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Heated Gainesville City Commission Meeting Ends In Narrow Vote To Retain City Manager

Gainesville city commissioners on Tuesday raised questions about the way Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman performed when it comes to workplace culture and hiring decisions during his first year on the job.

But their special meeting to discuss the results of three investigations into Feldman’s actions did not conclude with his firing.

After a two-hour discussion, which included comments from the commissioners and several concerned members of the public, they voted 4-3 in favor of a motion for Feldman to undergo a professional development program to ensure he upholds what they called “the adopted core values of the city.”

Two separate formal complaints against Feldman were filed in January through the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. One, from Community Reinvestment Area Director Sarah Vidal-Finn, alleged gender discrimination and harassment. The other, from Interim Finance Director Diane Wilson, alleged gender discrimination.

Wilson filed one more complaint on May 13 — this time alleging retaliation by Feldman — after she attempted to earn the city finance director position.

Teneeshia Marshall, director of the city’s equity and inclusion office, initially investigated the complaints before she reached out to a private firm — Shuffield, Lowman & Wilson, P.A. of Orlando — because she said, “I initially started to conduct the investigations myself, but after a series of interviews that left me feeling like I need to recuse myself, I actually reached out to a couple different law firms to figure out who we wanted to contract this complaint out to.”

Marshall is a city charter officer equivalent to rank in Feldman. Both are appointed by the City Commission.

The investigation by Shuffield, Lowman & Wilson, P.A. took approximately 10 months and found insufficient evidence of discrimination, but sufficient evidence of retaliation by Feldman against Wilson. The investigation included interviews with 29 witnesses.

The firm concluded its investigation by recommended the commissioners terminate Feldman from his position at the head of city government.During Tuesday’s meeting, City Commissioners Gigi Simmons, David Arreola, and Gail Johnson voiced strong opinions that Feldman’s actions should be scrutinized and that at least one of their four colleagues should join them in voting to fire him.

“I am deeply concerned about what I believe to be retaliatory action of one of our officers,” Arreola said.

Simmons asked several questions of Marshall about the investigatory process before voicing similar concerns.

“There are many things I find in the report that are extremely, extremely disturbing to me,” she said.

Mayor Lauren Poe had opened the meeting by expressing concern about the report’s conclusion and didn’t think it was comprehensive enough to merit Feldman’s firing.

Johnson disagreed.

“In my estimation, it was more thorough than I could ever imagine a report to be,” she said. “Yes, I agree with the findings of this, and now we’re here because we’re supposed to make a determination based upon the findings, and that finding is termination.”

The three other commissioners, Adrian Hayes-Santos, Harvey Ward, and Reina Saco, along with Poe, decided termination was too harsh and that they should instead vote to require Feldman to undergo a professional development program.

Saco, who was elected to the commission in March and thus not part of the body that hired Feldman near the end of 2019, made the original motion for a professional development program.

An attorney, Saco said she read the report through the lens of her legal experience: “I don’t consider it sufficient to go to the nuclear option of termination.”

Hayes-Santos said he spoke with Feldman about both the report’s findings and the hiring process that led to the complaint in the first place.

“I asked who he was going to choose,” Hayes-Santos said, “and he said he was going to choose the person who had the highest rank coming from the selection committee.”

Ward, who has been on the commission since 2017 and saw the departure of the previous city manager and city auditor, worried about the trend of turnover atop city government.

“This is not the first time we have had complaints against charter officers. We can’t fire our way out of a cultural problem,” he said. “There is a cultural problem that existed before this commission and continues to exist.”

Still, Simmons was frustrated by the idea that Feldman, with over 20 years of experience that included stints at city manager in three other Florida cities including Fort Lauderdale, would need a professional development program.

“How much professional development does a professional with 20 plus years of experience need?” she asked rhetorically. “Help me understand that.”

Feldman was fired in Fort Lauderdale in September 2018 before being hired a little over a year later in Gainesville.

The disagreement over Feldman’s professional development needs notwithstanding, many of the commissioners agreed there is a culture problem within city hall.

A federal investigation through the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission remains pending based on the complaints.

Austin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.