PAHOKEE – The Pahokee City Commission discussed a new contract for City Manager Chandler Williamson at their Jan. 31 meeting for about two hours before deciding they should table the contract discussion until after they review the county manager’s evaluation.
With the public excluded from the chamber, the meeting began with a lengthy public comment meeting with some members of the public commenting by phone and written comments provided by others read into the record.
One commenter complained that the mayor and city manager do not help at food distribution and do not put food distribution events on the city signs.
Several public comments called for the commission to fire the city manager, noting the city manager has three negative IG reports. They also claimed a certified clerk who lives in Pahokee was not given an interview for the city clerk position. The commenters suggested the city retain acting city clerk and allow her to manage the upcoming city election.
A stack of public comments read into the record had a common theme, asking the commissioners not to renew the contract of the city manager and to not hire the only city clerk candidate who was interviewed. Many of the letters began with a request that the comment be read in its entirety, regardless of similarities to other comments.
After about 30 minutes of reading similar (sometimes identical) comments, the mayor asked the clerk to read just the names of those who submitted similar comments.
In addition, the clerk read three comments submitted for the Jan. 19 meeting. That meeting was canceled because the commission did not have a quorum.
Mayor Keith Babb said the lack of a quorum was not the only reason the meeting was canceled. He claimed “recklessness displayed by a few citizens was appalling and was a threat to officials trying to conduct official business.”
The mayor said four individuals came into the chamber in violation of a public order restricting access to the meeting room.
“Many commissions do not allow at this time public access to meetings,” he said.
These individuals were reported to Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and “we requested additional protection for our own safety,” he continued.
“There wasn’t any violence but there was a threat that possible violence would occur,” said the mayor. “That was one of the reasons our meeting was canceled in addition to not having a quorum.
“As mayor I would have waited a little longer to see if additional commissioners would show up.”
Babb said the public has access to the meetings online.
“We talk about this community not being divided. Every one of former president Trump supporters say the same thing. The community, the city, the country is not divided, it’s not a racial issue,” he said. “This community is divided. Our city is divided. Commissioners are attacked daily. Our city staff is attacked daily.
“We need all of our residents along with our city commission, along with our city staff to work together to unite this community to move forward before we will ever move forward,” he said.
“The process of the city manager is being conducted in an open forum. There is no hidden agenda. There is no favoritism, just an open forum and an open dialog that is required by law,” Babb continued. “The public has access to that through the live streaming of our meeting.
“We talk about the city clerk. We do have one that actually lived in Pahokee that didn’t complete an application ... We had no obligation to reach out to that individual, but we did.
“Several have mentioned the fact that we shouldn’t hired a non-certified city clerk,” the mayor continued. He said over the years the majority of the clerks hired for the City of Pahokee were not certified when they were hired.
“The city is much better off in the last three and a half or four years than it was in the past 20 and if you don’t know that, you haven’t been paying attention,” claimed City Manager Chandler Williamson.
“Are we where we should be? Of course not,” he added.
He said they can rapidly change the city if they focus on what is important.
“My focus is to one, bring to you in the next two weeks the winning bid for Barfield Highway, a highway that has not been repaired in 30 years. We will start construction, hopefully by the first week in March. That’s a $4.5 million award given to the City of Pahokee."
He said they will schedule meetings in February to explain that in detail to the residents of that corridor.
He said the gymnasium which has been closed for about 12 or 13 years, will soon have a ribbon cutting to reopen thanks to a $3 million project in partnership with Palm Beach County.
“East Lake Village is a project that we are in the scope of work,” he continued. They hope to get that project started soon.
About $1 million was awarded for McClure Road, he said. Like Barfield Highway, that road has also been long neglected.
“I am proud of what we did in 2020 and what we have done here,” said city manager.
“We hired a park ranger for the City of Pahokee, for all parks and the marina including the campground,” he said. The park ranger will have an after hours phone number.
The mayor asked why the entrance gate to the marina has been broken. The gate is not broken, Williamson explained. He said it can be opened and closed by staff. Problems have arisen when campers arrive after hours, when they did not have staff on the weekends and no one was tending the gate. That problem was resolved by hiring the park manager, he added. He said they are also programming remote control devices for the gate which campers will be given when they check in so they can come and go.
The main agenda item for the meeting was the city manager’s contract. The mayor said they need to go through each line of the contract with City Attorney Burnadette Norris Weeks. He said it will probably take more than one meeting to go through the whole contract.
The mayor said there should be a cap on how many hours of vacation time will be paid out for the county manager.
Commissioner Benny L. Everett asked if they could add provisions in the contract to suspend or discipline a city manager. A lot of people are calling for us to “fire the city manager,” he continued, but there should be options short of firing an employee.
The city attorney said issues with the city manager can be dealt with in the evaluation process.
“I don’t understand why if you have a problem with someone you would wait a full year,” said Commissioner Regina Bohlen, noting the evaluation process is only done once a year.
The attorney said she could add provisions to the contract if the county manager agrees to it and the contract follows the city charter.
“My concern, the way the contract reads, there is nothing to do except move forward or terminate,” said Everett. He said the commission had previously agreed to wait until the state attorney’s ruling about the third IG report before making any decisions about the manager.
“We can’t wait indefinitely on the state attorney’s office or the ethics commission,” said the mayor. “Those determinations may never come.
“If it was a regular employee regardless of whether they were charged or not, is what being cited in the IG report enough to terminate a regular employee?” he asked. “If you believe a regular employee would be terminated based on those actions, then the city manager should be terminated.
“At some point, we need to make that decision.”
The mayor said they have to deal with the contract because it is before the commission.
Commissioner Bohlen said the manager currently has 32 weeks in accrured vacation and sick time. “Do we know what this will cost us?” she asked. “Every place I ever worked, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” she said. “Apparently we haven’t capped anything and that is one of the concerns that this thing just keeps growing on us.”
The mayor said the manager’s evaluation was not on the agenda, but the commission could go over the manager’s evaluation publicly at the next meeting.