Breaking the code

When he was Speaker of the Florida House, Ralph Haben had a favorite phrase he trotted out when someone finally came out and said something that everybody else wanted to tip toe around.

“You broke the code,” he’d say.

On Monday, at a special Gainesville City Commission meeting, Commissioner Reina Saco broke the code.

This after a public comment session during which speaker after speaker accused City Manager Lee Feldman of racism and sexism and pandering to greedy developers.

After one speaker accused Feldman of “brutalizing women,” Saco finally had enough.

“The accusations that our manager has brutalized women is baseless. He has not been charged with brutalizing any person, let alone the women who worked under him.”

And then she broke the code.

“I am a little disgusted about the continued tinge of anti-semitism that comes” with such accusations.

Taking note of one complaint about Feldman’s “cabal,” Saco said such references “reek of anti-semitism.”

The word cabal originates from the Hebrew “kabbalah.” And it is a fact that Jews have for centuries been persecuted for allegedly being involved in secret groups seeking to dominate the economic or political order.

“This is not the first manager we have tried to run out with those accusations,” Saco continued. “I do not want accusations taken as fact without base or merit.”

Somebody had to finally say it.

Whatever you want to think about Feldman’s tenure as manager, the man never had a honeymoon at City Hall. Within days of moving into his office, employees were filing complaints accusing him of discrimination, retaliation, intimidation and more. And the heat has never let up.

This against an administrator who has earned a national reputation for being an authority on municipal governance. And who has enjoyed a long career working for several Florida cities…somehow without having acquired a reputation for being a…well… a brutalizer.

And here’s the thing, Gainesville.

I have been writing about city government since the 1970s. And I do not recall another manager who has had his reputation so relentlessly assaulted by unhappy employees, commissioners and the scolds who dominate commission public comment periods.

Not W.D. Higginbotham. Not Paul White. Not Wayne Bowers. Not Russ Blackburn.

Oh, one other city manager did attract similar heat and scrutiny. That was Anthony Lyons, Feldman’s immediate predecessor.

Like Feldman, Lyons also got bogged down by internal complaints and external criticisms…this while trying to bring about a fundamental reorganization of city government. He finally resigned after a particularly contentious meeting during which commissioners decided to subject Lyons to a job performance review via public hearing.

Step right up, folks, and take your best shot at the guy on the dunking platform.

Their management styles couldn’t have been more different. Their professional backgrounds not at all alike.

Seemingly their only commonality is their Jewish faith.

It is the rare commission meeting in which Feldman isn’t publicly accused of bad faith actions. One recent critic matter of factly referred to Feldman’s record of “dirty deals” before the mayor cut him off.

Shades of Shylock.

If only discrimination were as simple as black and white.

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