By DOTTY NIST
At a special county commission meeting advertised for “Discussion regarding County Administration and Human Resources,” Walton County District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson brought up concerns with Walton County Administration—and made a motion to fire the Walton County Administrator Quinn Robertson. The motion was seconded but later withdrawn by Anderson without a vote being taken.
The 1 1/2-hour Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) special meeting took place on Nov. 13 at the Walton County Courthouse.
Due to meeting length and press deadlines, Herald – Breeze coverage of the regular BCC meeting, held the same day, will be published in the Nov. 22, 2023 edition of the Herald – Breeze.
Complaints aired about county administration
Anderson opened the meeting by stating that the current direction of the administration and “deputy assistant administrator” overseeing the department was contrary to the policy recommended by their operations inspector and adopted by the board in February 2022.
Then-Walton County Operations Inspector Gary Mattison had brought policies before the BCC at that time, some of which had been approved by the officials.
Anderson continued, reading, “The administration have taken an active role in the management of individual departments and is not empowering our directors to run their departments. Directors are being required to get approval from administration that is already authorized by them, by the BCC in the past.”
He charged that appointments to department head status were occurring without BCC confirmation “which is a violation of a state statute.”
Anderson also noted that the operations inspector report had called for separating administration and Walton County Human Resources in order to avoid the type of issue that was now occurring.
He charged Walton County Administration with exceeding its statutory authority by disregarding the report and not obtaining BCC approvals “for this matter.”
“Violation of county policy by the administrator,” Anderson continued, “that required documentation: use of vaping cigarettes in county buildings and vehicles is a violation of county policy.”
“The county administrator must be written up,” Anderson urged, “for future violations back, brought back to the BCC.”
“These are things that really bothering me;” Anderson added, “the employee morale is at an all-time low. Several employees have had someone from administration directly or indirectly threatening their jobs. We have a good staff…of directors, longtime employees of Walton County that’s worked their way up to directors.”
“I feel like that, because of these issues, I make a motion that we terminate Mr. Robertson of his duties.”
With no second to the motion forthcoming, BCC Chairman Danny Glidewell temporarily relinquished the gavel to second the motion for Robertson’s termination.
Discussion on motion for termination
With board discussion proceeding, District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns called for staff to play two videos. “These are the procedures for firing somebody, and we are not following those procedures,” she maintained.
The first video was one of Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, presenting the recommended procedure for addition of items to a meeting agenda. This called for the action requested to be taken on an agenda item to be specified and laid out in advance of the meeting. The BCC had approved the policy in June 2021.
The second video was of Anderson commenting on the BCC’s May 11, 2021, firing of then-Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Jay Tusa. Anderson had been critical of the action in part because of what he had described as insufficient notification of the public that the BCC would be considering such an action. He had asked staff to bring forward ideas on how to ensure that the public would be aware that actions of this nature were going to be considered by the BCC and would be allowed to provide their input.
With the videos completed, Johns said that prior to the Nov. 13 special meeting she had had “no idea what this meeting was about.”
She continued, “I personally did not know that we were here to fire our, our fairly new—I believe he has been here 4 1/2 months, maybe—administrator who is doing a dynamite job.”
Johns complained that the way the agenda item was listed had been very vague. “And I think it was wrong to put it on a holiday weekend,” Johns said, pointing out that she and Robertson were the two veterans on the dais.
District 3 Commissioner Brad Drake asked Anderson if he would like to address his “180 degree turn around,” from what he had stated in the video.
Anderson replied that he had contacted the chairman to ask for the special meeting and had contacted the county attorney to ask if this was a proper procedure. He offered to withdraw his motion if told by the attorney that it was not legal.
Drake acknowledged that the law appeared to be technically in Anderson’s favor but said it seemed that his decision to proceed in the manner he was doing was a hypocritical one.
“This is not about the things that were stated,” Drake charged, speaking of the opening comments that Anderson had read.
“This is about power and positioning,” Drake alleged.
“This is about the axis of evil,” he concluded.
Glidewell objected, raising a point of order, “Commissioners are not supposed to…question the motives or impugn the motives by the commissioners, and that’s pretty much an impugning of Commissioner Anderson, which is not proper.”
Glidewell continued that it is within the purview of any commissioner to request a special meeting for certain purposes and that Anderson’s request for the meeting had been in order. He said that in his opinion it was “sort of special” for Johns to say she did not know “what was fixing to go on” at the meeting.
“It’s obvious from the room full of people—that and 200 emails that we got all weekend that everybody was pretty much aware of what was going on,” Glidewell observed.
Johns said that she had received in the neighborhood of 300 emails.
“There’s a bunch of them,” Glidewell replied, “and they were questioning a hiring that, as Commissioner Anderson pointed out , the board should have approved by statute and we didn’t. We didn’t get the opportunity.”
This was a reference to Robertson’s recent hiring of Joe Turner as assistant county administrator, announced to the BCC in public session on Oct. 10. Later some in the community had questioned the hiring after media articles were identified and circulated on social media—articles critical of Turner in connection with his role as a citizen leader in opposing illegal immigration during his previous employment in California.
“And I find it sort of problematic,” Glidewell continued, “that a five-minute Google search would have revealed exactly what these people were complaining about—and the county administrator has to this day not talked to me…one second about that hiring. To my knowledge, he hasn’t talked to any of you all, and that’s a problem.”
“There’s a lot said about day-to-day operations;” Glidewell added, “that day-to-day operations stuff cuts both ways. We’re not supposed to tell them what to do about how to fill a pothole.”
Direction resulting from a 2015 grand jury investigation in Walton County had warned Walton County commissioners to refrain from being involved in day-to-day operations of county government.
Drake asked Glidewell if he had ever gotten involved in day-to-day operations. Glidewell responded, “To my knowledge, no sir.”
With the motion to fire Robertson still on the floor, Drake then asked if the commissioners could be sworn in for discussion on the issue on the agenda for the remainder of the meeting and made a motion for the officials to be sworn. The motion was allowed but failed in a 2-3 vote, with Drake and Johns voting in favor and Anderson, Glidewell and District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick voting no.
Returning shortly to the motion regarding Robertson, Anderson commented, “I’m very uncomfortable with our current administrator. I’ve lost faith in him. Our county employees have lost faith in him.”
Glidewell was in agreement, stating, “You know, it’s better to move on and cut our losses rather than continue down a path that I think is not appropriate.”
“Another thing that concerns me greatly,” he added, “is that our directors have been told not to talk to the commissioners. That’s a problem to me.”
“First of all,” Glidewell explained, “I am a citizen…I have the right to discuss county issues with the directors and with staff just like everyone else does.”
“And I think we owe it to people to fix problems when we see them,” he concluded.
After speaking at length about the BCC’s discussion at the time of voting to hire Robertson, District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick noted that, although he had disagreed with some of the administrator’s decisions, he had not felt it to be right for him, McCormick, to “even give the appearance” that he was using his position as commissioner to influence the decisions.
McCormick also said of Robertson, “He has done nothing that, for me, raises this to the level of terminating him with cause…”
Motion withdrawn, new motion approved
With McCormick’s statement concluded, Anderson said, “I will withdraw my motion, and I will put it on the agenda for the meeting in the south end.”
Anderson said he had another motion. “I would like,” he said, “the county administrator to bring a complete report of all organizational changes, including positions, reporting, responsibilities—that have been made, and that he recommends be made—back to the board within 30 days, for BCC approval.”
Asked by Drake to clarify the motion, Anderson restated the proposal, adding that Walton County Human Resources was to “make directions, part of a performance improvement plan and for the county administrator to document this as part of the personnel file.” He also changed the wording to “for approval or rejection,” regarding the actions to be reported by the administrator.
McCormick seconded the motion.
Johns inquired whether it was the case that Robertson was the one person responsible for hiring and firing anyone with the county, other than the county administrator, county attorney and chief financial officer, positions subject to BCC hiring and firing.
Attorney Adkinson said this was correct “with the caveat the department heads are subject to board (BCC) confirmation.”
Johns asked if Robertson had hired any department heads.
Robertson replied that he had not done so. Addressing the statement that statutorily there is BCC confirmation of department heads, he said he had checked with staff before the meeting and had learned that the board had not appointed any department heads within the last decade.
Johns asked if there had been any disciplinary action in Robertson’s personnel file during the months he had been with Walton County. Robertson replied that there had not been.
Glidewell said he did not believe any individual commissioner could put a disciplinary action in Robertson’s file, that it would have to be done by a vote of the BCC.
Johns asked Robertson if the BCC had voted to put any disciplinary action in his file.
He replied no.
In response to a question, Walton County Human Resources Director Nathan Kervin said he was not aware of the BCC having appointed a department head within the past decade or more. Asked whether Turner’s position would be considered a department head position, Kervin deferred the question to legal counsel.
“That’s something we can sit down and look at,” attorney Adkinson advised.
Kervin suggested that county policy for hiring of directors be amended to comply with state statute.
Glidewell was in agreement, saying that it was not a good stance to say that the county would continue with the existing procedure because the law had not been followed in the past.
“I wasn’t aware of that statute until last week;” Glidewell said, “that’s my fault… however now that I am aware, I’m not in favor of breaking the law.”
Since the motion on the floor was deemed to be ministerial by legal counsel, the BCC did not take public comment from attendees.
Johns voiced concern that the motion for Robertson to be directed to bring back the information requested might represent the BCC “getting into the weeds,” and micromanaging the administrator. She said she did not think he should have to come to the BCC every time an employee is moved from position to position.
“I was under the impression part of the reason we wanted him here was for reorganization because we have problems in several areas,” Johns said.
“We have the right to know what’s going on,” Glidewell responded.
McCormick said his intent in seconding the motion had not been for Robertson to have to defend his decisions but just to bring information on them to the BCC for an update.
With a vote taken on the motion for Robertson to bring back the information, it was approved 4-1, with Johns voting no.
Officials hear remarks from Robertson and Turner
Addressing the commissioners Robertson recalled that before Joe Turner’s arrival, he had spoken to each commissioner individually about Turner, his background, and where he came from. He said with any hiring, firing, or disciplinary action it was his practice to speak with human resources for double checking of any action with input from the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) attorneys who represent Walton County, in order to ensure that things are done correctly.
Robertson said his understanding was that Turner was not a department head or department director and therefore did not fall under the statutory BCC confirmation requirement.
He continued, “I do not support continuing bad policy or bad directives in regards to historically not having department heads appointed,” and said it would make sense to comply with the confirmation requirement for directors in the future.
Robertson concluded by saying that it would be “a wonderful idea for everything that is mentioned today,” to be investigated by an outside firm with regard to all parties, “and then make decisions in December or when that investigation has been concluded.”
Glidewell was pleased to hear that Robertson was in favor of an independent investigation, “because that’s what I think the people that I’ve, we’ve all received those emails from are asking for, was an independent investigation of the hiring process for the assistant county administrator.” He asked about proceeding with that investigation.
Adkinson agreed to move forward with consulting with human resources to prepare for the investigation.
Johns called for an additional investigation.
She said, “I would like to ask for an outside investigation to find out where these 300 electronic emails came from. It was one topic, one letter, all electronic signatures.”
“One person initiated this,” Johns said, “and I would like a full outside-of-this-county investigation of where it originated.”
She called the emails “a smear tactic on a brand new employee that hasn’t even been here a month,” speaking of Turner.
Johns continued, “I have been told by a very good solid individual that overheard an individual speak to someone else that wants this position, and he said to him, well, we can get rid of the assistant county administrator, and you can slide in there, and then we can get rid of the deputy or get rid of the county administrator and you can take that job.”
She said she wanted Turner to address the commissioners, in part because,
“he’s against illegal immigration, and, by God, so am I!”
“Whoa, we’re not getting into that… that’s not what this is all about,” Glidewell reacted.
After some additional discussion on the hundreds of emails, Johns said she was not sure that a crime had not been committed with those.
Attorney Adkinson’s recommendation was that if Turner believed a crime had been committed against him, that should be reported to law enforcement, as the BCC does not have authority to conduct a criminal investigation or issue arrest warrants.
Assistant County Administrator Joe Turner addressed the commissioners. He said he is 46 years old and an activist opposing illegal immigration since he was 17 years old. “I’m a proud nationalist,” he said, “and I’ll be damned if I’m going to get bushwhacked in Walton County by leftists and rinos; that’s not going to happen to me.”
Countering allegations that he is racist or a bigot, Turner said his wife was born in Korea and came to the United States legally. He said his stepfather is Hispanic and a former gang member that his mother met while she was working as a secretary in a prison where his stepfather was incarcerated. Turner explained that his stepfather was “born again” and became an evangelical pastor.
Turner said he was not impressed with the “smear campaign” that had been waged against him over the past weekend. He said he had never threatened an employee and pledged to bring “efficient, accountable government to the people of Walton County,” at the pleasure of the county administrator.
Drake laments ‘dirty politics’
“This is about a power play,” Drake asserted.
“It’s about Mr. Turner and Mr. Robertson being used as a pawn on a power chess board; everybody in this room knows that.”
“Reputations are trying to be ruined; lives are trying to be destroyed,” Drake lamented; “this man’s job has been gone after…”
“It’s all about dirty, dirty, filthy politics that have existed in this county for far too long,” he charged.
“The time was ripe; there were people that saw opportunity to pounce, and they used this man right here,” Drake said of Turner, apologizing for the embarrassment he had been subjected to without having done anything wrong.
At this point Drake moved to terminate the services of Clay Adkinson as acting county attorney, and his motion was seconded by Johns.
Although the item was not on the agenda, Adkinson did not object and said he did not take the motion personally. He added that he would continue to serve as long as the BCC so desired but stood in support of the officials’ efforts to hire a county attorney.
Drake said it was not personal on his part either, “because this is the only tool in the toolbox to counteract what has happened today.” He did not explain further but repeated that the reason stated for the meeting was “not the reason that we’re here today.”
Glidewell was of the opinion that the motion was not a proper one but allowed it to proceed to a vote since Adkinson had not opposed it.
The motion failed in a 2-3 vote, with Drake and Johns voting in favor and Anderson, Glidewell and McCormick voting no, resulting in Adkinson’s services as acting county attorney to continue.
This concluded the special meeting.