The Gainesville City Commission halted a $250,000 search process for its charter officers on Thursday and voted 6-1 to hire four of its five interim charter officers as permanent.
The move, which wasn’t listed as a discussion item on the agenda, came two weeks after a vote to open all five positions for applicants. Mayor Harvey Ward will now negotiate with the interim officers for a permanent contract.
Commissioner Casey Willits dissented against the other six. He called the vote abrupt and said he had prepared to evaluate each charter position through the approved search process.
A motion failed at the Jan. 5 meeting to delay a decision to Feb. 16 in order to allow the three new commissioners to connect with the interim officers.
Because the commission moved forward with a search process, Willits said he hasn’t held one-on-one conversations to decide.
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker brought the item up during commissioner comment at the end of the afternoon session. Initially, her motion only included Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry.
She said Curry had a spirit of ingenuity and excellence and has helped stabilize city government. Hiring her as a permanent charter would only increase that stability, Duncan-Walker said.
“She has been able to confront not just challenge but opposition,” Duncan-Walker said.
Commissioner Reina Saco asked that the motion include the other three interim officers who have served for more than a year—Interim GRU General Manger Tony Cunningham, Interim City Attorney Daniel Nee and Interim Director of Equity and Inclusion Zeriah Folston.
Saco wanted to hire Cunningham at the Jan. 5 meeting, but her motion failed for a lack of a second. She was also the lone dissent against the motion to hire the search firm at the earlier meeting.
On Jan. 6, Mayor Harvey Ward also said he wished the vote had differed instead of just hiring the search firm.
“Candidly, I’m disappointed that we did not take action to make some charter officers permanent yesterday,” Ward said in a meeting with media. “I think that is necessary.”
He agreed with Duncan-Walker that removing the interim title would improve stability and address the city’s high turnover rate. Ward added that if the city doesn’t trust one of the interims to become a permanent charter officer, that officer probably shouldn’t even sit in the interim role.
“I believe this gets us to a point where we can take seriously the idea of stability in our workforce, morale in our workforce,” Ward said.
Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he had doubted the Jan. 5 decision as well. Eastman made the initial motion to delay the vote and allow the new commissioners time to work with the officers and then decide.
The approved search process would last for more than six months, consuming the first year in office with dozens of hours of interviews, and Eastman said any new charters hired through the process would bring more change to a city trying to stabilize.
Interim City Auditor Brecka Anderson has been with the city for more than a decade, but she only stepped into the interim role this week after former auditor Ginger Bigbie left the position as of Jan. 13.
Commissioners expressed support for Anderson but said they would wait a few months before deciding to hire her full time or pursue other options. The commission said they don’t want to wait more than a year as with the other four positions.
Mainstreet Daily News interviewed Curry when she entered the position in 2021. You can find that story here.
Curry, Nee, Folston and Anderson all entered their positions following the resignation of the previous officers. Cunningham took over after the city commission fired former general manager Ed Bielarski in January 2022.
The following are profiles of the charter officers sent by the city of Gainesville.
- Gainesville City Manager Cynthia W. Curry: Curry brings more than 35 years of experience as a leader, strategic communicator and manager. As city manager, she oversees all general government programs and services; is responsible for enforcement of all city laws, ordinances and policies; acts as purchasing agent for the city; prepares the city’s budget and performs other duties as assigned by the Gainesville City Commission.
- GRU General Manager Anthony Cunningham: Cunningham is a professional engineer with more than 26 years of experience in the utility and engineering industry, and has worked at GRU for more than 20 years. As general manager of utilities, Cunningham directs all GRU activities and advises the c commission with respect to all matters concerning GRU. He has exclusive management jurisdiction and control over all operating, administrative and financial affairs of GRU.
- Gainesville City Attorney Daniel Nee: Nee has worked as a lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office for more than 20 years. He is board certified in city, county and local government law. As a charter officer, he is responsible for providing legal counsel to the city regarding day-to-day transactional business and advises on any legal matters.
- Office of Equity and Inclusion Director Zeriah Folston: Folston served in government with Alachua County before joining the City of Gainesville as policy oversight administrator in 2020. He now focuses on creating equal opportunity for neighbor success and advancement through development of policies, programs and initiatives