The Gainesville City Commission approved a $100,000 severance package for outgoing City Manager Lee Feldman and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Ed Bielarski will keep his job following Monday night’s special meeting.
Feldman began working for the city on Nov. 4, 2019, and announced his resignation earlier on Monday, becoming the third of six charter officers to resign in the past week. He will continue working until mid November.
Last Wednesday, City Clerk Omichele Gainey and City Attorney Nicolle Shalley submitted emails of resignation.
And on Aug. 23, in a Gainesville City Commission special meeting, commissioner and mayor pro-tem Gail Johnson announced her resignation. She cited Feldman as a reason for her departure.
Mayor Lauren Poe said the past city managers had earned similar severance packages as Feldman.
“I wish you all the best with whatever you do next in your life's journey,” Poe said. “I agree that it is equitable compared to past practices to offer the severance package as contractually established.”
Johnson disagreed, saying she and community members could see the damage done by Feldman as manager.
“I should say that I'm surprised, but I'm not,” Johnson said. “I'm actually in utter disbelief that we're having this conversation.”
Johnson said she would not vote in favor of the severance package for all of the reasons stated in her resignation letter.
After public comment, Commissioner Reina Saco spoke, saying the November report that investigated two complaints of discrimination against women by Feldman was insufficient cause to fire him. She added that city employees, unable to fire Feldman, simply created a toxic environment to force his resignation.
“The hypocrisy up here of ‘I don't get what I want. No one listens to me.’ as you consistently get everything single thing you want and then quit your job midway through because you're not getting everything,” Saco said. “That is ridiculous. Lee is leaving because people here have created the most toxic, hostile, antisemitic, just frankly disastrous environment to push out a (charter officer) that the majority said we would not fire.”
Johnson said that even the process of finding Feldman as city manager nearly two years ago had been tainted.
“At the beginning of this process, we hired a firm, a recruiting firm, to bring us a good city manager,” Johnson said. “Turns out, the owner of that firm is very good friends with manager Feldman. Turns out, a lot of the information that we should have had, we didn’t get.”
She mentioned that awarding a $100,000 severance amounted to rewarding bad behaviour.
“How many times did (City Attorney Nicolle Shalley) come to us about this gray area that she was concerned about that Manager Feldman was operating in,” Johnson asked the commission. “I know y'all had the same conversations cause she went around and talked to all of us multiple times.”
In the end, the commission voted 4-3 to approve the severance package with commissioners Johnson, Desmon Duncan-Walker and David Arreola in dissent.
The last item on the agenda was a proposed termination of Bielarski from GRU.
Poe asked Bielarski to resign last week.
“I informed him that it was so important for our charter officers to be the right fit for the organization at the point in time we are,” Poe said. “It's got to be a fit both ways.”
Bielarski emailed the city commissioners saying he would stay at his post unless the commission actually terminated him.
At Monday’s meeting, Bielarski spoke to the commissioners.
“It has been said the reason for my possible termination is that I am no longer a fit for that organization,” Bielarski said. “Although I respect my governing board's right to decide that, and I do, I also stand before you tonight to challenge that belief.”
Bielarski said that he had led GRU well and still had work to do, adding that his unwillingness to simply resign shows that he is the right person.
“Having an executive who is willing to challenge his governing board, his employees, which you see around the room, and himself—I challenge myself—is the very essence of what we should be doing as stewards of the public's resources and their trust,” Bielarski said.
He also said that the city needs leadership with half of its charter officers already resigning.
After Bielarski’s statement, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos moved to continue the motion and terminate Bielarski, stating that the charter officer team needed a reset. Commissioner Harvey Ward seconded the motion.
Then came over two hours of public comment that lasted past 1 a.m.
GRU employees called in or showed up in person to support their boss. Many declared that Bielarski is the best general manager that they’ve worked under, and all of the speakers asked the commission to keep him.
“I’m here to ask the commission for your continued support of Ed Bielarski and ask that you allow him to remain in place and continue to serve in the position of general manager of the utility,” Thomas Brown, chief operating officer of GRU, said at the meeting.
From utility line workers to executives and I.T. personnel, employees spoke up.
After public comment, Ward said the commenters had put him in the position to make a deal. He said that he would not vote to terminate if Bielarski would appoint a chief climate officer and team, cut duplicate services between GRU and the general government and, lastly, to restrain himself when representing the city.
“You can't do things like go to the county commission building and talk at public comment and fuss at county commissioners,” Ward said. “You can't. And if you feel like you’re about to, call somebody and tell them to hold you back.”
Johnson spoke and supported Bielarski, saying the public comment she had just heard was a highlight of her tenure.
Hayes-Santos pulled the motion from the floor, allowing Bielarski to remain at GRU.