City manager finishes Gainesville chapter

City Manager Lee Feldman ends his tenure in Gainesville on Friday, a little over two years after he started with the city.

It is two years of city management that has been spent almost entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ended with a period in which he faced public criticism from members of the City Commission he served.

Feldman’s resignation came during a rocky period for the city’s leadership. He is the third of Gainesville’s six charter officers to resign since April. And a fourth charter officer resigned then reconsidered her resignation.

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Additionally, Commissioner Gail Johnson left her position after September.

City Commissioner Gail Johnson

Although he says jokingly that “people have asked me to resign since the day I got here,” Feldman told the Mainstreet Daily News that his resignation in September was a decision he made based on his personal and professional ethics.

“I felt that it was important to put the community before me,” Feldman said in a telephone interview. “I did not want to be the continual subject of discussions at every single meeting because that was going to detract from the work the city needed to do.”

When Johnson announced her resignation in August, she singled out the City Commission’s continued retention of Feldman as one of the reasons she was leaving her post.

“I no longer want to be associated with the decisions of the city manager,” Johnson said at the time, though she did not specify publicly which decisions she disagreed with. At the same meeting, Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker called for Feldman to be fired, though her motion failed for lack of a second.

Feldman submitted his resignation a few weeks later and said the public criticisms of his performance played a role in him deciding to step down.

“I was not going to sit at meetings and just continue to hear people say things,” Feldman said.

“When I am sitting in a meeting, I can’t be the one debating with my bosses.”

Feldman said several things that were said about him in meetings were “false narratives.” Among the public comments he disputes is a claim he had faced 42 complaints over his behavior as manager.

“There were two complaints. There weren’t 42,” Feldman said. “And they conducted an investigation. They had a meeting. They disposed of those two.”

The complaints were from two women in leadership roles with the city and included claims of gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation. An investigation of the complaints by an outside law firm did not find sufficient evidence of gender discrimination but did find evidence of retaliation.

The commission voted 4-3 to retain Feldman in November 2020, despite a recommendation from the outside investigators to fire him.

The complaints revolved around Feldman’s communication during a reorganization of the city’s departments.

“I think there was an expectation that everyone would know everything at the same time at once, but they all wanted to be told individually,” Feldman said.

Although the reorganization became a source of trouble for him, Feldman said he considers it one of his main accomplishments. Like many things during the pandemic, it began under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“We launched the reorganization in February [2020], and shut the city down in March,” he said.

The reorganization “reduced the span of control, with less departments and more structure and clear lines of reporting,” which Feldman said helped to improve the city’s efficiency and effectiveness.

He pointed to the creation of the city’s strategic plan—including the development of the city’s vision and mission—as another accomplishment of his two years of leadership.

Feldman also led an effort to refund some of the city’s unfunded liabilities through new pension obligation bonds—a move that will save the city $114 million over the life of the bonds, including $31 million over the first five years.

“I do believe I left the city in a better place than when I arrived,” Feldman said. “… You continually build, and our goal was to always leave it better. I think it’s better financially. I think it’s got a sound vision, mission, goals, [and] priorities.”

Feldman said one of the efforts he is most proud of is changing the way that the city talks about its employees and its residents. The terms “community builders” and “neighbors” are ones that Feldman brought with him to the city manager’s role.

“Our central focus is to build community. We don’t have employees here, we have community builders,” he said. “We don’t provide services to citizens, we provide services to neighbors.”

The new terminology, which the city also rolled out during the pandemic, Feldman said helps the city better define its role in the community.

“By putting that type of context into place, I think we changed the outlook of what we do every day,” he said.

Cynthia Curry mug

As part of working through his notice, Feldman said he has been talking with Cynthia W. Curry, the incoming interim city manager, about the city’s continuing efforts and helping her prepare for the transition. Curry officially takes over on Monday.

He said Curry will need to help the city tackle several ongoing issues including growth management, food security and health facilities on the east side of the city, and budgeting.

The budgeting issues will become even more critical in the wake of a continuing $2 million-per-year reduction in the amount of money Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) provides to the city.

Getting the city’s various departments to think outside of a year-to-year budgeting process and start looking at capital planning on a five year basis was something Feldman said was an issue he “didn’t get time to get my hands wrapped around.” It’s also an issue he plans to talk to Curry about.

“[It involves] getting our departments to think about capital planning outside of their silos, looking at it more holistically,” Feldman said. “And having a better planning paradigm with GRU so we’re coordinating long term versus short term.”

Feldman has been a city manager for the last quarter of a century, working for four different cities during his career, but says he doesn’t think he’ll take another job leading a local government.

“I think I’ve done a lot in the local government profession,” Feldman said. “Time to make way for the next generation. I am just at the point in my life where I want to do something different.”

But his next job is not too far afield and will keep him in Florida. He said he has agreed to become a senior advisor for local government strategy for an Israeli company once his time in Gainesville is finished.

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