Hernando Board of Alderman voted 6-1 to fire Parks and Recreation Director Dewayne Williams during a special meeting Friday morning, but were silent as to why.
The meeting was requested by Ward 3 Alderman Bruce Robinson and Ward 6 Alderman Ben Piper late Thursday evening and sent out to the other aldermen. The meeting was posted early Friday morning with just one item listed on the agenda - an executive session to discuss personnel scheduled for 9:30 a.m.
“It was a legal meeting,” Mayor Chip Johnson said. “They signed the letter requesting the special meeting and sent it out.”
Johnson said the meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and because it was an executive session, there was no public comment allowed.
“In an executive session setting, the public does not get to speak,” Johnson said. “It’s just the nature of it because you are talking about a specific person and it is all supposed to be private. The only thing that is supposed to come out of that meeting is the motion and the vote gets recorded.”
The short notice and the meeting’s purpose did not stop a crowd of residents form gathering outside in the parking lot to make their opinions known.
Dedric Hardy said he did not like how the board handled the firing because the public did not get a chance to speak.
“They are going to make the decision they are going to make,” Hardy said. “I just want to know why.”
Hardy defended Williams in a post on the Hernando Happenings group on Facebook on Thursday, saying the criticism of Williams by four new board members doesn’t add up and looks personal.
“Seems awfully prejudiced in nature to me,” Hardy wrote.
Hardy said most of the criticism was about the condition of the city’s ballfields, which the city doesn’t even own.
“I don’t think that most people know that the city doesn’t own the baseball fields,” Hardy said. “If you don’t own the fields, you can’t make any capital improvements on them. Most people don’t know this are blaming him, and most people who are complaining are not even from here originally, but are moving in.”
Hardy said residents should be blaming the aldermen for not providing enough money for the parks, not Williams.
“The board of aldermen approve the budget, the programs, and the goals and agenda,” Hardy wrote. “The city won’t pay up to par for umps and refs. The city don’t want to pay a decent wage for grounds workers. They don’t want to spend money adequately maintaining any of it. ”
Hardy said the people complaining expect Williams to provide a Ruth’s Chris (Steak House) park system on a McDonald’s budget.
“It takes three days to cut the grass because they only have five people to do so, and that includes him,” Hardy wrote. “Who’s lining up to cut grass for $10/hour? Who’s umpiring for $30 and in the same weekend you can get $55 a game at Snowden? The money issue is in the board of aldermen and not the parks and recreation director.”
This isn’t the first time Williams’s termination has come up. Ward 4 Alderman Chad Wicker added an item concerning Williams’s employment to the August 3 agenda, but no action was taken after a motion to terminate him died for lack of a second. Several residents expressed their support publicly for the job Williams was doing at that meeting.
Williams himself spoke about the matter at that meeting, expressing bewilderment over the way he was being treated. He claimed no one on the board had spoken to him about what he was doing wrong.
Wicker later issued a statement saying that the parks were one of the top complaints of residents during the campaign and that the public had lost confidence in the parks director’s leadership.
In a new statement released Friday, Wicker said today's special meeting was not "secret" and was done in accordance with the law.
"Special meetings are commonplace," Wicker said. "Due to the nature of the meeting, we were advised by legal counsel to hold it in executive session. This is what should have happened when the issue was discussed at the August 3 meeting, and going forward it will be the policy of this board to address all personnel issues in executive session."
Wicker also refuted the false narrative on social media that the decision to fire Williams was personal and was racially motivated.
"Any statement to the contrary is false and disgraceful," Wicker said. "These divisive tactics that have become commonplace on social media are exactly what is wrong with our political system in this country. It does the city, or residents of the city regardless of political view, no good to spread these mistruths."
Wicker said the bottom line is that Williams was fired because the newly elected board decided to take the parks department in a different direction, and that the board has already made other personnel changes as well.
"Since taking office, we have seen it proper to replace the city attorney, the city clerk, and a building official," Wicker said.
Ward 2 Alderman Andrew Miller, who cast the lone no vote against firing Williams, chastised his fellow board members for not waiting until Tuesday’s regular meeting to discuss the matter so the public could see what was going on.
“Why was it necessary to have a special meeting on Friday under the cover of darkness and not wait until Tuesday?” Miller said. “The people I represent are not happy about this. I don’t think there was enough due process here. They never stated a reason other than what they heard on the campaign trail.”
Miller expressed support for the job Williams has done as head of the city’s parks department.
“I think he did an awesome job based on the funding and the number of personnel,” Miller said.
Piper said he did speak to Williams one-on-one about his concerns and while it is never easy to make a personnel change, he believes the parks need a change in leadership.
“I appreciate the many years Dewayne has given in service to this city,” Piper said. “We have had a lot of board turnover with this last election and some changes already that we have made as a newly elected board. In our mind, it was just time for fresh leadership and a renewed direction for this department.”
Piper said the board was not trying to keep their decision to fire Williams from the public by doing it in a special session.
“I thought I owed it to him to give him clarity on it as soon as possible,” Piper said. “I knocked on thousands of doors as a Hernando candidate for alderman. I have no fear of meeting the public and discussing issues we have.”
Williams said he was disappointed by the board’s decision and that they still haven’t told him a reason why.
“The alderman have not articulated the reason why they want me gone,” Williams said. “They haven’t said anything.”
Williams said he believes the new board members based their decision to fire him on things they heard during the campaign from a small group of people complaining and not on any facts.
“I was hoping these new aldermen were going to be fair,” Williams said. “But what these new aldermen have done is they have chosen to listen to nefarious and negative people that have more weight and influence than the positive people in Hernando.”
Willliams pointed to a number of accomplishments under his leadership - including the last four years when former Mayor Tom Ferguson was against him.
When he was hired in 2006, Hernando only had three run down parks and no sports programs. Since then, the city has added seven new parks, trails, skate park, and soccer park that didn’t exist 15 years ago.
He said the city hired two groups to evaluate the parks in Hernando and neither pointed out any failures of leadership by him. What they did find was that the city was severely underfunding its parks.
“It didn’t come back and say the parks department was going to flourish or be successful or continue to grow if you get rid of the leadership and get someone else,” Williams said. “No, it said we need a minimum of $1.3 million in your budget to do the things it needs to do. It said it needs more money so it can hire more people.”
Williams said the budget he proposed for this year was for $1.1 million, still short of what they need.
“They have said they have high expectations for parks, then give me very little resources to do it,” Williams said. “That’s a set up for failure.”
Johnson, who hired Williams as parks director in 2006, recommended against terminating him, but said the board made its decision and now he will have to look for a new parks director.
“I’m not mad at the board members,” Johnson said. “They make their own decision. And everyone has their own sources and voices who influence them. It is what it is. There is nothing I can do about it. It was a 6-1 vote which means they had their reasons. I have to go along with it.”
Johnson added that he did not have an issue with Williams’s leadership of the parks department and would have preferred the board to have given him a list of goals and objectives to work from.
“I’ve always come in and given everybody a chance,” Johnson said. “When I came in in 2005, I didn’t get rid of anybody. I worked with everybody. They have known all along that I would have preferred to do a work plan. That’s my style of governing. Obviously the board had a different opinion. But he has done nothing that I would call unsatisfactory in the last couple of months.”
Johnson said Williams did a number of good things for the city, but it is time to move forward.
“This is a personnel issue and the board made their decision,” Johnson said. “The city is going to keep moving forward and I am going to do my best to find another parks director so we can move forward.”