Wallis no-show – stall for press conference

When Historic City News announced the agenda for last night’s City Commission meeting in St. Augustine, we were eager to hear what Chairman Donald W. Wallis had to say about how he’s using the $275,000 in “seed money” he was paid from City funds.

We wrote:

Monday night, Historic City News local government reporters will watch as First America Foundation, Inc. Chairman Donald W. Wallis faces members of the St. Augustine City Commission – and the public – and may give some idea of how he is using the $275,000 in “seed money” he was given.

But, then again, he may not.

Sadly, he didn’t show.

In his place was former program coordinator for the City of St. Augustine Heritage Tourism department, Jamie Alvarez; who introduced herself to the commission with the title “Director”. Alvarez later clarified, when questioned by Commissioner Bill Leary, that she was a staff director — not the yet to be hired Executive Director.

Alvarez, a Flagler College graduate who studied Public Relations, was very articulate and well spoken — but, Monday night, people in the audience were overheard saying they felt Wallis made a “sacrificial lamb” of her.

The frustration of some who were watching from the chairs in the back as well as some at the commission table, was apparent; perhaps most notably frustrated was Commissioner Leary.

Alvarez gave a brief overview of where the current Board of the First America Foundation is headed; however, there were few specifics. Rather, Alvarez announced that there will be a “press conference” scheduled to be held at 10:00 a.m. January 26th at the Llambias House, located at 31 St. Francis Street in downtown St. Augustine.

Leary opened with apologies; knowing that he had amassed some pointed questions from anxious constituents and on his own … questions that he thought he was going to be directing to Wallis.

Before Leary began to question Alvarez, Mayor Joseph L. Boles, Jr., who holds a seat on the board of the private First America Foundation, suggested to Leary that he might direct his questions to Wallis — outside of the meeting. Leary was not deterred and preceded with his questions.

Leary expressed some doubt that the untested foundation was going to perform the requirements set forth in its contract with the City. At issue was what the foundation had to show for the five months that they have spent getting organized internally.

Leary pointed out that money follows programs and he was not clear on what programs, exactly, the foundation was planning. Leary pointed out that there are specific events enumerated in the contract with the foundation for years 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Leary asked Alvarez if the foundation had indentified the programs that will be promoted; she said that they had not.

Leary asked if the foundation had a calendar of events for the commemoration — at first Alvarez confirmed that she did have a calendar from which they were working, however, on closer questioning, she admitted that the calendar was on her desk, only, and was not available to the public.

Leary expressed concerns over the details of the status, planning and execution of the commemoration programs; noting a distinction between his request, as a commissioner, for reporting as opposed to exercising decision making for the foundation. Without specifics, Leary expressed further concern that the foundation will have criteria in place for the fair processing of applications to participate in performing events.

Alvarez raised eyebrows when she commented that the foundation has “a framework of a plan” but that the strategic plan was yet to be developed. As justification for what some viewed as inaction by the foundation and spending of taxpayer money in secret, Alvarez pointed to the fact that the foundation’s role has changed, the international plan has changed, over 40 committees were outlined in the original plan while, now, there is partnership process and what she described as a “very, very selective, event or program” application approval process.

This seemed contrary to previous comments that, at some point in the future, applications will be available online and in the foundation office. In a previous appearance last year, Chairman Wallis promised accountability and complete transparency. When the contract was drafted, City Manager John Regan said no reporting provisions were included. “Some City contracts have that language, some don’t,” Regan said. Since Alvarez continued to speak to complete transparency in her remarks, Leary asked the City Manager if the contract “could be amended to memorialize what Miss Alvarez has said”. Regan said he can “ask” them and see what they say.

City Attorney Ron Brown made a point of clarification that First America Foundation is merely a vendor to the city and that the commissioner’s role is to provide oversight through progress reports only — questions about their bylaws, corporate structure, who is on the board, how they go about hiring who they hire, etc. are off limits in order to legally protect that “independent contractor” relationship.

Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman asked to attend a meeting of the foundation board — not to comment, but to observe. Regan, Brown and Alvarez expressed opposition to that idea, however, Freeman persisted. “I still want to request to attend a meeting,” Freeman said.

As to Leary and Freeman’s requests, the best Alvarez was able to offer was that she would “take the requests back to my Board of Directors”.

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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