County leaders at odds over cancellations, time off

  • County Commissioner Jeff Rawls
    County Commissioner Jeff Rawls
  • County Administrator Terry Suggs
    County Administrator Terry Suggs

Tension sizzled once again Wednesday morning at a Board of County Commissioners emergency meeting this time between Commissioner Jeff Rawls and County Administrator Terry Suggs. 

Board Chairman Terry Turner urged an orderly meeting as arguments erupted. 

“No. We’re not, sir, because (Rawls) doesn’t know how (to be orderly),” Suggs said. 

The conflict arose when Rawls compared the current coronavirus crisis to the 2009 financial crisis. 

“In 2009, the lesson I learned was if you were stuck in your ways, you were out of business,” Rawls said. “We’re going to have to think and change on the fly. It’s not going to kill anybody.”

Turner said seven employees from the Putnam County Library called out sick Tuesday, and if the library would have to close to keep people safe, it would be the proper solution. 

Deputy County Administrator Matt Reynolds said one county employee has been out of work in self-isolation. The employee went on vacation, but Reynolds did not know where the employee vacationed. 

“There seems to be no issues,” Suggs said. “However, we’ve asked them to follow CDC guidelines and self-quarantine.”

Rawls argued there should be no closure. Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered restaurants to be at half-capacity, but that contradicts the rule of no more than 10 people in a gathering, Rawls said. 

“This is where we need to be bold in our leadership,” Rawls said. “Encourage our employees to be diligent and safe for themselves but also continue to work.”

Suggs said comparing the virus to economic problems from 2009 doesn’t add up. 

“Comparing this, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful in any way, but to compare this to 2009 … there is no comparison,” he said. “2009 was a financial issue. This is a health issue.”

Rawls also voted against canceling the upcoming board meeting scheduled for Tuesday because he said in a time of emergency such as now, these meetings would be the best way to update each other rather than only emails or social media. The vote passed 4-1 as a precaution to the public’s health.

Despite DeSantis’ 10-person rule, 30 people attended the emergency meeting. Because of Sunshine Law, board meetings must be public, and access cannot be restricted to the community. 

“We are making bold decisions and we will do the things we need to do to keep business running as smooth as we can in Putnam County, but what we won’t do is put the remaining staff in harm’s way,” Suggs said. 

Rawls said he felt attacked by Suggs comments, but Suggs said he only wanted to make sure county employees know commissioners will put employees in “the best position to be safe.”

This is not the first time voices raised at a board meeting. A December board meeting escalated between Rawls and Turner as Rawls said the cost of hiring a contracting firm seemed “excessive.”

“This is where my B.S. meter starts to scream,” Rawls said in December. “Looking at the costs; it’s excessive. A continuing services contract doesn’t allow somebody to come in and charge 300% markup.”

A meeting in January saw Rawls and Turner break into another argument during a discussion to hire a firm to engineer bridge repairs. 

“Don’t sit here and be a d--k to me, OK,” Rawls said during the meeting, causing Turner to leave the room. 

The emergency meeting continued without issue. Commissioners decided another emergency meeting could be called, if needed, during Florida’s state of emergency, which lasts through April 15.

Turner said Wednesday he canceled meetings for later in the day out of safety and in compliance with DeSantis’ executive order limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people. 

“Life as we know it for the next month or two is just not going to be the same,” Turner said.