FLAGLER BEACH – The City Commission of Flagler Beach on Thursday night voted to fire William Whitson, the City Manager of almost two years. Whitson’s firing comes after multiple incidents which severely strained his working relationship with the Commissioners, putting his employment on the perpetual hot seat for months on end.
The vote to part ways with Whitson was 4-1, with Commissioners Eric Cooley, Ken Bryan, James Sherman, and Deborah Phillips in favor and Jane Mealy dissenting. At times it seemed uncertain whether the Commission would have the requisite three votes to fire Whitson if the occasion arose, but Thursday night proved they did.
Whitson’s chief transgressions in the eyes of the Commission were accused mishandlings of the city’s annual firework show and a large tourism grant application. In the former, Whitson failed to procure the city’s usual firework provider in time for the Independence Day show, and in the latter he did not submit the application in time to access millions of dollars in grant money. This incident led to a breakdown of relations beyond just Whitson; Commission Chair Ken Bryan and Mayor Suzie Johnston grew tense after Johnston attempted a last-second submission without the knowledge of the Commission.
Still, the Commission all agreed that Whitson was to blame for both these failings – they just had different ideas for a course of action. Cooley was most amenable to the idea of a firing from the start, regularly being the first Commissioner to voice the option in times of unrest.
The conversation in Thursday’s meeting over what to do about Whitson was nothing if not tense. He made an impassioned plea for his post, saying “it doesn’t take you threatening my job” to achieve the improvements the Commission has been rallying for. Chairman Bryan specifically named the incomplete rollout of employee pay raises as something he was disappointed to see. “What I see are holes in reporting and getting the job done,” he went on to say.
Cooley was critical of the prolonged issue of the city being short-staffed. Though Whitson said to Mayor Johnson that all the available jobs had been posted, the issue still remained a lingering concern. “We’re missing someone that’s assertive,” added James Sherman, concurring with Bryan on the delayed pay raise issue. Jane Mealy pointed out that she disagreed with certain criticisms of Whitson, but digressed from starting a debate.
There were two motions on the future of William Whitson: the first was by Mealy, to retain him for the time being. Deborah Phillips seconded, bringing it to a vote, but Cooley, Bryan, and Sherman struck it down. The second was to terminate Whitson, made by Sherman and seconded by Cooley. It was necessary to have a separate vote for termination after the failed vote to retain according to City Attorney Drew Smith. This second motion carried.
Whitson will assume a 60-day administrative leave until April 10th, at which point he will receive a severance. Richard McFadden, the city’s Chief Building Official, will hold the post of City Manager until a special meeting Monday to appoint someone to the full interim term. At this point a new City Manager search will begin, with the city having just done so in 2020 to replace the late Larry Newsom.
The search will happen still against the backdrop of Palm Coast’s recent prolonged and difficult City Manager search; dozens of applicants were brought in and passed on before interim Denise Bevan was ultimately appointed to succeed the resigned Matt Morton.