No first among equals

Seven bosses, six employees and gridlock.

We’ve seen this movie before.

A city manager whose job security hangs on a thin 4-3 commission margin.

The commissioners who want him gone growing increasingly vocal in their discontent.

City hall insiders accusing him of fostering a “toxic” workplace.

The last time we saw this movie was in 2018, when Anthony Lyons resigned rather than submit to a trail by public hearing because…well, city employees were unhappy.

Now it’s Lee Feldman who is dangling by a slender thread.

The commission narrowly voted to keep Feldman on last November after a handful of city employees filed discrimination complaints against him. But the resignation of Office of Equity director Teneeshia Marshall – who said she quit because she felt disrespected and hampered in her job – has renewed calls for another reckoning on Feldman’s job fitness.

“She is resigning because she feels pushed out,” said Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker. “We have charter officers reporting that their work environment is toxic and hostile, and citing specifically one charter officer…the city manager.”

It’s clear from commission comments that Duncan-Walker’s opinion is also shared by David Arreola and Gail Johnson.

If Feldman quits under the pressure, or is fired, the commission will need a third city manager in the space of three years.

If so, maybe they should just let the other five charter officers pick a replacement.

Listen, it may be that the last two managers were, simply, bad hires. It happens.

Still, Lyons enjoyed considerable success as the city’s CRA director before his stormy tenure as manager. And Feldman is a seasoned professional who has worked for several municipalities, seemingly without the turmoil that’s plagued him here.

So it’s fair to ask: Is the problem two city managers who couldn’t manage? Or have internal factors made it impossible for them to manage?

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe seemed to suggest the latter when he said “this is a very difficult system of government in which to work. It’s almost set up to not work, with seven bosses of six administrators.”

And there’s the rub.

No “boss,” no commissioner, not even the mayor, can tell any of Gainesville’s six charter officers how to do their jobs. That needs a majority vote.

Add to that the fact that the city’s attorney, clerk, utility director, equity officer, auditor and manager all operate independently of each other by virtue of their charter status, and it’s a wonder anyone can be held accountable for anything.

Gainesville has, in effect, six city managers. And there is no such thing as a first among equals.

And then there’s this: The commission has lined up a full slate of meaty policy issues – homelessness, affordable housing, zoning reform, broadband internet access, transit and traffic safety improvements and more.

This is very much an activist commission, and his defenders suggest that Feldman’s real offense is his determination to carry out the commission majority’s will no matter whose bureaucratic cheese gets moved.

It’s not been unheard of for recalcitrant staffers to find ways to stall and delay until new elections bring new commissioners and new priorities. We’ve seen that movie before too.

Heck, Russ Blackburn was city manager for 10 years. He was a nice guy and never moved anyone’s cheese.

Lyons was trying to reorganize city government to be more “citizen-centered” when complaints started to pile up against him. Feldman barely had time to unpack before his management style set off alarms.

No question, change agents are scary.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at Email him at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s