By Agrippina Fadel
Community engagement liaisons are a hot topic for the Tamarac city commission, with members “throwing stones” at each other, figuratively, over how much of the part-time staff’s help they should have.
According to the city website, the liaisons — or assistants –provide a wide variety of clerical and administrative support in the day-to-day operation of the mayor and city commission office. The position requires a high school diploma and one to two years of administrative experience.
In February 2021, the commission voted to allow up to three liaisons per commissioner. However, they would have to share 25 work hours a week.
On February 9, Vice Mayor Mike Gelin asked his colleagues to consider increasing that time to 29 hours per liaison. The commission agreed to instruct the staff to look into the matter, so on February 23, Christine Cajuste, director of financial services, presented the results.
Liaisons are paid $20 per hour, said Cajuste, and the 2022 budget reflects approximately 1,250 hours per year of work, with each commissioner asked to limit the number of hours to 25 per week to stay within budget. She added that the total cost of having liaisons currently is $141,608, including a $600 cellphone budget and $13,608 for incidentals (meals, travel, and other reimbursable expenses).
Villalobos and Placko have one liaison each; all other members have two.
“If we increase the hours for liaisons based on the current number of them, the budget will go up to $272,620. If every commissioner has the maximum of three liaisons as the ordinance allows, and they all work 29 hours each, the budget increases to $511,164.00,” said Cajuste.
Commissioner Debra Placko asked if using interns would be a better solution.
“There are so many bright young people out there, maybe we can utilize their talents, and it would give them an opportunity,” said Placko, adding that the city “doesn’t have an open checkbook,” so if commission members need more help, interns could be a better solution than raising the cost of liaison hours.
Lerenzo Calhoun, director of human resources, explained that the use of unpaid interns carries a danger of breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act if interns and liaisons perform the same functions since only the latter gets paid for the job done.
Calhoun added that the city could look into having different job descriptions for the interns, volunteers, and liaisons, to be able to use them all.
Gelin explained that some of his colleagues might not need the extra help as much as he does, accusing other commissioners as being “rubber-stampers” who vote on what staff brings to them. In contrast, others are “true policymakers,” doing research and bringing items to the city commission.
He then mentioned some of his initiatives as an example, including the Anti-Corruption Act discussed that day, not mentioning the $300,000 disparity study he proposed at the same meeting with alleged ties to his wife Shaheewa Jarrett Gelin.
“As a commissioner, you are a boss and an executive; the executives don’t do the dirty work. They direct, give orders, evaluate, edit, finalize and present it to the community,” said Gelin.
Commissioner Elvin Villalobos responded that the commission has plenty of resources without the extra hours. “Between the city staff, two full-time admin coordinators, and 25 hours of liaison time, it is enough to do our job. Otherwise, if we are not up for the task, we should not be on the commission,” he said.
Commissioner Marlon Bolton interjected, saying, “While we are throwing stones, let’s not forget that commissioner Villalobos went through three or four community engagement liaisons.” Both commissioners went back and forth with agitated comments, with Villalobos asking for a motion to remove Bolton from the dais.
Mayor Gomez then asked city attorney John Herin if that was the correct removal procedure, with Herin confirming, “if it gets a second, it can be voted on.”
After a long pause and absolute silence on the dais, Gomez said to Villalobos: “I can tell you, I would love to pass a gavel and say yes, but the reality is, there is nobody on this commission other than you and I who have the stones to say that commissioner Bolton is behaving out of line.”
The mayor then asked everyone to stick to the topic to finish the meeting before the end of the day.
Gelin continued to persuade his colleagues, saying the liaison work gets more young people involved in government and helps them understand how it works, with commissioners “serving as mentors.”
“My former liaison is now a commissioner in Coral Springs. She was able to learn about the government from the inside out and apply it at her city,” he said, referring to Nancy Metayer, elected in 2020.
Gomez said she is against adding liaison hours but is open to rejuvenating the intern program.
“We know what we signed up for when we got here, and we are not “the boss.” Just like everybody else, we have a role to play and do the work. We don’t need to spend the budget any further. We need to do our jobs.”
The commission voted no 3-1, with only Gelin a yes, and Bolton staying silent through the vote.
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- Agrippina Fadel grew up in Siberia and received her master's in journalism from Tyumen State University. Agrippina is also a writer and editor at Draftsy.net. She has been a US resident for over ten years and speaks English and Russian.
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