioners can be heard talking in the background. Jo Beaty can be heard saying, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be talking,” and Saco can be heard responding, “And you’re supposed to be dead already. You’re a waste of air.” The audio then abruptly cut off.
When the meeting resumed, Poe said a motion was still on the floor, even though a vote had been taken just before the disruption. He also said the Interim City Attorney had told him that the two items that were being moved to the evening agenda by Hayes-Santos’ motion didn’t actually need to be moved, so Hayes-Santos just asked the commission to vote the previous motion down. The vote against the motion was unanimous.
Hayes-Santos then made a motion to adopt the motion with some modifications suggested by the City Clerk and also to move the consent agenda item that had been requested by Chestnut; Chestnut seconded the motion.
Beaty wanted to speak to the motion, but Poe said she had already spoken to the motion. She said it was a new motion, but Poe proceeded to a vote without public comment; the vote was 5-1, with Saco in dissent and Arreola absent.
Appointment of Interim City Auditor
Following the recent resignation of City Auditor Ginger Bigbie effective January 13, the city commission needed to appoint an Interim City Auditor. Hayes-Santos proposed opening up the applications for a week so the commissioners could do interviews and make the appointment on December 15, but Saco wanted to go ahead and appoint Brecka Anderson, a Senior Auditor, as Bigbie had recommended. Commissioner Harvey Ward and Chestnut both said they had the same recommendation, and Poe agreed, so Saco made it formal by making a motion. The vote to appoint Anderson was unanimous.
City Commissioner Office Spending Policy
Chestnut asked about the expansion of the city commissioners’ travel/training allowance, and Poe said some commissioners might want to use that allowance to host a speaker on some topic or use the funds to provide childcare for meeting attendees, for example, instead of traveling or attending conferences. Poe also clarified to Chestnut that the amount of money per commissioner – $5,000 – was not being increased. Chestnut made a motion that beginning October 1, 2023, the travel and training reimbursement would not be extended to outgoing commissioners prior to a new commission being sworn in. Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker seconded the motion. Hayes-Santos responded that the budget for the commissioner reimbursement was by calendar year and that he would be spending his $5,000 from the previous fiscal year.
“Staff brought it to my attention that some commissioners were using their resources for personal projects outside of City resources, and I do believe that needs to be addressed.” – Commissioner Reina Saco
Saco said she felt that outgoing commissioners should “be able to use the funds while they are in office.” She then continued, “That said, while we are here talking about how commissioners use funds, I had brought up previously… addressing how commissioners utilize City funds on staff time. Staff brought it to my attention that some commissioners were using their resources for personal projects outside of City resources, and I do believe that needs to be addressed.” She asked the Charter Officers to review the City’s policy “on how individual commissioners may utilize staff resources and time for things like videos or producing material for events not related to City purposes.”
Ward disagreed with preventing commissioners from using the allocated funds during a lame-duck period because “we’re expected to be here and do the work of the commission throughout that term. Even if you’re going off the commission, if we say this, then what is to say you can’t back that out to the beginning of the year… and backed up even another year, or as soon as you’re sworn in for your term?… I’m afraid it’s a slippery slope.” He said it was “cleaner” to just say commissioners have all privileges and responsibilities throughout their term.
Poe agreed, saying he would “continue with the job as Mayor until 12:01 p.m. on January 5, then at that point, I will gladly throw the keys to the car to [Ward].” He added that being “fully vested” in the job involves “continu[ing] developing the relationships that help strengthen our city. Some of that includes travel, and some of that includes hosting events here in Gainesville that will add to the public good.”
Chestnut said now that she understood the motion, she wanted to add approval of the recommendation to expand the use of the allowance to her motion, and Poe said he would split the motion and vote on the two parts separately.
During public comment, Beaty accused Poe of manipulating the motion instead of voting on the motion made by Chestnut. She made a public request for documentation of the public purpose of both the upcoming trip and the recent trip to Iraq by Poe and Hayes-Santos and added, “I don’t see any public purpose that could be served by three of you leaving for Israel during the beginning of December… You’re spending our money at a time when the Auditor General doesn’t have our reports from last year that were due June 30… We don’t even know how much money we have… This all looks like personal junkets, and maybe you’ll get good jobs out of this.”
Armando Grundy-Gomez said it is “very concerning” if commissioners are using City resources for personal gain and that if Saco had any examples, she should provide them.
Chestnut said the “innuendo” from Saco needed to be “[aired] out in public… because I think it involves cultural sensitivity of the City of Gainesville staff as well as those people who are elected.” Chestnut said that black commissioners “have to do things differently than those of you who are white.” She says they are often called on to be at events on every weekday, plus Saturdays and Sundays. Chestnut said she was asked to address the Eastern Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which she believed was in April, and that it was a tourist event because people came from all over the state and they wanted someone from the City to bring greetings. She said the event happened at the same time as a City Commission meeting, so she made a video to bring greetings because she could not be there in person.
“For anyone on the staff, we need to have cultural training so you understand what public service means when you have people who do not look like you that serve the community.” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut
She also said that black commissioners are also asked to bring proclamations if anyone of note dies in this community. She continued, “For anyone on the staff, we need to have cultural training so you understand what public service means when you have people who do not look like you that serve the community.”
Saco said she took the concern to the City Auditor because staff brought the concern to her “because all they understood was a church program is happening, and we will be using taxpayer dollars to create a video… I take separation of church and state very seriously.” She said that she did not bring up the concern as an attack: “Please don’t make it one. It is a genuine concern and ask for guidelines to be created so that we can be more transparent with our funds and our public and our staff, whose trust is paramount for the City to function… I made no mention of name or event, but I appreciate Commissioner Chestnut bringing forward that incident and explaining herself.”
City Auditor Ginger Bigbie said she “took offense” at whoever said the City Auditor “had a problem with something.” She said that when Saco brought the concern to her, she took it to the Charter Officer group, where they had a general discussion about whether they needed more guardrails around commissioner use of staff resources, but that never moved forward.
Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said that a member of the communications staff came to her with the concern, but Curry understood the public purpose of the request and explained it to the staff member, who then proceeded to work with Chestnut to make the video, “and that was the end of it, as far as I’m concerned.”
Chestnut said she was disappointed that this has festered since April when staff could have simply expressed that concern directly to her.
The vote to approve expansion of the uses for the commissioner allocation passed unanimously, and the vote for Chestnut’s proposal to cut off the allocation on October 1 for outgoing commissioners failed 1-5, with Chestnut the only one voting for the motion. Arreola was absent for both votes.
The morning session of the meeting adjourned at 11:20, and the commission returned at 1:00 for the afternoon session.
Controversy over advisory board appointment
Arreola was there at the beginning of the afternoon session, but Saco did not appear until after the end of early public comment and general public comment. While the commission was selecting new members for the City Plan Board, Saco objected to the appointment of Thomas Hawkins, who has been a member of that board for some time. Saco said, “I take great issue with the fact that he has either filed or assisted on numerous lawsuits against the City when development or planning projects do not go according to his vote on the Plan Board. I cannot in good conscience support someone who works against the interests of the City, or really the decisions of the City after utilizing City staff’s time to really get more information, make it public record, and then file suit against us.”
Duncan-Walker said Hawkins looked like he wanted to respond to Saco’s allegation, so she asked if she could “yield at least a little bit of time” for him to come forward before she spoke. But Poe said Hawkins had already had an opportunity to “share his thoughts with us about his candidacy.” Hawkins was not appointed; the vote went for Jason Sanchez and Renz Torres.
During a discussion about applicants to the Historic Preservation Board, Curry said she had not had a chance to review the application of Peter McNiece, a City employee, implying that she did not support the appointment. The other applicant, LaDonna Carlyle, said she was new to the city and was looking forward to serving, whether on the board or in other ways. She said she had several certificates in historic preservation and had served as an intern with the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.
Saco said McNiece was “wonderfully qualified in a way that matches with the ordinance that sets up this board, that says that we really should look for folks with experience in engineering and construction management. I believe Mr. McNiece has those qualifications.” She nominated McNiece for the appointment.
Hayes-Santos said he strongly believed that the board should only be for non-City employees. Saco requested that they re-advertise the position because “although Ms. Carlyle seems very qualified on paper, staff has brought some concerns to me… that the certifications are not an accurate portrayal of what they are, that they were a course at best and not necessarily true certification or training. We have, by ordinance, requirements for the people that we want on these boards.” Ward said he would support re-advertising the opening.
Chestnut said she thought it was “pretty serious if an accusation is made about a person presenting fraudulent information in their application.”
Saco responded, “Staff vetted this information and has knowledge of these programs. There is no certification per se that could come out of the Cornell program, and when asked further about the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation, because no certification was listed, the vetting process yielded that no certificate or completion of any training had really been presented, and it was presented in a vague way and pretty misleading.”
Chestnut asked whether Carlyle could address the commission, and Poe agreed. Carlyle said she can provide certificates from Cornell University, and the program she completed with the Department of Interior also provided a certificate. She said that, as she had previously stated, the Advisory Council position was “more of an internship, so there was no documentation with that.”
“I really would like for staff to be very, very careful moving forward because this is actually hurtful for me, that we would be questioning someone’s qualifications from the dais. And… those concerns should have been aired out [by staff] well before it came to us and became some sort of publicly humiliating or embarrassing situation for an applicant. I so deeply apologize.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker
Duncan-Walker apologized to Carlyle: “I really would like for staff to be very, very careful moving forward because this is actually hurtful for me, that we would be questioning someone’s qualifications from the dais. And that vetting process, in my mind, should have happened at the staff level, and those concerns should have been aired out on that side well before it came to us and became some sort of publicly humiliating or embarrassing situation for an applicant. I so deeply apologize.” She suggested putting off the vote until later in the day, giving staff time to check the certifications.
Saco responded, “I understand, and I would have preferred that this not be the situation that we have. But when staff has information, they bring it when they have it, and they happened to get it very recently… maybe an hour or so ago. And they brought it to me because I had asked for information… and this information was volunteered to me… Now, if Ms. Carlyle would like to present that certification, I am more than willing to wait and just move us on with the rest of the agenda. But I will not sit here and say that I am lying or that staff is lying. I am doing my job, and I am relaying the information that staff has given to me… And I will not be shamed or told to be humbled about it because I brought forth a valid concern.”
Chestnut said “the mature thing to do” would be for the staff member to come forward. The staff member who handles advisory boards said she had “concerns about one of the applications because many of the pages attached to the resume were copied and pasted from a federal web page, and I am very familiar with all those programs listed for the certifications. I did not approach Commissioner Saco, she caught me out in the hallway, and I related those concerns right before the meeting.”
Duncan-Walker asked the Clerk about the vetting process, and City Clerk Omichele Gainey said her office does not vet advisory board members or applicants and that if the City Commission wants that, they should outline it in the requirements for the board.
“I am so embarrassed for the City… This has been a day of embarrassment… And I think that if staff… has problems with applications, don’t just share that information with one commissioner. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in today. Because one commissioner took up and went on a terror path.” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut
Looking down to the dais toward Saco, Chestnut said, “I am so embarrassed for the City… This has been a day of embarrassment… Ms. Carlyle, I hope you will allow your application to stand. Please, I know you are insulted. I’m insulted for you… And I think that if staff… has problems with applications, don’t just share that information with one commissioner. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in today. Because one commissioner took up and went on a terror path.”
“Since I have to be insulted today, apparently, what I did was not go off on a terror path. That’s unnecessary, but I understand that with age, a lot of our filter gets lost.” – Commissioner Reina Saco
After Ward said he didn’t support asking staff to vet applications because of the number of boards and number of applicants, Saco said, “Since I have to be insulted today, apparently, what I did was not go off on a terror path. That’s unnecessary, but I understand that with age, a lot of our filter gets lost. What I did was vet candidates for a post. Because that is my job. I did my job.” Chestnut responded off microphone, and Saco leaned in her direction and said, “If I could have some silence and respect while I speak, it would be appreciated.”
Poe interrupted, “All right, look, this escalation is not productive,” while Saco spoke over him: “No, I am speaking, she has insulted me, you have allowed her to run over this whole meeting, and I am trying to speak, and you allow her to insult me.”
“This got way more complicated than it needed to be… Everybody, try to keep the personal side out of this. That is all I’m asking.” – Mayor Lauren Poe
Poe continued, without looking at either of them, “This escalation…” and Saco interjected, “What have I escalated, other than asking for silence while I speak? Please explain.” Poe started again, “This escalation by two of the members of this body is not helpful or productive to our decision-making process. I think we can all speak to the issue..” Saco interjected again, “And I am attempting to.” Poe continued, “… without trying to make it personal. That’s all I’m asking. We have a relatively simple decision to make. This got way more complicated than it needed to be… Everybody, try to keep the personal side out of this. That is all I’m asking.”
Saco said she had only gotten the information about the certifications “ten minutes before the meeting started, and I had asked that if she could, she tell others in the moments she had, ideally in person, so as to not create a written record. But since I apparently don’t know what I’m doing, don’t know how to do my job, and only want to insult and embarrass the commission, because apparently that’s what I do here… I guess none of that matters. So go ahead, do what you want. Attack staff while you’re at it, so more of them try to quit.”
“At the end of this meeting today, this commission must have a discussion. Because there is some behavior that we cannot tolerate. We can’t tolerate it up here, and the public certainly should not have to tolerate this.” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut
Chestnut said, “At the end of this meeting today, this commission must have a discussion. Because there is some behavior that we cannot tolerate. We can’t tolerate it up here, and the public certainly should not have to tolerate this.”
Carlyle then said that she wanted to withdraw her application: “This is extremely embarrassing.” By that time, she was in tears. She later reconsidered and decided to keep her application active.
Poe split the motion, and the appointment of Bridgette Murphy (the only applicant) to the student seat passed unanimously. The motion for the appointment of McNiece failed, 3-4, with Arreola, Ward, and Saco in favor of the motion.
Hayes-Santos made a motion to reconsider the appointment at the December 1 meeting and also ask staff to bring back a policy stating that employees will not serve on advisory boards except the pension boards. That motion passed unanimously. Right after the vote, both Arreola and Saco got up and walked out.
Commissioners vote themselves a raise
This item, brought forward by Hayes-Santos, advocated for using the state population-based formula that is currently used for county commissioners, with a salary for the mayor that is 25% higher to compensate for the increased workload. Hayes-Santos said the city has grown quite a bit since salaries were set in 2000 and that the workload makes it difficult for commissioners to hold other jobs. He added, “We should have a more professional commission, and I think by paying a full salary, I think we can get that, and I think our city will do better.” Arreola returned at that point, but Saco never returned.
Ward said he would vote against it “because it would affect me, so I’m taking myself out of that.” He said there are weeks when the commission has 20 hours’ worth of meetings, and commissioners also need to read the backup and engage with the public. “This is not part-time.” He added that many elected positions, except for county commissioners, who “are in pretty good shape,” do not pay adequately.
“I’ve never heard a single person complain about how much county commissioners get paid, even though they do about half—they have about half the number of responsibilities that we have.” – Mayor Lauren Poe
Poe said the issue needs a broader discussion. He pointed out that he had resigned from his teaching job because of the demands of being mayor, and “maybe they’re out there, but I’ve never heard a single person complain about how much county commissioners get paid, even though they do about half—they have about half the number of responsibilities that we have.” He said he viewed the discussion as “a beginning of that conversation.”
Hayes-Santos brought up the 2020 City Charter Review Commission, which considered a pay increase for city commissioners but ultimately decided not to put it on the ballot. He added, “If we don’t do it now, it won’t get done… Now is the opportunity if there are enough votes to do it.” He made a motion to ask staff to draft an ordinance to come back for first reading on December 1 and second reading on December 15, with the change becoming effective on October 1, 2023. Arreola seconded the motion.
Arreola said people have to be either “independently wealthy or you have to be so recklessly in love with public service that you’re willing to endanger your own financial situation to do it… If we don’t compensate correctly, we just won’t keep up.”
City commissioners currently make $37,085 per year, with the mayor making $47,199. County commissioners make $89,720. The new city commission salaries would be lower than the county commission salaries because the formula is based on population.
Chestnut said that since she’s retired, she doesn’t need the salary, but “this pay creates an elitist system. Only people who are, like myself, retired, or independently wealthy, can really serve, because this is not a part-time job. This is a full-time job. Full-time plus.” She said that she had been on the Charter Review Commission, and they had determined that the city commission has the power to set their own salaries, so they didn’t think there was a need to change the charter. She added, “I think it’s time to move forward with this, and we’re the only ones who can do it.”
During public comment on the motion, Jo Beaty said, “You have made this job much more. You all quit your regular jobs. You started this committee and that committee and subcommittees. We’re paying charters an inordinate amount of money. You’ve got—I used to have a number, I think it’s over 120 people making over $100,000… You have increased the number of meetings… This is not a job… This is supposed to be public service. It is supposed to be a part-time position.”
Robert Mounts said the best way to ensure that commissioners are independent of influences like developers or special interests is to pay them a proper wage. John Barrow, who said he made $24,000 as a commissioner in 2002, said it was “clearly time to have this discussion again… I think commissioners do need to be compensated accordingly.”
Following public comment, Poe said, “I try to always keep an open mind, and some comments by my colleagues, as well as from folks out there joining us today, have convinced me. And because I will not be a beneficiary of this change, I do it with a clean conscience.”
The vote was 5-1, with Ward in dissent and Saco absent.
Special Meeting scheduled during a recess that stretched out to almost 30 minutes
Poe then announced a brief recess, which was supposed to be about 10 minutes but stretched to almost 30 minutes. When they returned, Saco was still not on the dais, and Hayes-Santos immediately made a motion to continue all items remaining on the agenda to a November 29 special meeting except two that needed to be heard that day. They returned at 5:00 to pass those two items (a resolution to support acquisition of radios from Motorola Solutions and a budget amendment). Hayes-Santos’ motion passed unanimously.
The agenda items that were continued to the November 29 meeting included a controversial land use amendment and rezoning for the Weyerhaeuser property on SR 121. The first reading of that item on October 6 passed 4-3, with Saco voting in the majority. The city commission does not need all seven members to continue a meeting; four members constitute a quorum.
Other items that were continued were several smaller land use items and the second readings of an ordinance amending the “City of Gainesville Sexual Offender and Sexual Predator Ordinance” and a Land Development Code amendment to eliminate parking minimums and introduce language for structured parking requirements and mid-street parking for loading and unloading in urban zoning districts. The first reading of the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance was also continued to the Special Meeting, which will be held at 1:00 p.m.
Updated at 10:25 a.m. with current salary information from Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos
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