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For Gainesville’s New City Manager, It’s About Grits, Eggs And Building Community

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Lee Feldman, Gainesville’s new manager, begins his job today but he won’t be spending all his time in City Hall’s fourth-floor office. That’s because the longtime city administrator likes to conduct business elsewhere.

In his most recent gig in Fort Lauderdale, Feldman, 57, frequented The Floridian, a landmark diner on popular Las Olas Boulevard. He conducted staff meetings there on Tuesdays, talking shop over plates of eggs and grits served in a dining room decorated with long paneled mirrors and photographs of celebrities from another era, like Marilyn Monroe.

“I prefer not to be in the building,” he says. “If people want to meet, I’ll meet them at their place.”

It’s a work ethic that has carried Feldman through his career that began with a high school internship and then in 1985 as an assistant in the city manager’s office in North Miami. Since then, Feldman has held several city manager positions in South Florida.

“When I started out, it was all about bureaucracy,” Feldman says, “and a keeping of the rule book. But I’ve grown to become a keeper of place.”

That’s someone who does their job to keep a place at its best, he says. He has dreams of making real connections in Gainesville and keeping it as a close-knit community. He tells a story about President John F. Kennedy in conveying the importance of people working together for the same goal.

When the Kennedy Space Center was being built, the president visited the site, Feldman recounts. There was a man in the crowd holding a broom. He was clearly a custodian, but Kennedy asked, “What is your job?”

“To put a man on the moon,” the man replied, referring to NASA’s mission.

It is everyone’s job to build a community, Feldman says. It’s important for everyone to work towards the same goal.

“That’s how you bring great things,” he says.

Feldman takes over in Gainesville after the last city manager, Anthony Lyons, resigned his job amid a flurry of citizen complaints. Feldman will be the highest paid city manager yet with a salary of $255,000, which is $35,000 more than what Lyons earned.

The city commission voted 6-1 in September to hire Feldman; Commissioner David Areola was the sole dissenter, though he says Feldman now has his full support.

The decision to hire Feldman, who was fired in Fort Lauderdale, sparked some controversy. But Feldman does not view his termination as a result of poor performance. He says it’s not uncommon for city managers to be let go. In fact, he speaks of it with pride.

“It took me 33 years to earn the badge of honor of termination,” says Feldman, who had never before been fired. “I came to the realization that I didn’t have the support of the commission. You can tell when these things happen.”

Nick Berkowitz of the International City/County Management Association says termination of administrators is not out of the ordinary. He cited a 2018 salary and compensation survey that found chief administrative officers held their positions for an average of six years, one less than Feldman’s term in Fort Lauderdale.

“It’s very, very common for city managers to move their expertise elsewhere,” Berkowitz says. “In recent years, it’s becoming increasingly normal.”

Feldman was president of the city management association in 2016-17. He was, says Berkowitz, one of the most decorated professionals in his field.

Feldman says he has set priorities for Gainesville. Among them are plans to strengthen the University of Florida’s relationship with the city and to alleviate poverty. He wonders why wealth disparities are so pronounced in Gainesville compared to similar college towns. The Census Bureau reports 36,403 Gainesville residents are living below the poverty level. That’s roughly one in three people.

“Because of life experiences, whether they’re work related or not, the lenses we see the world through changes,” Feldman says. “I’m much more aware of inequities and the need to correct them now.”

He says he plans to spend his first few months in his new job learning as much as he can about Gainesville – both from immersing himself in the community as well as discussing matters with Mayor Lauren Poe and the city commission.

Feldman says he has learned to become a more effective administrator from the challenges he faced in South Florida. In Fort Lauderdale, the biggest obstacle came in the form of stormwater fees. The rates for homeowners are proportional to the area of the property.

The problem in Fort Lauderdale is that many buildings are built vertically, so people living in condos were paying high rates, Feldman says. He wanted to equalize the rates but could not get enough support from the city to make it happen.

Now, Feldman says he knows he has to do more groundwork – through research and better communications with city leaders — to put a plan in motion.

But Feldman remains proud of his accomplishments, especially one effort that led to the changing of nomenclature.  Fort Lauderdale now refers to citizens as “neighbors,” and to employees as “community builders.”

“When I look back, that is something I take the most pride in,” Feldman says, “because changing how people speak took time, and it taught people to treat others as they would their next-door neighbor.”

He recalls another incident in which he helped his neighbors fix a burst sewage pipe. It was just before Christmas in 2017 when grime and garbage exploded over 13 homeowners’ lawns. Normally, the city manager would have to get the commissioners’ approval before acting, but Feldman knew he didn’t have time. He called contractors immediately and authorized them to begin cleaning up. It was about “doing the right thing,” he says.

Feldman says he is excited about starting today in his new role in Gainesville and hopes for a fruitful tenure here. First things first, though. He will be looking fast and furious for a new diner.

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