Seeking to rein in powers granted Apalachicola City Manager Ron Nalley by the previous administration, a sharply divided city commission took the first step Tuesday night towards returning to the form of governance in place prior to his hiring.
By a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Brenda Ash and Anita Grove strongly opposed both to the intent and the implications of the motion, the three newly elected members of the commission, Despina George, Adriane Elliot and Mayor Kevin Begos voted to have City Attorney Kristy Banks review the terms of Nalley’s contract, as well as the relevant sections found in the city charter, to determine the feasibility of changing Nalley’s job description from city manager to city administrator.
The vote was in keeping with Begos’ recommendation that came at the outset of the discussion, which he had placed on the agenda as one of the last items of business. The audience was standing room only, no doubt due to the advance notice that Nalley’s status was to be taken up at the meeting.
Even before the matter was taken up, Ash signaled her opposition in the commissioner comments that mark the opening of the meetings.
"Like him or not, his (Nalley’s) knowledge has set this city on a path that has benefited this city as a whole," she said, adding that scaling back his powers would be "like opening the vault door for the bank robber.
"By replacing him with a manager with no government experience is not conducive (to good government)," Ash said. "A strong mayor (form of government) opens the door to corruption and special interest groups.
"The advantages (of a city manager) far exceed the disadvantages," she said, adding the move could trigger the additional cost of paying for a severance package.
Ash’s comments prompted Begos to ask that she wait until the agenda item to address the matter, but she insisted, and the mayor granted her right to continue at that time.
Following lengthy discussions on matters ranging from the future of Main Street’s partnership with the city, to the possibility of reinstating the Community Redevelopment Agency after it was suspended earlier this year, to selling off city properties (all of which will be addressed in next week’s Times), the more than three-hour meeting took up the city manager.
"I know there’s passionate feelings in the community," Begos said. "I put it on the agenda simply for that reason. Ron and I have had several conversations; I wanted to update the public and the board on what our conversations have been."
In outlining the issue, the mayor focused on the change in governance that his predecessor, Van Johnson, had pushed through when the city manager position was instituted in summer 2018.
"The city manager is one form of government listed under the 1947 charter. We actually changed the form of government," Begos said. "This was not some new revision; this was 70-year-old language.
"In reviewing this, I found almost no one was aware we actually changed the form of government. Very few people had been aware," he said. "It’s not just a question of being a good administrator, there’s actually different statutory language."
Begos said among changes the hiring took away was commissioners’ power to hire and fire, or for the mayor to directly oversee city personnel.
"People are surprised the police chief reports to Ron," said Begos. "In fact under this different form of government, we’re in a different situation.
"This has nothing to do with Ron. These are big issues that have nothing to do with him," he said. "It would have been better if Mayor Johnson had given a more detailed explanation of that to the city. That explanation was not made."
Begos said following Hurricane Michael, Nalley eliminated overtime, and required all additional hours worked in a week be covered by comp time.
"Clearly there have been abuses here," the mayor conceded. "Ron still doesn’t want to give overtime to our workers.
"That’s the reality of this change. Under our change of government I have no power to do that," he said.
Begos said during discussions with Nalley, he asked whether he would be willing to accept, with no change in pay, a switch to a city administrator post, with "a slight change in powers.
"Those of us who have been here for decades know that Betty (Taylor-Webb) kind of ran the city. It’s not as if the city administrator is a watered-down position," the mayor said. "Ron told me he wasn’t very excited (about it)."
Grove, a member of the search committee that recommended Nalley from a field of 28 applicants, said the city made a deliberate decision to empower the new city manager position.
"We did decide consciously," she said. "And Ron rose to the top."
Grove also argued on behalf of Nalley’s performance over the past 14 months. "We have a professional man who has a college degree. He knows how to deal with personnel issues," she said. "He’s put us on a plan."
Grove said she believes it is essential to have a city manager who can handle the day-to-day details of running a city.
"I feel like we’re going backwards," she said. "This (hiring) wasn’t done in secret; it was a very public process. We interviewed six people; the other people wanted way more money. He earns less than Betty (Webb) and Lee (Mathes) earned. I think we got a bargain, folks.
"The three of you are very new. You need to switch into governing mode," Grove said. "We need to move forward, we have so many issues that need to be addressed
Begos addressed his colleague by pointing to "a pretty sharp divide" that had been resolved by the recent city election.
"In every single case the candidate who won wanted to rein in the city manager, that’s where we are," he said. "I believe we have three new commissioner members who have concerns."
He said he was seeking a compromise between those who support the status quo and those who want Nalley fired.
"I don’t think we should make a rash decision tonight," Begos said. "I do have real concerns. The majority of people I talked to are complaining about it."
George, whose motion included a provision that the mayor continue to discuss the matter with Nalley, said "the results of the election show people want change. Most people say the city manager has too much authority. We have a mandate to make changes."
She also noted there were anomalies when Nalley was hired, such as not having his salary set by city ordinance, as required by the city charter.
Ash returned to her original argument in favor of the city manager and stressed his 26 years of experience and his accomplishments over the past year.
"Let’s not take it personally. Let’s look at it for the overall benefit of the city, and not micromanage what goes on in City Hall. He has empowered city staff to be able to do the things that need to be done," she said. "Because you don’t like his answers, that’s asinine. The city is a business and a city that is being managed and run by someone who is doing a bang-up job. He’s doing a fantastic job."
Commissioner Adriane Elliott said she’s received more telephone calls regarding this issue than any other. "It’s our job to reflect the will of our people," she said. "We have to compromise, so we don’t lose Ron’s extensive knowledge."
Grove pressed that Nalley has done what he’s been asked to do. "He needs to have that power; he’s looking at it from a 30,000-foot level," she said. "I think the new commissioners need to understand what city staff does.
"We’re not there all day long, we don’t have the expertise, we don’t want to intervene on these problems," Grove said.
Begos said that "Ron helped us tremendously, he came into a sinking ship" but said many people have pressed him to make a change, telling the new mayor "we’ve tried this out for a year and we’re not entirely happy with it.
"I’ve never suggested I can take Ron’s place by myself," he said. "With any job there’s no one person that’s vital to any city."
Several people rose to speak, many on Nalley’s behalf, such as John Alber, who said he had spoken with a North Carolina mayor who praised Nalley’s work when he was city manager,. "She told hiring Ron was the best decision they ever made," Alber said. "He found money where nobody could."
Others, like Rose Griffin, said commissioners need to take back the power that the community wishes them to have. "This is outrageous, patting people on the back like they’re the new Jesus," she said. "If he came to this town to help, the title wouldn’t make no difference."
Some, like Tom Morgan, who served on the selection committee, argued that curtailing Nalley’s power would be a step backwards. "He has the experience to get us on a sound financial footing," he said.
Other, like Bobby Miller, said the position has too much power. "As far as the finances, if he’s here to fix the finances, let’s say that, but people of this city by a majority elected three of you people here to do the will of the people," he said.
"We need a good financial person in the community, but you don’t take your eggs and put them in all in one basket," Miller said.
Many, like Bonnie Davis, Jim Brown and Edward Michaels, cautioned about reversing the gains made under Nalley.
"To go back …invites incompetence, invites mismanagement and invites favoritism," Davis said.
"Put this decision off," said Michaels. "To visit it now right after an election would be a sad moment."