JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Discussion of how the city should spend its scarce dollars got surprisingly personal during a meeting of the City Council Finance Committee last week.
In a rare display of fiscal micromanagement, committee members last Thursday paused in their attempt to balance the billion-dollar budget in order to discuss the salary of a single city employee. After criticizing the job qualifications and performance of Emergency Preparedness Manager Terrance Ashanta-Barker, committee members unanimously voted to re-appropriate his salary and use it to hire staff elsewhere.
The finance committee approved moving $175,000 – roughly the cost of Ashanta-Barker's salary and benefits – from the Fire and Rescue Department's Emergency Preparedness Division and instead using that money to hire six new 911 emergency dispatchers.
Ashanta-Barker was handpicked by Mayor Alvin Brown in March 2011 to head up the city's Neighborhoods Department. But his performance there drew scathing reviews from councilmembers, who complained he was rarely available and accomplished little.
"We basically stripped Neighborhoods from him because he was incompetent in his job," Councilman Matt Schellenberg told First Coast News Wednesday. "He wasn't doing what he was supposed to do. He was hired to take care of neighborhoods, take care of blight, and he wasn't doing any of that."
The job qualifications for the director's position changed in February during the reorganization approved by council, which Schellenberg celebrated. "He was out of a job. And that was fine with me."
But as committee members discovered in their budget review, Ashanta-Barker was quickly chosen to handle the "100 Resilient Cities" program, a federal initiative under the Emergency Preparedness Division.
Asked if the decision to hire Ashanta-Barker was his choice, Chief Senterfitt told council, "I was asked if I could take another person and I said yes." (He declined comment for this story.)
Councilmembers told Senterfitt they didn't believe he was to blame, but painted the reassignment as political patronage. "This is a very sad and pathetic way to go about doing things, just to put somebody in a position just to keep them on the payroll," Councilman Clay Yarborough told the Chief. "That's just deplorable, and we shouldn't do business that way."
Councilman John Crescimbeni said he shared that frustration, but worried that the fund transfer would "come at the expense of three or four employees who are much further down the org chart" instead of Ashanta-Barker.
Ashanta-Barker did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement provided to First Coast News from Emergency Preparedness Director Steve Woodard, he called Ashanta-Barker a "valued addition to the Emergency Preparedness Division." (Full statement at bottom.)
This may not be the only employee targeted this budget cycle. When asked if there were others in the committee's crosshairs, Schellenberg said that while this was the "most glaring example," there are more.
"I think there are other people in the administration that I've mentioned to them, and they're looking to find a solution and have them move on," he said. "But this happens a lot."
Full statement from Emergency Preparedness Director Steve Woodard on Terrance Ashanta-Barker:
"Terrance Ashanta-Barker is currently assigned to the Emergency Preparedness Division, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, in the position of Emergency Preparedness Manager. Mr. Ashanta-Barker is a licensed attorney in Florida and has an extensive background in project management, and community and economic development. He is currently working on short term and long term disaster housing issues. He is also coordinating initiatives between the city and other partners to ensure the resilience and sustainability of our community in an all-hazards environment. Mr. Ashanta-Barker is a valued addition to the Emergency Preparedness Division."