Story by ADRIANNE WALLINE CAMPBELL
The DeFuniak City Council held a special meeting to discuss the contract proposal presented by Robert Thompson, City Manager, on Nov. 29, 2022, at the old DFS City Hall.
The council had approved a six-month term at the regular meeting the night before (Nov. 28) but did not approve the contract that Thompson had stipulated. Attorney Clay Adkinson relayed the stipulations of a new agreement Thompson requested. He asked that when the six-month term was completed, and receiving satisfactory evaluations from the council, the contract be converted to an open-ended, indefinite agreement, that would then require a 4-to-1 vote to terminate and would not be subject to six-month reviews. In the month preceding the last month of the term, an evaluation would be conducted by the city council. Each council member would turn in an evaluation, four satisfactory evaluations would automatically renew his term. If he moves into that renewed term, evaluations would then be done every 12 months. The termination agreement would be reduced by him giving the city 60 days, to 30 days. And that if terminated, he would receive his base salary for those 30 days.
Severance would be due under one of three scenarios:
• Termination for any reason other than for cause.
• Non-renewal of the employee agreement
• Upon his resignation
Then severance would be due and payable as a lump sum cash payment equal to 20 weeks aggregate pay, or $46,000.
Council member Kevin Crystal said he was not voting for this contract due to some of the terms in it. He asked Thompson if he was holding fast to the contract or would be willing to negotiate some of the terms. Thompson said, “we can negotiate.”
Crystal said, “I can’t in good faith, give someone $46,000 to leave. You know our budget as well as we know our budget. Another problem I have is that with some of the things in this particular contract, I cannot see an automatic renewal of the contract. I’ve fought hard to keep you, but I can’t sign off on this.”
Newly appointed Council member Josh Sconiers said, “Last night, the first lady that stood up and asked us all to put our personal feelings aside and for all of us to sit here and try to get along and do the best interest of the city. I thought about that hard. Not only then, but when I went home. I prayed all night and I prayed for Mr. Thompson when I first got here. We talked; I like Mr. Thompson. We have to do what’s in the best interest of the city. I can’t sign off on this contract. The severance package I have a real problem with.”
Council member Todd Bierbaum said that “Mr. Thompson and I had met as recently as last week and discussed his goals and objectives. At that time, I assured him that I had not made up my mind. I wanted to hear from others before making my decision. The decision is not about terminating him but hiring him back. I can say with firm conviction that the contract is not in the best interest of the city. Now he can receive $46,000 if he does not renew due to unsatisfactory evaluations or if he quits. The council wanted to seek protections regarding the length of his contract and any claims that might exist, and he does not desire to waive those unless he is given an indefinite contract. What bothers me the most is that he wants the determination of this new contract being extended for an indefinite length to be based on individual evaluations of the council averaged together. We all know those are done in private and handed to him. I always learn a great deal reading those evaluations both good and bad observations from my fellow councilmen and would never get to hear those unless we did it in public. What this new contract does is deprive the council of the chance to discuss the matter like we did last night. The opportunity to discuss and debate brought the matter from a 3 – 2 vote that would have ended Mr. Thompson’s employment, to a 5 – 0 that could have kept him as city manager. We have no such opportunity in six months under this new contract. I cannot in good conscience approve such an agreement. So tonight, I will not be voting for this contract.”
Council member Henry Ennis Sr. said “This whole thing I think should have never happened. I’ve heard you say, ‘don’t use tunnel vision, look at the whole picture’, I’ve seen that time and time again. I think that you could whatever happened, bring it up and discuss it. So, in my book, I never saw any reason to come to this point. I’m for it. But this is, goes beyond solving this problem. I think we should go back to the drawing board. That this should get straightened out, things got out of proportion. But there again, we have to make a decision to bring this up or not. Work toward a firing mode. Sometimes we jump to the firing mode and get out of this tunnel vision and see the whole picture and do some commonsense thing. I can’t vote for that.”
Mayor Bob Campbell said, “My question for you is what language would be acceptable to you.”
Sconiers said, “When I spoke last night, I really didn’t know what to say. Mr. Thompson gave me advice from the beginning, ‘sit back and breathe. Just look and listen, and then speak what’s on your heart.’ And that’s what I did. The thing about the street painting, I am so glad that Councilman Crystal spoke up because that was the first thing that was on my mind. The thing that hit me today was going back to what that lady said last night, because I have not had the time to sit up here and work with you as long as these gentlemen have.”
Council member Anthony Vallee declined to speak. Thompson asked for a recess and the mayor agreed.
Thompson then spoke, and said “I came to the city in good faith as an outsider to right this ship. There’s not a seaman out there that hasn’t hit a seagull, well, iceberg, or mis docked. It is very hard to be perfect in an imperfect system. I have a staff that words don’t describe their commitment. When my staff are asked to go above and beyond, after hours, to do everything to keep this city running with no accolades. What you all don’t see is that I’ve pushed them very hard, but I also would pick up a stick, a broom, a shovel. And tonight, I have to basically question, if I’m not good enough for an 18-month extension, why am I good enough for six? Mr. Campbell is correct; I have a lot of degrees, a lot of experience, but I have more integrity. I have no Ill will toward anyone, but tomorrow is my last day. I’m not going to relocate or move away. I wish the city the best. But I’m not going to lower my dignity to serve a body that doesn’t feel I’m worthy. So, I thank y’all, sincerely.”
Mayor Campbell thanked Thompson for everything he has done and wished him the best.
Adkinson verified that Thompson’s contract ends at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 1. Crystal said he was number 13, and “we’ve got to stop turning over employees.”
The council approved to hold a meeting Thursday, December 1, 2022, at the City Hall to discuss hiring a new city manager.
Thompson said that he wasn’t leaving the area, and he hoped to work from home and work on his 1969 Camaro.