Charter requires written charges, hearing

A move to terminate the contract of Port St. Joe city manager Jim Anderson was, at least momentarily, slowed Friday during a contentious 62-minute meeting.

Entering the meeting there were clearly three commissioners, Commissioners Brett Lowry and Eric Langston joined by Mayor Bo Patterson, inclined to vote on the termination.

Lowry put forward the motion, Langston seconded and that came after Patterson said he had lost confidence in Anderson’s ability to handle the city’s day-to-day operations.

Lowry’s motion was to terminate Anderson “without cause” which was greeted with verbal protests from the packed, standing-room-only crowd.

But, Anderson, saying he performed his job to the best of his ability and in the interests of the city, requested, as is his right under the city’s charter, the presentment of written charges and a public hearing during which Anderson could defend himself.

The city’s new attorney, Adam Albritton, said that was the only legal path for the board after Anderson’s request.

The question became whether to suspend Anderson pending that process; at the end of the meeting Langston made the motion, seconded by Lowry, to leave Anderson in place pending “due process.”

When written charges would be presented to Anderson or a hearing scheduled was not known at the time meeting was adjourned.

What commissioners heard leading up to that vote was at times personal and always pointed, with more than a dozen speakers taking to the podium, all but one speaking in favor of Anderson.

“I’ve never worked with a finer person than Jim Anderson,” said Paula Pickett. “I know he will get my problems solved and he does so respectfully and professionally.”

Pickett was just one of many who spoke to the character of the Anderson they know, a man who works hard, on the job and at home, and is a family and church-attending man.

Anderson, who has been with the city nearly a decade and served the past six years as city manager, was praised for his work with the city, particulary during a period when the city was in dire financial straits, with a real prospect of being unable to meet payroll.

“This man, with his staff, has created a positive balance in the city … and you are crazy as heck if you run him off,” said local businessman and former commissioner Greg Johnson.

“You are running a big business as if you were two kids with a baseball. It has to stop. Something is going on behind the scenes to drive this. He stepped on somebody’s toes.”

From the podium Johnson submitted a formal public records request for the cell phone bills of all five commissioners for the period April 1 through May 11.

Johnson was not the only person to suggest a driving force beyond the three commissioners poised to terminate Anderson.

Resident Steve Womack said that while the allegation would be difficult to prove, it appeared two or more commissioners may have violated Sunshine Law, “colluding” to ensure three votes to terminate Anderson.

And scheduling a special Friday morning to perform the task.

“The motivation for this isn’t Jim, it is not you, it is money,” Womack said.

Several speakers noted that they had grown up in the city and community, knew some of the commissioners for years and expressed dismay at one was transpiring.

“Bo, what you are doing to this man is wrong,” said County Commissioner Phil McCroan, a former city commissioner. “Brett, you have disappointed me this morning.”

In addressing Langston, who said he was voting to terminate Anderson because of the deprivation in North Port St. Joe, the lack of money flowing into the area, McCroan said that did not fall on Anderson.

“Eric, Jim does not set policy, that is done by this board,” McCroan said. “You drive those policies. He works for five men which is about as hard a job as you can get.”

Travis Burge, a member of the city’s Planning Development and Review Board, said Lowry’s grandfather would “roll over in his grave” if aware of what Lowry was doing.

“This is not diplomatic, what you are doing,” Burge said. “People in this community are tired of it. One of you has initiated this.

“Put it all on the table instead of under it.”

The justifications for the loss of confidence in Anderson expressed by Lowry and Patterson, who requested Anderson’s resignation during a Wednesday morning meeting, were held close to the vest.

Only with some prodding from the audience did Patterson mention one incident, which bubbled during a public meeting, concerning Patterson’s ability, or lack thereof, to unilaterally establish working hours and salary for code enforcement.

In the aftermath of that incident, Patterson alleged the Anderson, in a private meeting, pointed a finger at him and said the mayor would be greeted “with fire and fury.”

Patterson said he had been in “fear for my life” during the seven months since.

Several speakers said they had a difficult time believing that the Anderson they knew would have uttered such a thing.

One speaker wanted to discuss threats to his life allegedly made by Patterson while other suggested Patterson submit to drug and alcohol testing.

When prodded by other speakers to elicit his reasons, Lowry chose silence, further angering many who contended “he worked for them” and should be required to detail reasons for such a drastic step as terminating an employee.

An employee, several suggested, who “is the only one at city hall that stands for anything.”

Several speakers noted that the commissioners voting to terminate Anderson had based their more on emotion and less on facts.

And others noted that regardless of the outcome of the move to terminate Anderson, there would be, as Johnny Linton said, “some changes. There are three or four of you who won’t be here next year.”