The four candidates seeking to replace Jim Fuller as Duval County Clerk of Courts are all opposed to giving bonuses to employees, an action raising questions about Fuller, who leaves office in January.
Fuller, who will turn 63 this month, was prevented from seeking another term after a judge ruled term limits applied to his office and he could not seek re-election to the $149,000-a-year post.
Now, a Democrat, a Republican and two candidates running without party affiliation say they disapprove of some employees in Fuller’s office receiving thousands of dollars, while the county workers in the department took a 2 percent pay cut. Only Fuller’s state employees received a bonus.
“It is unfair to single out a class of employees like this,” said another Clerk of Courts candidate, Democrat Brenda Priestly Jackson, who argued that when bonuses were given, they should have been given to both city employees and state workers. “It is unfortunate.”
Since 2006, Fuller has requested about $373,000 for his state workers.
Republican Ronnie Fussell is opposed to the bonuses and payment in the future.
“The short answer is no, not in these times when we are cutting wages and laying off folks,” he said.
John Winkler, who ran as a Democrat four years ago against Fuller, is now running without party affiliation.
Winkler, president of Concerned
Taxpayers of Duval County, gathered documents on Fuller’s past bonuses in his campaign for the post.
“For good reasons or bad, the former mayor, past councils and the media let the Clerk get away with fiscal murder,” Winkler told the Council on Sept. 25.
Local attorney Averrell Maynard Thompson is also running without a party affiliation.
“I believe that Jim Fuller should not have used tax dollars to fund bonuses of his political employees in the current economic environment,” Thompson said.
Pay records obtained by Folio Weekly, many of which were supplied by Winkler, show Fuller has been giving out bonuses as far back as 2006, but this year topped the list when he proposed almost $174,000 in bonuses.
The city paid the first request, for 23 employees who received $47,522 in bonuses, in August. But when Fuller sought more bonuses in September, totaling $126,406 for 34 people, city pay officials questioned the second group and sought an opinion from the City’s General Counsel. Everyone paid in August is on the September bonus list, but the September list contained 11 more bonuses.
Ten of those who received bonuses gave the $500 maximum contribution to Fuller’s re-election campaign in 2008, although he asserts there was no connection between the campaign gift and the bonus.
“These employees have performed exemplary during the past year and, due to their diligence, we have been rated one of the most efficient clerk’s offices in the state,” he wrote on Nov. 27, 2006, in asking for the bonus payments. His note was identical in 2007 and 2008.
Assistant General Counsel Mary Jarrett, in a memo to Jarik Conrad, chief of human resources for the city, questioned “why the Clerk’s office is proposing repeated pay raises (in a lump sum format) within the same fiscal year and only weeks apart. … We discussed concern that the payments are actually intended to be in the nature of a bonus which cannot be provided to employees after services are rendered.”
Jarrett recommended that the September payments be suspended pending review and Fuller, who was on vacation at the time, agreed to deal with the bonus situation when he returned, but has not yet made any public announcements about what his plans are.
The Clerk of Courts position is a hybrid of city and state government. Fuller has employees who are employed by the state of Florida. Others are paid by the city of Jacksonville, and many have had to take a 2 percent pay cut and an unpaid furlough day.
Fuller’s assertion — that the $174,000 he wanted to give out in bonuses was state money and not city dollars — didn’t sit well with the Jacksonville City Council, which removed that amount from the money the city supplies to his budget for the 2012-’13 fiscal year.
During a time when city employees are being laid off, pay is being trimmed, library hours are being cut and the weeds and grass on city rights-of-way aren’t being cut, his comments rang a sour note with City Councilmembers.
Fuller was out of town when the controversy hit the Council like a political tsunami.
Fuller’s wife Barbara sent Councilmember John Crescimbeni an email, blasting him for questioning the bonuses.
“First of all, the Clerk’s budget is from the STATE … not the City! His budget is generated by fines and fees the office collects, not from any City money!”
In the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, the state budget for the Duval Clerk of Courts office is $15.7 million, while the amount budgeted by the city was $2.88 million, minus the $173,928 taken out for bonuses.
Barbara Fuller concluded her remarks, saying, “So, Mr. Arrogant Crescimbeni, I have sat back long enough, listening to the likes of you and ‘other’ entitlement mentality liberals, wrongly blast my husband for doing an ‘exemplary’ job for which he was elected.”
Crescimbeni replied, “I appreciate his 12 years of service as our Clerk. What I don’t like is the fact that the Clerk has given bonuses to 34 of his employees at a time the city faces one of its toughest budget years in history. How do we explain those bonuses to the hundreds of city employees who have also gone ‘above and beyond their duties’ but no longer have jobs or were demoted into lower-paying jobs? How do we explain those bonuses to citizens who will be rightly concerned that budget cuts are resulting in reduced library hours and reduced mowing of city rights-of-way to four times per year?”
“It would take me an hour to give all my reasons why this is terrible,” Crescimbeni said in a Council meeting.
Crescimbeni told Folio Weekly that he doesn’t think the issue is over.
“I am going to suggest to the Council Auditor that we put him [Fuller] on a list for a forensic audit for the past five years and see what is going on,” he said.
City documents show Fuller has been granting bonuses as far back as 2006, when he doled out $66,000 in extra pay. On Dec. 15 of that year, he granted a $3,000 bonus to his top aide Gordon Morgan, 11 bonuses of $2,500 each and 22 bonuses of $1,500 each.
On Dec. 14, 2007, Fuller granted 37 bonuses ranging from $500 to $1,500 per employee totaling $30,500. He granted another group of bonuses on Sept. 5, 2008, ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 per employee, totaling $102,500.
City records show Fuller didn’t give any bonuses in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
A new state law could make this year’s bonuses null and void. The law says bonus plans must be based on work performance and workers must be informed about the standards and evaluation used to award a bonus. In addition, all employees should be told about the bonus, and all employees should be considered for a bonus, according to a memo from Mary Jarrett of the city’s General Counsel Office.
There have been no reports of other agencies receiving bonuses.
Fuller was one of 90 people to apply for the top job at the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, but he is not among the three finalists. The JTA Board is expected to decide on the new executive director on Oct. 10 or 11.
During his tenure in the Legislature, Fuller was chairman of the House Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Committee and turned down an offer from Gov. Jeb Bush to be secretary of transportation.
Crescimbeni, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, told The Florida Times-Union in an article published Sept. 24, “I can’t imagine what those city workers who were laid off last week, who got demotions with pay cuts, think about this. It’s gut-wrenching.”