City commission held Fernandez’s fate before he stepped down
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Rick Fernandez might not have served more than another week as city manager if he didn’t decide to step aside over an ethics complain that he received football tickets from a lobbyist.
Members of the city commission were set to call a special meeting before their scheduled Nov. 8 session to decide whether Fernandez should continue in the position he’s held for two years.
Fernandez headed off that meeting this past Monday when he informed the commission that he will take a voluntary paid leave of absence. His decision came two days after commissioner Gil Ziffer told him in an email that he’d call for him to step down at the special meeting.
About eight hours before Fernandez announced his decision, he met with commissioner Curtis Richardson, who suggested that he leave immediately.
The Florida Ethics Commission began an investigation into a complaint filed by Tallahassee businessman Erwin Jackson, claiming that Fernandez was given four tickets to an Oct. 1 football game. A series of text message obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat show that Fernandez communicated with a lobbyist, requesting four tickets.
Fernandez has since denied that he got the tickets that reportedly were delivered to his office in City Hall. Erwin estimated that the tickets cost between $400 and $500 in his complain.
State’s ethics law prohibits public officials from accepting any gift worth more than $100 from a lobbyist who works for that official’s agency.
“To avoid this matter becoming a distraction for our City employees and the entire organization, I have decided to voluntarily accept commissioner Ziffer’s request and take administrative leave effective immediately until the matter before the Ethics Commission is resolved,” Fernandez wrote in a letter that was emailed to mayor Andrew Gillum and the commission.
He added: “This action is subject to your approval at the next commission meeting.”
However, given the concerns that commissioners have expressed publically, it won’t come to that.
Instead, the commission likely will confirm deputy city manager Reese Goad to serve in an interim role. Fernandez had been in the position the past two years on an annual salary of $323,000.
“In light of the details that have recently surfaced, the City Manager made the right decision to temporarily step aside,” Gillum said in a statement. “The city’s 3,000 employees and our residents need confidence in the city’s operations, and I hope the State Ethics Committee acts judiciously with their work.
“The City Commission will take any further appropriate action once their investigation is complete.”
Fernandez was chosen by a 3-2 commission vote to replace outgoing manager Anita Favor Thompson. Richardson and Gillum were the abstaining votes. Richardson said the vote was hurriedly taken at the end of a workshop without being on the agenda.
Richardson praised Fernandez for the way he handled the city’s business, but questioned his judgment on the football ticket issue.
“He has had some pretty good accomplishments for the city,” Richardson said, “but he also had some missteps.”
Ziffer, who cast one of the three votes to install Fernandez, said he wouldn’t cast judgment while waiting for the Ethics Commission to make its decision. However, he said Fernandez’s decision is best for the government.
“We have a lot of issues that the city has to deal with and I didn’t want to have to get to a point where we would have to vote on suspension; so taking a proactive decision to go ahead on voluntary leave is fine,” Ziffer said. “That allows us to get back to business without having to deal with all these outside distractions.”