(By Barney Bishop) When it formed in Tallahassee two and a half years ago, Citizens for Responsible Spending’s sole goal was to urge Tallahassee city commissioners to cut expenses before raising property taxes and to shed sunshine on a city budget process that was anything but transparent.
Unfortunately, since then, the state of Tallahassee city government has gone from bad to worse.
So Thursday, CRS, a city-based group of concerned business people hosted a press conference to try to shame the Tallahassee City Commission into taking three actions desperately needed to help the city move forward, given an ongoing corruption investigation by the FBI.
The FBI issued subpoenas to several “insider” business leaders, their lobbyists, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), one city commissioner, his aide and the CEO of the Downtown Improvement Authority, among others.
Since then, we’ve learned that federal agents posing as business people interested in development projects worked undercover for up to perhaps two years to get the goods on everyone involved.
With that background, Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez has been outed for recently getting a $5,000 discount on his daughter’s wedding at a restaurant developed with city dollars. The person offering the discount eventually got a job working at the city.
Then just recently, Mr. Fernandez was caught in a lie. Queried by the Tallahassee Democrat about potential texts between him and Mayor Andrew Gillum’s reelection campaign treasurer and lobbyist Adam Corey, in which Mr. Fernandez solicited four football tickets in an FSU skybox that would be valued at a total of about $2,000, he denied he had ever done so.
When the Tallahassee Democrat reporter inquired with Mr. Fernandez, he said he’d never solicited any football tickets. So, the newspaper made a Freedom of Information request for the texts from Mr. Fernandez’s cell phone, and the response was … there were no texts. But in fact, the newspaper and the Florida Commission on Ethics had already seen copies of the texts in which Mr. Fernandez had solicited the tickets and had them delivered to his City Hall office by the lobbyist.
Mr. Fernandez then deleted the texts in violation of Florida law, which clearly says any city business conducted in any manner must be preserved always. Thus, Mr. Fernandez lied to the public about the solicitation, then he lied again regarding turning over the text messages, and then he violated the law by deleting the texts.
Suffice to say, Mr. Fernandez was caught red-handed.
Surely, the Tallahassee City Commission would fire Mr. Fernandez for cause, for lying to the public and then violating the law by destroying, so he thought, any official record of the communications.
You’d be wrong.
Instead of acting immediately to show no one is above the law and dismissing the city manager, the city commissioners twiddled their thumbs until Mr. Fernandez decided to take a voluntary leave, with pay.
That means city taxpayers are paying Mr. Fernandez’s $20,000-per-month salary while he does nothing but wait.
The City Commission, which has in the meantime become the butt of jokes, can’t seem to even pass a motion to put him on leave without pay, much less fire him for violating the law.
Why has this happened?
We believe it’s because a cabal has been created where the city commissioners who appoint the city manager, city attorney, and clerk/treasurer protect the senior staff while the senior staff protects the elected officials. It’s really a convenient “protection” racket.
Meanwhile, new allegations of misconduct seem to come out every week.
CRS has called for the firing of Mr. Fernandez, and asked the city commissioners to conduct a national search for his replacement. We can’t afford to promote from within because we don’t know how deep the corrupt culture is in City Hall.
The city attorney has announced his retirement and even had the gall to recommend himself to oversee the process of selecting his replacement, and he recommended, to no one’s surprise, his deputy. Likewise, CRS asked for a state, and if necessary, a national search for a new city attorney who would answer to the citizens, not to the city commissioners who would appoint him or her.
Finally, the citizens of Tallahassee voted in an “Independent” Ethics Board a few years ago, and the city commissioners have been reluctant to give them any authority. When the Ethics Board recently made some suggestions to raise the standard of conduct to what the state uses across the street from City Hall, the commissioners refused to do so.
If this were a movie plot, we would classify it a fantasy film; unfortunately it’s pure reality.
We predict the city commissioners will continue to dilly-dally on these important issues and take no action to rectify the city’s problems until they’re forced to.
And with it goes the reputation of our city. Economic development is almost at a standstill.
Everyone is waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop — indictments.
But good citizens and business people who value truth, integrity and morals know that we can’t allow this to continue until indictments are issued.
Trust must be restored to City Hall now. We deserve elected officials who will put the citizens’ interests before their own interests.
Public service should be a calling, not a place where money is passed around under the table in dirty deals that benefit themselves and certain others.
Enough is enough! Turning out City Manager Rick Fernandez now would be a real start.
Barney Bishop III is the founder and chair of Citizens for Responsible Spending. He can be reached at [email protected].