Commissioners To Hire Outside Firm For City Manager Investigation

Dec 7, 2017

Credit City of Tallahassee

Tallahassee city commissioners have decided to hire an outside firm to investigate ethics complaints made against Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez.  Fernandez will remain on paid leave until commissioners review the report in January.

During a Wednesday night meeting city commissioners seemed to struggle to find a solution for addressing the ethics complaints surrounding City Manager Rick Fernandez. Fernandez is currently on paid leave while the complaints, including an accusation he misused his position by getting a discount on the catering at his daughter’s wedding and that he allegedly texted a lobbyist asking for football tickets, are pending before the state ethics board. City officials estimate the case could remain in limbo for months and Commissioner Nancy Miller says she's tired of paying for the manager's vacation.

“They need to come back to work and they need to get to work and do their jobs, which everyone was doing very well” Miller says.

Miller says once an investigation is complete then the city can decide whether Fernandez should continue in his position, but in the meantime, he should being doing what he’s paid for. But Mayor Andrew Gillum says, while he agrees the city manager has done a good job, he’s not sure bringing the manager back to work at this point is the right decision. He also doesn’t want to until spring for a finding from the ethics commission. 

“There have been a lot of conclusions drawn around where text messages came from. Has anybody asked the question ‘were they actually sent by you and did you receive them?’ And I’m not all that concerned with who used them. I’m more concerned with should they have been requested, received and then utilized. But there are some questions I think we need to understand before we can make a determination around rightness or fitness or frankly whether there are any other actions that we might want to take,” Gillum says.

Gillum floated the idea of hiring an outside firm to investigate the matter, but initially the plan didn’t get enough support from the full board.. Another option commissioners considered includes putting the city manager on leave without pay, but city attorney Lew Shelley warned that move could backfire. First they’d have to ask Fernandez whether he’s willing to go along with the decision.

“If he says absolutely not then we are going to have to automatically treat that as, under his existing contract that was approved by the commission, we have to treat that as a termination for convenience without cause,” Shelley says.

That means the city would have to pay Fernandez about 7-months of his salary as severance. Firing the city manager with cause would mean no severance is owed, but at this point, Shelley says the city has not collected enough evidence to show cause. In the end commissioners returned to a previously failed motion—hiring an outside firm to investigate ethics claims surrounding Fernandez with plans to have a report and the ability to move forward in the new year.