Jackson’s supporters question Commission’s hesitance to make hire
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
When the City Commission voted to name Cassandra Jackson its interim city attorney, the decision left her supporters wondering why she didn’t get the job outright.
Specifically, Jackson’s supporters were left wondering why the commission made the move to divert from a practice of hiring from with-in. Each of the current heads of city’s appointed positions were promoted to their positions or hired without much delay.
Instead, the Commission voted 3-2 to name Jackson interim city attorney. Meanwhile, commissioners also decided to resume the search for a permanent city attorney.
“I do not know what was their thinking as it relates to this issue or concern,” said Rev. Julius McAllister, who was among members of the Black clergy pushing for Jackson’s appointment. “When we stand on principle and a process; principle plus process should equal a promotion or receiving the job.”
Much of the argument for Jackson pointed to her qualifications, including being a former city attorney for the city of St. Petersburg. She was selected from a field of nine applicants and was one of the finalists that the commission interviewed after they were vetted by a citizens’ committee.
Since the initial meeting following the interviews, Commissioner Curtis Richardson and Mayor Andrew Gillum were the only ones who favored hiring Jackson. Richardson questioned yet another delay in filling the position.
“This sends the message to our internal employees; in particular when it comes to our appointed positions; that when there is an opening or if you’re hired don’t bother doing the things that you think will allow you to progress in the organization,” Richardson said. “We are setting a very dangerous precedent here.”
Two days before the commission met this past Wednesday, members of the Black clergy spoke strongly in favor of Jackson at a press conference. Rev. Joseph Wright suggested that Jackson, who is Black, was not being promoted because of her race.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Wright didn’t back off of his stance. However, he pointed out how the commission hired former city manager Rick Fernandez, who recently stepped down over an ethics scandal.
Fernandez was hand-picked as city manager-in-training before he eventually replaced his predecessor Anita Favors Thompson.
“Let’s continue the same standard that was originated by you; the commissioners,” Wright told the commissioners. “Please give Mrs. Jackson the same privilege, as the equal opportunity employer that we know you are.”
He noted that Jackson’s office is not under federal investigation Jackson and “she isn’t tainted,” referring to a current FBI investigation of the government.
“She is well qualified, certified (and) she has served 11 years faithfully and with distinction,” Wright said. “Let us do the right thing and the most honorable thing.”
At least six people spoke favorably for Jackson, while there were two others who asked that the commission resort to another search. Originally the commission did a search in November and December which resulted in Jackson emerging from the field of applicants.
Pastor Lee Johnson was vehement in making his case for Jackson. He scolded commissioners after starting his argument by quoting the Preamble from the Declaration of Independence.
He went on to suggest that politics is at play in delaying the hire.
“Let me be clear because a lot of people are dancing around the issue,” Johnson said. “The issue is; this is a political fight. Cassandra Jackson is the victim because you guys got a political fight going on.
“The bottom line is; we are suffering as citizens from lack of representation by a city attorney because you guys can’t get it together. It’s stink up in that dias. I know some of you are leaving. Thank God that you are.”
Johnson was referring to Gillum’s decision to run for governor of Florida and Gil Ziffer’s impending departure from public office.
The commission engaged in a 30-minute discussion before taking a vote on how to move forward on the hire. Gillum ran through each of the city’s appointed positions, noting how they were hired from with-in.
He made a point of stressing that only 10 percent of attorneys in Florida has credentials like Jackson’s.
“We have a qualified candidate that’s basically suffering under the weight that we carry as a commission; not she as an applicant.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we would parley the issues of a body of elected officials onto an applicant who is imminently qualified for a position for which she applied.”
Commissioner Nancy Miller defended her stance in favor of continuing the search, saying that the hire has become controversial.
“Unfortunately it’s pro and con in general,” said Miller, adding that her stance wasn’t because of race or gender. “It’s not a north-south issue; not an east-west issue. Everybody has a different opinion on what we should do in this instance.
“Right now I don’t feel that it has been vetted to the extent that it should.”