One more thing about Crystal River, and then I’ll shut up.
I took a stroll Wednesday afternoon through the bay side of downtown. I found the breeze a little brisk at King’s Bay Park, but the sun was warm. The stroll from Town Square was, as always, slow and pleasurable.
Crystal River is such a lovely town. It’s easy to see why tourists go ga-ga over the place. Manatees may lure them here, but this city has plenty to offer.
As the city’s master plan came together, I marveled at the link between citizens and government to form a unified vision for their town. At Just Wright Citrus, I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the city government in large part because of that link.
Which makes this all the harder to write. Because the truth is, folks, the blunder in the city manager leaving is not the city manager leaving. Rather, it’s the deliberate wall the city government raised to block the public from knowing how or why.
The Chronicle touched on it slightly in an editorial this week. This whole thing was hush-hush. And clearly orchestrated. I’m not the brightest crayon in the box, but even I could tell something was amiss after seeing Doug Baber’s, cough cough, resignation letter, and the $35,000 “consultant” separation agreement that went with it.
And, oh, a stoney silent City Council that said not a word before approving this thing. Tell me, please: How could this possibly be good public policy?
I thought long during my walk about how best to approach this blog. What’s done is done. I’ve written two blogs about it already. Why keep piling on?
Here’s why: I’m too fond of Crystal River not to.
Let’s dive in.
A quick setup: The city manager, Doug Baber, and his assistant, Michael Manning, abruptly resigned Jan. 22 after six months on the job. The city council approved a separation agreement that includes a non-disparagement clause, meaning neither party could say anything bad about the other.
However, public records showed a series of statements from top city staffers complaining about Baber’s management style, and that’s putting it mildly.
I decided pretty quickly I wasn’t going to pursue this very far. It seemed more a Chronicle story than blog material. I had one follow-up question to the city clerk, one request for more emails, and a few minor questions.
It became clear that the city has gone to great extent to keep this Baber unpleasantness under wraps.
I get it, to a point. There’s a city hall revolt, the entire senior staff is ready to walk out, and someone needs to take charge in a hurry. That’s not the sort of thing council members should be blabbing all over town.
However, the attorney telling the City Council to stay quiet about a City Hall personnel matter suddenly morphed into staying quiet about a city manager resignation and separation agreement that cost taxpayers $35,000.
And therein lies the rub.
The public should have been brought in at some point during that process. Probably during the separation agreement part.
I asked the city if there was an investigation. The answer was yes. I asked for documents. They said there were none.
C’mon. That just doesn’t cut it. An investigation without reports is no investigation. Here’s what I wanted to know:
— Who conducted the investigation?
— Under whose authority was the investigation conducted?
— Did the investigation reach a conclusion? If so, what was the conclusion?
The city’s answer was no answer, citing that vague let’s-be-nice clause in the separation agreement. I wasn’t asking for anyone’s opinion about Doug Baber. The message from the city is clear: We’re not discussing this. Period.
And that’s why City Council members sat stoney faced the day they accepted these agreements with zero explanation to the public. The attorney had scared them whitless that if they uttered a word, all heck was bound to rain down in the form of lawsuits.
That may be true, but the city should never place itself in the position of keeping taxpayers in the dark to appease an out-the-door bureaucrat.
I’m serious about this. Transparency in local government is everything. That’s how trust is built or lost. The city built it through its visioning process. It lost some of it last week.
I hate saying that. Hopefully, the issue will never arise again. I’m sure the city wants to move on. I’m right there with them.
Please, though, no repeat. OK?
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.