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Our Views: Gainesville leaders owe us the truth
City officials evasive over city managers departure
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Duplicitous. Manipulative. Dishonest. Irresponsible. Illegal.

Select the word of your choice, and a good case can be made for applying it to the city of Gainesville's handling of the departure of its city manager.

The people of this town should be livid that those elected to serve the city refuse to explain their engaging in an ongoing deceit in regard to the departure of Bryan Shuler from the city manager's job.

Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed a lack of leadership from those elected to the city's top positions, as well as a disappointing willingness to mislead the public.

Because of their refusal to explain themselves to the people they serve, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in examining the issues involved in Shuler's departure. Given the way some of the city's leadership has reacted to questioning about the issue, we wonder if they have convinced themselves that fiction is fact.

City officials initially reported that Shuler abruptly left his post to take care of ailing parents. Because he was good at his job, many were saddened to hear that he was leaving, but accepted the explanation at face value and considered Shuler's decision a noble one.

In announcing their disappointment, not a single representative of the city government thought the public needed to know that he had been placed on administrative leave prior to resigning, or that an anonymous complaint had prompted the disciplinary measure, or that they city was considering paying him a severance package when it didn't have to.

In their naivete, those responsible for managing the city thought they could keep such facts hidden from the public. Now they have chosen to compound their mistake by hiding behind the "advice of counsel" in refusing to openly discuss details of the decisions made by the mayor and council over Shuler's departure.

Foremost among those is whether to award Shuler $76,000 in severance payments. Shuler's resignation letter makes it clear he expects the severance, and a letter drafted by the city over the mayor's signature suggests a settlement has been reached.

According to his employment agreement, severance pay was to be awarded Shuler if he were fired. If he offered a voluntary resignation, which city officials said was the case, the package was not to be paid.

In light of controversy created once details of the story emerged last week, city officials now are backing away from the position as stated in the letter written last month, which they now say was never presented to Shuler. On Friday, for the first time, an attorney for the city and a councilman said the severance issue has not been resolved, and will be the subject of a council meeting next week.

It seems a little too coincidental that once the city's plans became public there suddenly was a reversal in direction. Given the conflicting information coming from city hall, we have to wonder who told what to whom and when, and exactly how it comes to be that nearly a month after his departure the issue of severance payments to Shuler hasn't been resolved.

When we thought the city had agreed to the severance package, we wondered when such a vote had taken place. Now we're told a decision was never made. So why was a letter written indicating the severance had been approved? And why does Shuler assume the payment will be made?

And if the city doesn't owe $76,000 to the former city manager, how do you justify spending that amount of money for a former employee during bleak economic times?

This newspaper has made multiple attempts to glean from the city documents we feel are pertinent to the issue, and have been met with roadblocks at every step.

We asked for e-mail records for one month, and were told they could be provided to us at a cost of $25,000. We asked for phone texting records for the past month and were told the city had stopped keeping such records in July. We asked for an uncensored copy of the anonymous complaint filed against Shuler, and have been repeatedly told it cannot be provided out of concern for the privacy of those named, a position with which one of the state's top legal experts on public records disagrees.

At some point you have to wonder what it is about which the city is so worried.

Violation of the law is a matter for the courts to decide, but it is our opinion that the city has violated both the letter and the intent of the state's open records law. It has refused access to records that belong to the people.

We also have to wonder when and how decisions about the situation have been made over the past month, and whether there have been violations of the state's open meetings law as well. For those council members who might be wondering, conference calls involving a majority of the council also can be considered an official meeting.

Ironically, the one person who could have handled the issue best is the former city manager. Shuler was good at his job. He would have known that issues such as these can't be hidden from the public and deserve to be openly addressed, and likely would have advised the council accordingly. With a minimal amount of thought, the city could have handled Shuler's departure in a manner that would have left his legacy and reputation intact while maintaining the credibility of the city government.

Unfortunately, there is no one in a leadership position in the city willing to step forward and deal with the issue in an open and honest manner. Part of the problem lies in the weakness of how the government is established. With council members rotating on an annual basis as mayor, rather than having a chief executive elected to that position, there is a void of administrative leadership beyond the appointed position of city manager. It is time for voters to have a voice in electing a mayor.

What's truly sad is that by their decisions, the mayor and council have created a storm of controversy where none should have existed. As long as they maintain their poorly considered position on release of information to the public, harsh winds of criticism will continue to blow.

An investigation by the city into the anonymous allegation against Shuler has found it to be without merit, we were told on Friday. Given that, you have to wonder whether the city might have kept the services of a good employee had it handled the matter differently.

The people of Gainesville deserve answers from those elected to positions of public service. Those who refuse to be honest and open with the people they are sworn to serve have forsaken their responsibilities, and in doing so have destroyed the credibility of mayor and council.

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