For more than an hour of the 90 minute 450th Commemoration workshop preceding Monday evening’s St. Augustine City Commission meeting, Historic City News reporters listened to a solo presentation by Commissioner Bill Leary about a trip that he says, for him, “was a game changer”.
At the request of City Manager John Regan about the time of the collapse of First America Foundation, Inc., the City of St. Augustine began holding a workshop prior to their semi-monthly commission meeting. The meetings, which were initially two hours and have been shortened to an hour and a half, were earmarked for matters pertaining to management of the upcoming four commemorations originally contracted to First America.
“I believe we have to stop managing the 450th out of the City Manager’s office and with his senior staff,” Leary told everyone Monday afternoon. “They, and we, have a city to run — witness the number of city issues we will address tonight.”
St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles commented in a previous workshop that it was at Leary’s insistence that he “went along” with entrusting outside management to produce the four signature events that culminate with the 450th anniversary of the founding of the city.
Boles still takes heat for the decision to advance payment for the entire four-year agreement to Upchurch-Bailey-Upchurch attorney, Donald Wallis — at least $100,000 of which remains missing and presumed squandered.
Leary told Historic City News that despite the First America fiasco, he still believes in “the concept” of an outside, non-profit foundation managing the commemorations. He admitted, at this point, that the infant First America Foundation, Inc., simply was not the right choice.
Heritage Tourism Director Dana Ste. Claire accompanied Leary on his September 15-18 trip to Washington, D.C. and sat in on the meetings; together with the commissioner.
Leary said that because of the various meetings, he has a new appreciation for our role in history and he made the analogy, “we are the hyphen in African-American, Spanish-American, Greek-American, and by extension, Native-American”.
Leary believes that when you understand that concept, you understand that we are what he and Ste. Claire call, “First America”.
“Of course we remain the Nation’s Oldest City,” Leary observed. “but, we are where the cultural melting pot that is America began and took hold.”
“We are first America. Dana has been pushing this for some time now. He’s right. This is our brand,” Leary opined.
“I think we are ill-equipped to make detailed decisions about the 450th. It is our nature to get into the weeds on 450th matters.”
Leary also says that the commission has not been treating citizens the right way, “We continue to fail to involve and inspire our citizens.” In his opinion, Leary said, “These workshops have resulted in too little in terms of fundamental decisions. We have heard presentations. We have talked some amongst ourselves, but too little and without adequate focus. As others of you have complained, we have heard little from the public at these workshops.”
Leary believes adopting a mission and goals, a logo, a brand, employing consultants and deciding about exhibition space are among the accomplishments of city staff over the past few months. However, Leary believes, “we need to change how we are managing these commemorations”.
“I believe our efforts will fail if we stay the course,” Leary said.
Leary expressed his general dissatisfaction with city staff trying to run the 450th commemorations. “Our city’s senior staff, whether it is general services, budget, planning, or public safety were hired to manage those aspects of city government, not the 450th,” noted Leary. “I am concerned that the 450th has become a distraction for them and requires skills beyond their otherwise formidable experience and expertise.”
In Leary’s assessment, the city manager delegated most of his responsibilities in management of the city’s core responsibilities to assistant city manager Tim Burchfield.
Leary went on to say, “While I was not then on the commission, I believe the four of you last year hired Mr. Regan to be the city manager not the 450th manager. I believe the city manager should manage the city.”
“More recently he re-assigned Dana Ste. Claire and hired Jennifer Zuberer as a 450th communications coordinator,” Leary said. “Both are direct reports to the city manager.”
“In a few cases, we have made some decisions immediately following the regular meeting, but they were not listed on the agenda and thus provided no real notice to the public,” Leary admitted. “That is the wrong way to treat our constituents.”
Similarly, the city commission was elected to adopt policy and help manage issues involving the core responsibilities of the city.
“Even those most interested in the 450th don’t know who is in charge,” Leary alleged. “Yes, there is a lot going on behind the scenes, but we appear to be groping along like larvae on a stick. Appearances matter.”
Leary believes the new federal commission “will run circles around us or become frustrated with us if we stay with this model”.
“I have said for years now that the city cannot run what are business enterprises involving branding, marketing, event management and fundraising,” Leary reminded the audience.
The city has an important role in Leary’s view. He says that view has been well stated by Mr. Regan involving “time, space and knowledge”.
“We must use our city responsibilities to facilitate and regulate 450th activities, but not to manage matters beyond our expertise and capability,” Leary said. “We must do what we do best, contract out what we don’t, and otherwise get out of the way.”
Leary says he feels the city should hire a 450th manager with experience in events as complex as this and allow him or her to employ the staff and consultants necessary to succeed. A nationwide search will quickly reveal to us several solid choices with the experience, knowledge and skills to manage the complexities of these commemorations.
“It is our best hope for the success our residents and we desire and deserve,” Leary observed.