A special meeting of the Apalachicola city commission Tuesday night gave rise to a stormy confrontation between Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson and Planning and Zoning Chairman Tom Daly after the mayor called for Daly’s ouster from P and Z.
After a lengthy discussion, in which several audience members rose in defense of Daly, city commissioners split down the middle and thus took no action on the issue of Daly’s removal from P and Z.
The mayor had asked commissioners to confirm his recommendation, first made in an Oct. 16 letter to Daly, in which he requested he immediately resign from P & Z.
Instead, Commissioner Brenda Ash moved, and Frank Cook seconded, that Daly be stripped of his chairmanship of P and Z. That vote was 2-2, with Mitchell Bartley and Johnson each voting no.
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott was absent, so his vote will likely be the tiebreaker should the matter be addressed at the Dec. 4 regular meeting, or a subsequent meeting.
“Instead of complying, Tom Daly has chosen to challenge my directive in the court of public opinion,” said Johnson, at the outset of his prepared remarks.
“It’s a pattern, a continued disregard for established process, procedures and protocol, and an affront to the mayor, staff and residents of this great city. He basically does what he wants,” Johnson charged, as he outlined allegations Daly had acted beyond the scope of his authority in several instances.
“It’s about transparency,” said the mayor. “I guarantee if I did something like this you would run me out of town. It’s not right.”
Reading from the statement that further detailed the contents of his Oct. 16 letter, Johnson accused Daly of entering into an unauthorized agreement, in his capacity as president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society, to sublet the Raney House Carriage House to city consultant Bill McCartney, a private, for-profit entity.
Johnson said Daly had independently set the rental rate for that space, and “publicly voiced his intent to establish an office in that house” out of which he could “discuss projects with developers to create a City Planning Department.”
Pressed by members of the audience to detail this allegation, the mayor said “I got it from a reliable source.”
Apalachicola resident Susan Clementson, an active member of the historical society, rose in anger.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s slanderous language,” she said. “That is total hearsay. That is an absolute absurdity. I can’t believe you, mayor, if you are so concerned about ethics.”
Johnson also said Daly “has been involved in a range of troubling activities” that have included not following proper procedures for canceling P & Z meetings, or for holding them improperly.
Before leaving midway through the discussion, Daly defended actions he had taken on behalf of the historical society, although his version of events differed from that of City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb, with whom he had met to discuss the possible sublease of space at the Carriage House.
“Betty said ‘I don’t have a problem with that,’” said Daly, prompting a swift reply from Taylor-Webb.
“That is not correct,” she said, stressing that she advised Daly to go before the city commission to secure approval for the deal.
Taylor-Webb said McCartney works as an independent contractor for the city, to pursue matters of state funding, but is not a registered lobbyist. She said he is paid a percentage of monies that he brings in to the city, and carries a business card with the city’s seal on it to assist him in his efforts in Tallahassee.
She also noted that terms of the historical society’s lease of the Raney House from the city, which has expired and is being reviewed on behalf of the society by attorney Barbara Sanders, are explicit that no subleasing is allowed.
Daly said he was not made aware he needed approval of the city commissioners, but the mayor was adamant that he had.
“You were at the October meeting, when the issue came up about allowing Franklin’s Promise to use the fire station as a thrift store. You knew that,” said Johnson, his finger pointing directly at Daly. “You never came to this board. We weren’t given the opportunity to review it in a public setting. You know you were wrong.”
Daly rose in his defense. “I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong. I have the best intentions for this community,” he said. “This is an absolute insult to me. Half of what he said is untrue, if not all of it. I’m not going to stand up here and confront things that aren’t true.”
The mayor stressed that P and Z volunteers serve at the pleasure of the elected city commissioners. He declined to address Daly’s performance as P and Z chair.
“I’m trying not to discuss that,” said Johnson. “He’s eventually going to have the city in a lawsuit sooner than you can imagine.”
Apalachicola resident Gene Smith spoke on Daly’s behalf, noting he “has done an exemplary job of being head of P and Z.
“Did you ever make a mistake?” Smith asked of the mayor.
“I try not to make them over and over again,” replied Johnson.
Smith said Daly briefed the historical society board a few months ago regarding the lease, and that the executive board had approved the idea contingent on city approval. At last month’s meeting, city commissioners made clear the sublease was not permitted.
Ed Springer, who sits on the historical society board, stressed that “none of it was done with malicious intent.”
Apalachicola resident Bobby Miller suggested there was more to the matter than issues of public ethics. “Sounds like a witch hunt to me,” he said. “It almost sounds like he’s in the way of something in P and Z.”
Apalachicola resident Carrie Kienzle pleaded for commissioners to consider carefully whether such a harsh step as removal from P and Z was necessary.
“This is a person, a human being,” she said. “Is he a careless person? Perhaps. Overenthusiastic? Yes. Tom’s got his tail caught. But was there malicious intent? Was there criminal intent?
“This would be such a humiliation,” Kienzle said. “Think with your heart.”