HIGH SPRINGS – In an unannounced move Feb. 9, the High Springs Commission appointed Jeri Langman to the permanent position of City Manager. Although it was not on the agenda, commissioners made the appointment during the final moments of the meeting, raising concerns among several people in attendance that the matter should have been deferred and taken up after being advertised to the public.
Despite harsh criticism from some, on a motion placed on the floor by Vice Mayor Barnas and seconded by Commissioner Linda Gestrin, commissioners approved the measure in a 3-1 vote. Mayor Dean Davis also supported the appointed while Commissioner Sue Weller cast the only vote against it.
“I’m not happy with the way this is going,” Weller said during a workshop prior to the meeting. “I’m not happy with the fact that we have a manager in here that, in my belief, does not have the experience or the knowledge as a city manager to bring us forward,” she said.
It was during that workshop before the regularly scheduled commission meeting that it was reported that the only remaining candidate in the running for the job, W.D. Higginbotham, Jr., withdrew from the process.
Langman was hired as the interim city manager in December at a salary of $4,000 monthly without benefits. She replaced Jenny Parham, who served as interim city manager and was compensated about $1,500 monthly in addition to her role as city clerk. Langman will drop the interim from her title, but will see a marked increase in compensation. In approving the change, commissioners also gave Langman an annual salary of $55,000 plus benefits.
The appointment did not come without heated criticism from several people calling on the commission to reconsider the action. Most of those speaking out in opposition to the appointment urged the commission to restart the city manager selection process. Others, however, lauded the commission and encouraged their fellow residents to stand behind Langman and the city.
Barnas said he was pleased with Langman and didn’t want to search for another city manager. “I have no other process to start,” Barnas said. “I wouldn’t do another process until…the upcoming election in November,” he added.
But numerous people spoke out against aborting the search for a city manager, including resident Laura Graetz who said the city needs a city manager with the proper qualifications to run a city.
Graetz referenced an employment advertisement for the city manager position, in which the desired qualifications are outlined. Among them are 3-5 years of responsible municipal government experience, professional management experience and economic development experience. “I asked for a public records request for Mr. Langman’s qualifications that were submitted for this and there is none of that on here,” she said.
“She may have many good qualities, but not those that are required for city manager,” Graetz said.
Linda Jones said she voted for Barnas and Gestrin but accused the duo of switching their positions.
“I’m sorry to see they’re taking a different position,” said Jones, adding, “I think this has come up as a payback.”
“That’s the way it appears, and I’m very disappointed,” she said.
Other residents, including Bob Hallman, supported the commission’s move and blamed the city’s prior administration for harming its financial position.
Hallman also said unrest in the community might be explained by what he considers inaccurate news reporting. “You’re going through an experience where it’s not unusual for the people in the community to come up because, well, the information they’re getting is through the newspaper, and the information may not be accurate.”
Hallman did tell the commission that he thought there was some “serious staff problems” at the City. But he supported the appointment of Langman saying, “I think you have a good situation. You should hang on to it.”
Resident and employee Don Alderman said he was pleased with the direction of the City, but warned that the commission’s swift actions on Thursday might not be perceived by the public in a positive light, and therefore, motivate people to replace commissioners. “Most of you have your positions up there due to the perceptions,” Aldermand said.
After Barnas made the motion during the City Commissioner Comments portion of the meeting to appoint Langman, former City Attorney and High Springs resident Thomas DePeter sharply criticized the move.
“Commissioners comments is the point where you choose to make the most important decision that this commission can make, the person who is going to run this city, be the most powerful person in the whole city. No interview process. No vetting,” DePeter asked of the commission.
“Your vice mayor didn’t want to interview anybody from your list of candidates until the person has been vetted,” DePeter said of Barnas. “My question is, what vetting having you done for the current person you’re going to name as your city manager?”
“You haven’t even allowed an interview for this person. No public interview. No demonstration of the qualifications.”
“You can’t wait two weeks, put this on the agenda, so at least people can come and know that the most important position in their city is going to be filled permanently by somebody?” he asked.
“Just put it on agenda for the next meeting; then you can get some feedback.”
Noting that the motion was made at the end of the meeting, DePeter said, “Wait until people actually leave the meeting, then at the last minute, make a motion to appoint the city manager.”
In perhaps his most harsh criticism on the matter, he said, “I’m just not sure whether you don’t realize what you’re doing, or you realize what you’re doing and you just don’t care.”
Barnas responded, saying DePeter did similar things while sitting on the dais as the city attorney. Standing by his motion, Barnas said, “This has to be done for the city, and we’ve been elected to do it.”
Another criticism came online as former commissioner Eric May noted on his blog site that in making the appointment during commission comments, they violated the city’s own rules. According to section 4(L) of the city commission’s Rules of Procedures, “Final action can only be taken if the City Commission waives its Rules of Procedures.” That waiver never occurred. Although there appears to be a violation of the city’s own rules, the appointment of Langman is unlikely to be successfully contested as the rules are not state law.
Langman’s appointment was effective immediately.