PAHOKEE — City Manager Chandler Williamson retained his job — for now — with a 3-2 vote by city commissioners in a special meeting Tuesday, June 30. It was called to consider the third Palm Beach County Inspector General’s Office (OIG) report in less than two years finding that Williamson committed repeated violations of city ordinances and, possibly, state law, through financial and managerial misdeeds.
After the meeting opened with the reading of about 46 minutes’ worth of citizens’ comments into the record (the vast majority of which called for Williamson’s firing), Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr. moved directly to the main topic, “the OIG Report 6/24/2020, Investigative Report 2019-0005.” He highlighted the report without going into detail since it has been widely distributed, and asked the city attorney if she had anything to add. “No, sir, I don’t,” she said. Then he asked Williamson, while noting he had repaid the $5,800-plus that the OIG report declares he wrongly charged to a city purchase debit card, for any remarks.
“I don’t really have too many comments. We know that this review is being reviewed a little further, so I can’t take any questions on that, but … thank you for the opportunity for providing this report. The IG provided a review and some opinions on practices and documentation. I appreciate that report and that review, bringing to our attention how we can improve our documentation as it pertains to our operations. It’s always an opportunity for a teaching moment, and to understand how to do things better. I’ve taken advantage of that and accepted those recommendations and we moved swiftly to address those recommendations. We provided a response to the IG that we thought was adequate.” He added that he would learn new best practices and bring them back to the commission for review.
Mayor Babb said, “Again, commissioners, this is intended to be an ongoing investigation. Mainly, the State Attorney’s Office and the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics will make some type of ruling whether there is some violation in their particular expertise, so that’s something we’ll want to consider again.”
He said it was up to the commission whether “we need to move forward with anything tonight.”
Then he stated his reason for calling the meeting was to hear public comments about the IG report “and to let the public know that we’re not sweeping anything under the rug.”
He called for commissioner comments, one by one, starting with Vice Mayor Clara Murvin.
“I don’t have any comments,” she said flatly.
Commissioner Benny L. Everett III noted that the report said the OIG referred their findings to the state and the county Commission on Ethics. “I think that … we should wait on the conclusion of those findings so that we can make a solid decision once and for all regarding the city manager,” he stated.
Commissioner Regina Bohlen said that after reading the report, “I’m appalled. It’s very evident, I believe, that the city manager took the credit card and used it inappropriately on numerous occasions, over and over. He states in this that he pulled out the wrong credit card. I can’t imagine anybody could pull out the wrong credit card over and over.
“He made no effort … to repay that or straighten that out or file … paperwork that says ‘This was a mistake’ until this report came out.”
She noted that he was still disputing the charges and saying he shouldn’t have to pay the whole thing (another nearly $16,000 in charges were deemed questionable in the OIG report).
Bohlen said: “That’s not acceptable on any level. This is so wrong. This is just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion, as to his opinion of the city that we are his personal piggy bank, that he can do whatever he wants without answering to anyone until he gets caught. And then he says: ‘I agree. I’m sorry. Here’s my check. Please make it go away.’
“Well, I don’t think that’s what this city should do. I don’t think that’s what the citizens of this city want. I don’t think that’s we were elected to do. We were elected to run this city, and we have given too much entirely too much power to him. It’s time to stand up and say, ‘No more,’ and to do something about it.”
She then made her motion “that we terminate City Manager Williamson with cause this evening.”
Mayor Babb waited a few moments before asking, “Do we have a second for discussion?”
Everett said, “I thought you were hearing comments from all commissioners.”
The mayor replied that he wanted to “but in the middle of that … a motion was put on the floor,” and he wanted Commissioner Felisia Hill to comment. He asked Bohlen to temporarily withdraw her motion, and she did.
Commissioner Hill, asked for her comments, said, “I’m very disappointed in the report; however, I wanted to hold off and see exactly what it is they’re saying from the state attorney’s office. I don’t like it at all what I see, I just … want more time so that we can go over this some more.”
Bohlen reinstated her motion.
“Second,” Everett called out.
Mayor Babb called for questions. Everett asked to have a discussion. “Like Commissioner Hill stated, I, too, am disappointed, and as Commissioner Bohlen stated, I am very disappointed with the state of affairs we are faced with. … My position is to wait until those findings (from the state and county attorneys and ethics officers) are in to make a final determination. This is in no way an attempt for us to cover up any wrongdoing. I personally have not benefited in any way, shape or form from Mr. Williamson … and I feel that it behooves us to wait.” He added, however, that some form of disciplinary action needs to take place.
After Murvin and Hill declined to participate in the discussion, Bohlen had a few more remarks; then as the mayor was about to call for a vote, City Attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks noted that Bohlen’s motion was not worded exactly in keeping with the city charter’s rules as to how a city manager is to be terminated.
Norris-Weeks noted that Williamson is a “charter officer” under the city code, along with the city clerk, and that there is a special procedure for terminating or disciplining them, involving a preliminary resolution stating reasons for the removal that could suspend the officer with pay — and that the officer can request and must accept a public hearing or file a written response within a certain time, after which the resolution would become final and the officer would be fired.
“I wanted to caution you that there is a process that’s in your charter that Mr. Williamson could later come back and say he wasn’t afforded the process that’s in your charter, which does not appear to be referenced in his contract,” she explained.
Mayor Babb called for a roll call, then later “voted “aye” on Commissioner Regina Bohlen’s motion to fire the city manager, after it was clear the motion would fail due to “no” votes cast by Commissioners Everett and Hill and Vice Mayor Clara Murvin.
Ms. Bohlen later said, “I appreciate that everyone voted tonight. I would like to say to the city attorney that, in the future, if there’s something you feel we should know about the charter and how we’re doing business, I would prefer to have that told to me up front so that when I make a motion, it would be a correct motion.”