The Gainesville City Commission was poised to tackle several major issues at its Thursday meeting, but the proceeding devolved into verbal sparring, breaks, and eventually the tabling of all but two items.
Following a 25-minute recess, the commission voted to move nine items left on the agenda to a Nov. 29 special meeting.
To that point, Thursday’s meeting had been marked with bickering between commissioners, prompting a 10-minute recess within the first 15 minutes of the meeting.
“I am so embarrassed for this city,” Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said. “I am so embarrassed. This have been a day of embarrassments, and I hope we get to talk about them later at the end of this meeting.”
The issues started during the morning session. The commission voted to approve the agenda—a motion made by Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos and seconded by Commissioner Reina Saco.
However, Chestnut asked that the motion include removing an item from the consent agenda and onto the regular agenda for discussion. While Hayes-Santos agreed, Saco disagreed.
So, the commission voted for the motion as it stood, and Mayor Lauren Poe said Chestnut could make a new motion right after to move the item from the consent agenda. Hayes-Santos voted against his own motion, prompting a question from the mayor.
As Hayes-Santos started to explain, an audience member spoke out, and Saco responded saying “Hush.”
“Please, let me run the meeting,” Poe responded.
“Then run the meeting,” Saco replied.
Poe then asked for a 10-minute recess. The meeting had started only 15 minutes earlier.
Soon after the meeting resumed, the commission voted on an item that expands the use of travel funds. Each commissioner has $5,000 to use to attend conferences and other city-related purposes.
Saco used the item to say that the city needs to address how commissioners use staff time and resources.
“While we are here talking about how commissioners use funds, I had brought up previously—and I don’t think it managed to get very far as far as the [charter officers] are concerned—addressing how commissioners utilize city funds and staff time,” Saco said.
She added that staff had brought a concern to her about the issue and said not everything a commissioner does is for the city’s gain. She asked that the charter officers look into the issue.
After a public commenter asked for clarification on Saco’s statement.
Chestnut agreed and asked Poe if she could address the issue.
“The innuendo from Commissioner Saco, I think we need to air it out in public, and I want to put it to rest because I think it involves cultural sensitivity of the city of Gainesville staff as well as those people who are elected,” Chestnut said.
She said all Black commissioners who serve must do things differently and are, because of their roles, called to speak at events.
Chestnut explained that she had been asked to give greetings from the city to a church conference that was held in Gainesville in April. She said the conference involved people from all over visiting and spending money in the city.
Because the city commission had a meeting at the same time, Chestnut asked for staff help to create a video with her address since she could not attend.
Saco said city staff had come to her with concerns because they only knew the video was for a church event and had questions about using city resources. Saco said she took the issue to the city auditor and the appropriate people.
“It is not an attack. Please, don’t make it one,” Saco said. “It is a genuine concern and an ask for guidelines to be created so that we can be more transparent with our funds and our public and our staff, whose trust is paramount for the city to function.”
Saco added that she made no mention of people or events but thanked Chestnut for bringing her item forward and explaining the situation.
City auditor Ginger Bigbie backed up Saco and said the charter officers discussed the issue of guidelines. However, she said the conversation never went anywhere and refuted the idea that the city auditor had had a problem with the video.
“To pick out my office and say we had a problem with one event is simply not true, and I would challenge whoever communicated that to you,” Bigbie said addressing Chestnut and a comment she made.
Chestnut said the issues shouldn’t have festered since approximately April. She said anyone concerned should just ask her and she would explain.
The tension returned in the afternoon portion during the first item which involved selecting members to several citizen advisory boards.
Two applicants vied for one seat on the Historic Preservation Board. Saco motioned to accept Pete McNiece, a city employee. But Hayes-Santos and others wanted to leave the seats open to non-employees—though the city does allow employees to serve on citizen boards.
Hayes-Santos said he wants the city to reconsider those guidelines to only allow non-employees from serving on boards. Other commissioners agreed, and Saco said if the commission didn’t want McNiece then she would want to readvertise the position instead of moving forward with the other applicant.
“Staff has brought some concerns to me about those certifications and that the certifications are not an accurate portrayal of what they are,” Saco said about the other applicant’s experience.
Chestnut asked for clarification from Saco about what staff had said, calling the accusation of fraudulent information serious.
Saco said staff felt some of the information had been misleading. And Chestnut asked the applicant to clarify. The applicant did clarify her experience and certifications.
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said staff needs to be more careful moving forward. She said challenging someone’s qualifications from the dais hurt her and she apologized to the applicant.
“That vetting process, in my mind, should have happened on the staff level and those concerns should have been aired out on that side well before it came to us and became some sort of publicly humiliating or embarrassing situation for an applicant,” Duncan-Walker said.
Saco defended her actions, saying staff had only had the information for less than an hour.
“I am doing my job, and I am relaying the information that staff has given to me,” Saco said.
Chestnut then spoke and said the day had been one of embarrassments for the city. She said staff needs to give concerns to all commissioners not just one.
“That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in today because one commissioner took off and went on a terror path,” Chestnut said.
“What I did was not go off on a terror path,” Saco said. “That’s unnecessary; it’s rude. But I understand that with age a lot of our filter gets lost.”
She continued talking about her interactions with staff before looking down the dais toward Chestnut and, growing louder, asked “if I could have some silence and respect while I speak it would be appreciated.”
The last comment prompted Poe to speak up.
“This escalation is not productive,” Poe said.
“No. I am speaking. She has insulted me,” Saco said. “You have allowed her to run over this whole meeting.”
“This escalation by two of the members of this body is not helpful or productive to our decision-making process,” Poe said, asking that the issue not get personal.
Saco explained that her initial request was for McNiece to join the board, but when others started heading toward the other candidate, Saco said it was her responsibility to bring up the questions with the application.
“So go ahead, do what you want,” Saco said. “Attack staff while you’re at it so more of them try to quit.”
Chestnut said she would move forward with the application but added that the commission needs to have a discussion about member behavior.
The applicant for the Historic Preservation Board also withdrew her application.
After moving through one more item, the commission held another recess that lasted 25 minutes. As soon as the meeting reconvened, Hayes-Santos motioned that all the items left on the afternoon and evening agendas will be moved to the new special meeting except for U1 and U2.
The commission voted unanimously in favor with Saco absent. The meeting had reconvened for less than 90 seconds.