The political bromance between Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson and Franklin’s Promise Director Joe Taylor has hit a rough patch.
In the final minutes of the June 6 city commission meeting, the mayor called for Taylor’s removal as manager of the city complex, accusing his longtime political ally of deliberately interfering in Johnson’s quest to have Head Start relocated into office space at the former high school.
The mayor said Taylor had put up “all kinds of barriers and obstacles” to the process, to the point where Police Chief Bobby Varnes had to be called in to direct a no trespass order.
“It was very disturbing to me as mayor of Apalachicola,” said Johnson. His motion that the city commission remove Taylor and appoint a new facilities manager, did not draw a second.
Johnson’s insistence that Taylor had stonewalled the process drew comments from City Commissioner Brenda Ash, who took issue with the current practices.
“With any city-owned facility, there should not be just one key outstanding. There should always be a key at the city office,” she said. “It’s owned by the city and the city should be able to access that property at any given point.”
Ash said she would like to see a review of all the current leasing arrangements.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of this. This whole thing came down to one key?” asked Commissioner Jimmy Elliott.
“Not one key, but access,” replied Johnson. “It’s not personal. It’s called business and it’s called leadership.”
The mayor suggested that Helen Escobar, who oversees the Matchbox gymnasium as part of a public-private partnership, be named to manage the city complex. Johnson later asked City Administrator Lee Mathes to provide Escobar with keys and leasing details of the building, a task that Mathes handled Friday.
“The facility has so much potential and it’s being underutilized because of this need to control,” Johnson said. “We can’t have that. I’m just looking for somebody who can manage the facility and operate it. She has a demonstrated ability that she cares about the facility.”
Together with about $20,000 annually in city money, Escobar has infused her own funds into refurbishing the high school’s gym, which now sports a new floor as well as up-to-date fully wired space for coaching, tutoring and relaxation.
Taylor, who sat quietly in the back for the entirety of the lengthy meeting, spoke out strongly in his defense.
“I am shocked the way that you describe the circumstances,” he said. “I completely accommodated everything you asked except for the day I was not available.
“I am completely devoted to working for the city in accommodating every request. I came in and made myself available,” Taylor said.
“Your time as manager of that facility, as far as I’m concerned, is up,” replied Johnson.
“I’m sorry you made this personal. Please consider our history,” Taylor said.
“It’s not personal to me,” said the mayor. “We have worked closely on a lot of projects.”
Johnson said space had been used by Taylor for items that belong to him, and that eight spaces are not being rented. Mathes said she now is brushing up on details of Franklin’s Promise’s leasing arrangements with various tenants, which has been handled by Franklin’s Promise under an agreement with the city to manage the building.
A popular exercise facility, storage and refrigeration space for the food pantry, offices for Disc Village and other substance abuse and mental health treatment options, costuming and set storage space for Panhandle Players, are among the uses being put to the space that for many years enclosed the education of half of the county’s teenagers.
In addition to his motion regarding Taylor, the mayor also sought to have the city commission look into creating a city administrator position that would not replace Mathes, but assume greater duties. “Someone who can write grants and who can meet with state officials,” said Johnson.
He said Mathes had twice missed opportunities to meet with staffers of state legislators, regarding getting a measure, proposed by consultant Bill McCartney, through the legislature that would address a $4 million loan obligation the city continues to owe on wastewater treatment funding it received some years ago.
The refinancing plan went nowhere, and the mayor holds Mathes partially responsible, although McCartney was not as certain.
“I don’t know if that’s the reason or not,” he said. “The agencies had agreed and we presented it to our delegation. As far as I know it was not done and we were not funded.”
The city commissioners showed little interest in moving forward on the subject of a city administrator.
Apalachicola resident Carrie Kienzle defended city staff.
“You can’t ask someone to do something that isn’t in their scope of work, and you kind of know that,” she said. “We have these growing pains and we’re putting all this responsibility on this staff and it’s too much for them.
“It’s just a lot, it’s an awful lot,” Kienzle said. “I want to say how hard the staff in this town works and they don’t make the money and they don’t get the recognition for what we’re asking them to do.”