What do you see as the appropriate role between staff and the commission in decision making?
Staff definitely have a role to play. The issues in a community the size of Leon County and Tallahassee are too varied and large for any one person to solve them. Staff can help to clarify issues, get the community’s feelings about issues, research how other communities have dealt with the issues, and, importantly, help the commission to craft legal, valid, and equitable policies and initiatives to address the issues. Still, staff are not the elected representatives of the people. It is easy for some commissioners to come to depend on staff, especially if they don’t want to do the work to be the voice of the community. I will certainly seek staff input, but will do my best to hear the voice of my constituents and be responsive to them.
Donna Pearl Cotterell
Staff should take recommendations from commissioners as to what the commissioners want to accomplish and then do the necessary research to determine that the recommendation is legal, what the possible implementation options and costs are, what other communities have done and to what result, that sort of practical fact-finding. Too often, at the county and city, the situation is practically reversed. The staff bring forth options to solve “problems” they want solved, identified options that make their preferred choice stand out, and then ask commissioners to approve their conclusions. We have to remember that both the city and county managers were helped into office by Scott Maddox, a convicted corrupt politician. They have not had to be responsive to the community at large and most commissioners accept this staff approach with no questions asked. That’s not right.
Staff should basically vet a potential policy or project for the commissioners. That is, how it fits or doesn’t with existing policies, how well it meets the standards of the commission for being fair and consistent, its legality, and options and costs of what it takes to implement. At the county, we’ve done a very good job of hiring and developing smart and capable staff. That’s a double-edged sword. On one edge, staff do good research and provide clear information. On the other, they have a point of view and that may not represent the best interests of the community at large. When there is a lack of experience on the commission, that point of view can lead to an overstepping of staff’s role. We have had significant commissioner turnover in the last few years, and will have more with this election, and that points out the need to have some experienced commissioners to serve as the guardrails for keeping staff focused on the role they should be playing.
Staff and I do not have a role in decision making, unless the staff member lives in District 2 and is speaking to me as a resident and not as staff. Staff provides the information and my role is to analyze the information staff may have, the input from my district, and any additional information, but I am always going to make the best decision for District 2. Staff’s role is to give me the facts, and give it to me straight without bias; it’s not their job to be biased one way or another.
Lynda Bell chose not to be interviewed.
I would approach this issue as I approach hiring for my company. I hire the best person for the job and then don’t micromanage them, but gather the data to objectively evaluate their work. Commissioners shouldn’t be micromanaging staff, but they do need to make sure they are doing their own on-going staff evaluations and listening to the comments of their district constituents to make sure staff are bringing the commissioners sufficient and accurate data to make sound policy decisions.
This is an important relationship. The commissioners should be the eyes and ears of the community and listen to what the community needs. Then they should work with staff to get those resources. Commissioners need to educate themselves, ask questions, and make the best decision they can.
Staff are not elected so they have no inherent power. Yet, in combination with lobbyists, they have been able to amass too much power and, frankly, not enough commissioners are concerned about that. Staff expertise is important, however, that expertise should be used to facilitate not dictate policy development. I feel I am particularly capable of finding the right role for staff given my background in budgeting, policy formation, and statute writing with the legislature. I feel I can get out into my district, hear the concerns from the residents, and then work with staff to address those concerns. People will participate more fully in their government when they feel they are listened to. I believe we need more of that participation now, especially with those who feel their concerns have been ignored for so long.
Commissioners must use their knowledge and do their own research and not just rubber stamp what the staff has brought to them. I do believe the staff has an outsized role in how all of our planning decisions are made.
Specifically with the County, I think Vince is an excellent administrator overall. However, I have serious ethical concerns about his role in the IMC and close friendship with Reese Goad and others named by Scott Maddox. His unequal treatment of the Lake Hall School versus the Miccosukee school also requires an explanation. I’m open to changing leadership without satisfactory answers.
We need to codify how information is presented to commissioners and the public. It does seem that some information is slanted, the County analysis is typically better than the City, however we have joint City-County planning meetings all the time and that needs to be the standard. We must hold our elected officials accountable. County Commissioners are paid very well, and this needs to be their full time job and become an expert in these areas as well as listen to citizen experts on the issues.
Manny Joanas chose not to be interviewed.
Many commissioners do not ask staff questions and they don’t do their homework. Commissioners need to do their own research and come prepared to meetings, not rubber stamp what staff says. Commissioners currently vote with staff recommendation 90% of the time. They rely too heavily on staff recommendations. It’s the Commissioners’ job to do their own research and to think independently and to be prepared to ask the staff tough questions, and “not just go with the flow.”
I used to be a staff member, so I have both perspectives. Human beings have biases, as much as we might try to keep them in check. Agenda items sometimes have an inherent bias. It is up to a commissioner to look beyond what the staff has written or recommended. Staff are talented but commissioners still need to read agenda items with a critical eye and ask questions. We should not accept staff recommendations at face value and should always probe and push to have key questions answered. Commissioners have a duty to sift through the facts and do their own research to overcome any potential bias.
A commissioner is elected to represent the whole community. Commissioners have a duty to do their own independent research, to talk to experts in the field, to read up on the issues, to take diverse public input, as well as the staff. Staff should be there to present the facts and issues in an impartial way to the Commissioners but I don’t think they should even be making recommendations. I also think it’s fine for commissioners to tell staff that they don’t like any of the options presented and to go back to the drawing board.
I think people are not well versed in this, they don’t understand that staff’s job is to provide and synthesize information. However, it is the commissioners’ job to ask questions and be sure you understand the material.
I think staff are there to do the job, to do the research and to have the expertise. The Commission is there to vote or approve and to give direction in a way that gets to decisions that reflect what their constituents want. Given my professional experience, I feel I understand the balance between the Commissioners and staff. While the County Administrator and staff have done an excellent job, I feel there is a sort of bureaucratic inertia in approaching things in the way we have always done things. I don’t think this is a nefarious plan, I think that if staff feels an approach has worked before, it will work again in a new scenario.
Because this has gone on for so long, I, as a new Commissioner, will ask more questions, ask for more research or data before issues come up as agenda items or suggested actions before the Commission. This will continue until we are headed in a direction that matches what the people want.
I think we do have staff that want to do bold new things and improve the areas they work on in the County and they need to see that when they take that initiative, the Commission is going to take that up and back it. That’s going to drive staff to do more innovation.
It’s a matter of giving the staff more clear policy direction and it is also more of an interactive relationship between the Administrator/staff and Commission.
It is the Commissioners’ job to be the conduit between the community and staff and to have a general vision of what community members in Leon County want to experience. Then, Commissioners should take that information and help craft policies, procedures by giving direction to staff to bring those things to life. I think our very capable staff need some added direction on a few fronts to get things right. I know how to speak to staff in their language so that I translate things our community wants in a way that staff understands. In the past, I have had conversations with some staff and have emphasized that if staff would invest in community engagement on the front end that their stress and consternation when issues get to the Commission level would plummet. It’s all about process. I think it is staffs’ job to find out why residents feel a certain way about an issue. I don’t think staff is taking the time to do this. If we have people engaged on the front end, they are not going to be at the Commission meetings to revolt at the back end. The reason we have these terse interactions continuing to occur is because the process we are using simply doesn’t work.
I think there should be more accountability at the County Administrator’s level and I think there are conversations that are not happening in the sunshine when they should. We should bring conversations between the City and County Administrators into the light. These two positions are the most powerful in our local government. I know we have to depend upon staff recommendations, but I will not be voting on a recommendation I receive 24 hours before I am asked to vote on it. With the technology I was speaking of previously, we would be able to get constituents input on the recommendations proposed by staff and provide this data to Commissioners before a vote on the agenda item.
At-Large Group 2
Rudolph Ferguson, Sr.
I understand that staff must be educated in issues, but commissioners should be closely or heavily involved in new concepts or ideas, and not just pass all the work on to staff. Also, commissioners should not push everything down on the agenda and do more than just talk policy and vote. Commissioners should use the same energy as running for office and keep citizens updated. Pick up the telephone, keep them posted, this is most important.
As a general statement, staff should not be completely beholden or abused. Telling staff to put gravel in my driveway is an abuse of power. Staff make recommendations and commissioners are autonomous to take recommendations of staff and the will of the people to make the right decision. County commission and county administrator – these two roles should be completely separate. The key is to facilitate, and not to overwhelm or bully these processes or relationships.
We are a council-manager form of government. Staff make recommendations, we decide. We don’t always have to take those recommendations. Staff give us the info we need to make the best decision. Staff try and help us see the facts, community as well. But no commissioner feels pressure to accept staff or community input. We set policy and staff execute. Commissioners are not involved day to day. Policy is our job.
Dominique ('Nikki') Danielle Zumbo
Definitely there should be a separation of powers in every office. Staff have knowledge and best kept information. It does not work the other way. Staff can make recommendations, but they may not see the bigger picture, also, every staff member is different. Encourage communications and intel for constituents to ensure the initial information is being process. My hope is that staff would send independent sources my way. There should be no restrictions on communication.
The staff needs to provide as unbiased information as possible to allow the commissioners to make an educated decision. The staff should not be coming to the Commission with a predetermined outcome that they want and should only provide the information that leads to that outcome. But that is a two-way street in that the Commissioners need to make it clear to their staff that this is what they want. And if the Commissioners are given numerous options with quite a bit of information, the Commissioner needs to be willing to invest time in studying that. Some Commissioners do take the time to review while it seems others allow the staff to tell them what to do. It is a two-way street in that if you are demanding the information, you have to be willing to invest hours in reading it.
I want unbiased, unfiltered information that I can interpret on my own and then ask them more pointed questions if there are any vagaries I need to figure out. It does no one good for staff to show up with the predetermined answer and with information that would only lead you to that answer. Unfortunately, I think some folks in leadership like that. But I also think that some that demand more information don’t educate themselves on the very thing they demanded.
The way we are set up, the City Commission and Mayor should be giving the overall policy direction to guide the City but it seems to operate in reverse. I’ve been extremely critical of the current city manager and some staff because historically the 2016 reorganization saw a lot of good staff run out by City Manager Eric Fernandez and now staff tend to support developers in a unbalanced way. I’m not anti-developer but just against the imbalance that currently exists. Rather than being a check on development and meeting priorities it has shifted to how can we get things done and make it happen. I’m providing staff direction that they work for the people of Tallahassee and not the City Manager or anyone within the city government and they should be the voice of the people. Staff should be delivering what the people of Tallahassee are asking for.
We have a council-manager form of government that is similar to private sector organizations. The Mayor is the CEO, the City Commission the Board and we hire the best managerial staff in the form of City Manager, Inspector General, Treasurer/Clerk, and City Attorney. They in turn hire the best staff to form the team that researches and proactively recommends public policy actions that include public participation. We depend on senior staff to make recommendations and the City Commission makes the final decisions. Commissioners can also propose policy actions during meetings and if supported by the Commission will then be researched and options brought back to the Commission for consideration.
The City commissioners and mayor are elected by community to serve as a board of directors, and we should be able to rely on the manager the commission hired and professional staff hired by the city manager to bring accurate, unbiased information to assist the Commission to make the best decisions for the community. Commissioner must do the job they were elected to do. They need to study the issues, read staff information, listen to constituents, including those with expertise, pay attention to the Community’s needs, learn from other communities, and ask questions to make good decisions.
Things have changed dramatically in recent years, and I’ve never seen so many commissioners willing to approve whatever staff puts before them, and some feel it’s disrespectful to question staff. It’s actually disrespectful to the public not to question staff, and this approach to approving staff recommendations without thorough analysis limits public engagement. The decision to reduce the number of commission meetings, and using Robert’s Rules of Order (process) as a weapon are bad decisions. I’m proud of community for taking notice of these issues and the lack of meaningful public engagement.
The elected need to apprise the situation when they take office, and reward staff who are contributing well and provide a trial period for improvement for those who are not serving the public good. We need to move forward to have better government.
Whitfield Leland III
First, I don’t believe most commissioners actually review the background documentation before making decisions, and they take staff’s word for how to vote. As commissioners we should listen to staff and the community, and if at the end of the day we need to mediate, we should do so and find out what our citizens want and need. I was interviewed by the Police Benevolent Association, and when I told them that I thought Chief Revell should report to the Commission, they kicked me out of the interview. We don’t need as many deputy managers at the City. We need a new City Manager, Treasurer/Clerk, and City Attorney. We should not simply trust staff and allow them do to what they want. We need to shake up and question staff, and determine what our citizens want. Also, we should follow the money.
The appropriate role for staff is to provide guidance and follow up on Commissioners’ questions. The responsibility falls on Commissioners to use staff for guidance. Currently, staff has too much power, with a lack of transparency and respect for the citizens. Also, the City Manager has a lot of responsibility for growth and development. The city manager has the authority to approve any project less than $500,000 and it does not need to go to the city commission for approval.
Currently, City staff dictates what the commissioners do. Staff are not elected. I believe that the staff does the work and there is too much reliance on staff. Staff brings proposals to the commission meetings and commissioners vote on those without bringing new proposals out for discussion. Often commissioners appear to have not read the materials ahead of the meeting. Commissioners need to talk to the citizens, and go to where they are. Many folks in Tallahassee do not have transportation, or access to the internet, to the city television station or to the local newspaper and do not have the opportunity to be informed or to engage with their commissioners. For those who are able to attend commission meetings in person, the allotted 3 minutes is inadequate to present their views.
The job of a city commissioner is to decide on policy and give direction to the city manager. Our Charter is to work through the city manager. I meet regularly with officials and look for solutions. I provide feedback behind the scenes, not from the dais in chamber.