Key West City Commission votes to terminate city manager contract

Sam Kaufman, Key West City Commissioner for District II and Vice Mayor, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about the special meeting yesterday.

The contract for City Manager Al Childress has been terminated after a three hour meeting.

Kaufman said, “So we had the meeting yesterday. There was a vote of four to three to terminate the city manager’s contract. He served about 14 months so far in the position. So as of now his last day was yesterday. He’s no longer the city manager. My overall impressions are that really there wasn’t any justification, at least not really well articulated by any of the proposing commissioners. I was really hoping that there would be some facts that could support this decision. But we learned yesterday also with the release of some text messages between the city attorney and the proposing commissioners that there were real efforts as a result of discipline to the chief building official who happens to be the city attorney’s brother. That was really central and really the only issue that was discussed in the text messages as prompting this to happen yesterday. There’s some other real concerns in the text messages, and I think there will be investigations. The state attorney wasn’t in the meeting the entirety of it yesterday. We know there are investigations both criminal and civil and there will be more to come from this and it’s really unfortunate for the city of Key West. We will continue. We will recover. We’ll continue to move forward, just not as well as we would have if we had retained a real professional city manager with the experience like Mr. Childress to lead us in this time.”

A special meeting was decided on for August 26 following the primary – could that result in rehiring Childress?

Kaufman said, “The process that we’re in, it’s a very difficult time, because we have our budget process starting in two and a half weeks. We don’t really have the same leadership in place to help guide us. Remember, we have an $800 million asset city. We have a $275 million budget, 540 employees, hundreds of contracts, it’s a very complex operation. Thankfully, the former assistant city manager is and I spoke with him before the meeting and encouraged him to be open to the idea of coming back temporarily and he is and that’s a wonderful stopgap measure for us. But that’s not the real solution, because he’s not willing to take on the job long term. So now we’re setting up a new commission that takes office on August 23, possibly unless there’s a runoff for District VI. But this new commission is really hamstrung by not having that consistent leadership without any transition. So this is the difficulty that we find ourselves in.”

If the city manager would be reinstated after the election, would there be a way to reconcile the tension?

Kaufman said, “I believe so, 100%. Mr. Childress is a true professional. I’ve met with him over the last 14 months, at least 100 times, and he is somebody that it doesn’t take things personally, but acts professionally and unfortunately, some of the rhetoric that was expressed was really personal. We need to rise above that as public servants, as elected officials and appointed officials. Pretty much everything that the city attorney said to me and my colleagues, if anything was just small potatoes. Remember, this is a $275 million organization annual budget. It’s a huge operation and this all boiled down to, well, we lost confidence in him because of yard signs or signs on a fence, or because I got an email late. If you have an employee with that level of responsibility, and you’re an employer, and you take such extreme action, because of this small stuff, it’s not consistent with running your operation. So most people think there was ulterior motives, another agenda. That’s apparent just from reading the text messages and there was no response with respect to what it said in the text messages between the commissioners and the city attorney, which had to do with the chief building official, the brother of the city attorney, and so that’s why members of the public I think at the end of the meeting just didn’t buy it, and didn’t accept the result, because it doesn’t ring true. The truth needs to be the basis for how we act and the facts. That’s what the public expects. And that’s what I expected. You heard me up there, I wasn’t expecting to get as incredulous as I did, but I was expecting to hear the facts from my colleagues who were proposing this and at the outset, as you heard, they weren’t even willing to say anything.”

It’s still a question as to how the commissioners who voted this way came to that conclusion.

Kaufman said, “The fact that we had a performance review in April, only two months ago, and that three of these commissioners, the outgoing commissioners, all gave Mr. Childress positive reviews. Okay, not the top review, fine. Not fives out of five, but mostly threes and fours, which are satisfactory, and exceeding expectations type of reviews. When we’re coming into the budget process, and we’re in the middle of hurricane season, if they wanted to do this, they should have done it in April. Why that’s so important is that there’s another layer here, of what looks like to be election interference, if you read the text messages, and I encourage the public to read the text messages, because we need to get to the truth. That’s important in everything that we do. You see that there’s a reference to the elections, and the reason why they’re putting off this meeting and keeping it secret, if you will, and the attorney for the commission took issue with me using that word, but I don’t know how else to describe it. The purpose of not disclosing that they were going to call this meeting until after election qualifying meaning no more candidates can decide to run was because they didn’t want this issue to cause people to oppose some of the candidates that were running unopposed and that’s election interference. That’s another layer to this, why members of the public and mind you, we had dozens and dozens of emails, we had dozens of people on Zoom, we had a packed commission chambers during the meeting, and not one person, not one was in favor of terminating Mr. Childress. Every single person opposed this. It begs the question how did we get to this situation? There’s still a lot of unknowns and investigations will follow.”

It looks as though there will be legal complications going forward.

Kaufman saic, “I do think Miss Downs, who was representing the commission, Mayanne Downs did a fine job, actually. She was doing her job. She’s trying to protect the city. She’s trying to protect the individual Commissioners, that’s her job. I was fully prepared to address her and address the legal issues. We had many discussions about that in advance, and quite frankly, yesterday wasn’t really about any of the legal issues. Yesterday was a political decision, a decision that we had to make as far as what was in the best interest of the city. Yes, there will be legal consequences. I believe there will be criminal investigations and civil investigations and perhaps investigations by the Florida Bar. But all of that comes as a result of our action yesterday. If we did not take that action, if the vote was four to three in favor of retaining Mr. Childress, then none of that would have been necessary. This is to me a mark in time, yesterday is a mark in time that will last for years. Unfortunately, we will hearken back on this day and because there will be a lot of consequences, both operationally in the city, and legally with whatever results.”