Port St. Lucie mayor JoAnn Faiella says she stands up for city residents

PORT ST. LUCIE — Eighteen months into her four-year term, Mayor JoAnn Faiella has been the center of much controversy — and makes no apologies for it.

Though some residents are calling for her resignation, Faiella said she won't resign or back down in the future.

"I'm just going to continue to be me. This is who I am. I'm not going to change for anybody or bow down for anybody," Faiella said. "That's not being cocky. It's all about leadership and communication."

Faiella said when people voted her into office in November 2010, they wanted change. They wanted more transparency. They wanted better leadership. They wanted improved communication between City Hall and residents. They wanted someone who stands up for the people.

"Well, now you got it," she said.

The unrelenting mayor described herself as a fighter, one who stands up for the people and not one to rubber stamp decisions or back down from what she believes in.

Much of the turmoil that style has created has occurred in the city's Police Department, where Faiella worked for eight years before her election. There has been turnover. Former employees have filed lawsuits against the city, including one against Faiella. The state investigated Faiella and then cleared her of any criminal wrongdoing in the firing of a former police chief.

In a 90-minute interview with the St. Lucie News Tribune at Sixty Sundaes restaurant Thursday, Faiella responded to criticism about her style and explained how she plans to move the city forward.

"It's the constant drama that, as the mayor, drags me in. Innocent things turn into fiascos," she said. "Here I go, I try to protect myself and do the right thing (and it) turns into a misunderstanding, and I think it can be rectified."

PLAGUED BY A PAST OF POLICE POLITICS

Faiella's mayorship has been shrouded with the perception she meddles in Police Department affairs and is a puppet for the police unions.

Before her election, Faiella held a number of positions at the Police Department, including community service aide, crime intelligence analyst and records specialist.

Heavy support from the police unions helped Faiella win the seat.

Controversy erupted just weeks after she was elected when former City Manager Jerry Bentrott fired Police Chief Donald Shinnamon.

Shinnamon, who is suing the city for wrongful termination, had laid off two dozen police officers as part of budget cuts. That created a public feud between City Hall and the unions. Then Bentrott fired Shinnamon with no explanation.

Shinnamon publicly accused Faiella of threatening to fire Bentrott if he didn't get rid of Shinnamon, but a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation cleared her of any involvement in his firing,

Faiella also is the subject of a lawsuit filed by a former police captain, claiming she is the author of an anonymous note accusing him of corruption. That captain, Joe D'Agostino , was laid off in April as part of a string of cuts City Manager Greg Oravec made in the Police Department.

Faiella told the Tribune she didn't like how the department was run while she worked there and described the environment as a "good ol' boy" system rife with favoritism. Since taking office, she said the department is moving in the right direction and much of the cronyism has been "weeded out."

Less than a month after the City Council appointed Oravec city manager in March, he eliminated 12 police positions, including three captains and two majors. The move freed up about $2 million to hire new officers, but it also resulted in four of the officers and two civilians filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city.

Faiella said people have criticized her for allowing the terminations, though she said she has no administrative power over people fired. She said it was strictly Oravec's decision.

Since Faiella has been in office, the city has seen a high turnover in key positions. The council fired one city manager and is now on its third police chief.

Faiella sees those changes as a positive for the city. Though unpopular, Faiella said the turnover has moved the city in the right direction.

"According to the current city manager, Greg Oravec, in his opinion, this should have been done a long, long time ago, but nobody had the courage to do it," Faiella said. "Let's face it, nobody wants anybody to lose their job. I'm not standing up there cheering because somebody lost their job. It's sad."

'I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING WRONG'

The most recent controversy centers around the botched hiring of Craig Novick.

Novick withdrew his candidacy before ultimately accepting the job late Thursday, after Faiella made phone calls to his bosses in Franklin Township, N.J., inquiring about his dealings with unions and why he made the move

from township police chief to township manager.

Novick said Faiella violated Port St. Lucie's charter, and he accused the mayor of being a bully and unethical.

"I stand by my decision, and if I had to do it all over again, I will," Faiella said.

Faiella's calls to the Franklin council members came a day after Oravec told her Novick was his top pick over two other candidates, Jerry Speziale and Michael Deal.

Franklin council members told the Tribune Faiella inquired about why Novick, who was police chief before becoming the township's manager, was no longer chief. She also asked about his dealings with unions. Faiella concedes she discussed unions but denied she brought up the subject.

Some Franklin council members, who are highly supportive of Novick, told him they felt Faiella was trying to dig up dirt on him.

Faiella and union members had preferred Speziale, but Faiella told the Tribune she would have been happy with any of the three candidates as police chief. She said she also called people who worked with Speziale and Deal, including the mayor of Altamonte Springs, where Deal is a deputy chief of the Altamonte Springs Police Department.

Faiella said the intent of her calls was to get answers for residents who asked her how the candidates dealt with elected officials and other government boards. She said there was no violation of the city's charter and she would not react to calls from some citizens for her resignation.

"I'm not going to resign because I didn't do anything wrong," Faiella said. "There's no question in my mind that we're all going to move forward from this."

The city's charter spells out the duties of elected officials and specifically says that council members cannot give orders to city officers or employees publicly or privately. Faiella said City Attorney Roger Orr said she was within her right to call the Franklin council members. Faiella's private attorney, John J. Anastasio, also weighed in. He said since Novick was a candidate and not an employee, there was no charter violation.

"The charter simply talks about not giving direction or orders to any employees," Anastasio said. "It doesn't talk about investigating. In fact, there are actually provisions in the charter that provide for the council to investigate and have subpoena power and so forth. So in this case they're saying she went outside the charter. That doesn't apply. It's only when you give an order. She couldn't go and tell the chief of police fire somebody or change this shift or do something like that."

Faiella also said she did not want to participate in public forums or interviews with the police chief candidates because of the misconception she controls the Police Department. However, she said Oravec encouraged her participation and input. So she had Human Resources Director Susan Williams sit in on her interviews with the candidates to witness the discussions.

Faiella said she holds no ill will toward Novick and believes the city can get past the controversy, She called the whole ordeal a misunderstanding.

"We all needed to take a breather on this because there was no malice," she said. "One day we'll all laugh about this over coffee. I'm excited he's coming to town. I'm just going to welcome him as the chief of police and let him do his job."

'POLICE DEPARTMENT EAT THEIR OWN'

Since taking office, Faiella said there's been a lot of misconception with her relationship with the Police Department. It's an issue she said she'll likely never be able to defuse.

"You can't take that away because I came from the Police Department," she said. "That's why I always tend to step back. And that's why I took the precaution that I did in having (Williams) in my (office) during the candidate interviews because I don't want them to say, 'She said this.' And even when the new chief comes, I'm not there to run the Police Department. I'm not there to micromanage anything."

Faiella said the Police Department always has been a controversial department since she worked there, and she hopes with Oravec in place, things will change for the better.

"The Police Department eat their own," she said. "It's the nature of the beast. Even the former mayor had issues with command staff. There's always been that animosity because there's always been a wall, a divider between City Hall and the Police Department. Greg is trying to take the wall down, create leadership and say, 'Hey, it's not your department, it's our department. That's the new Team Port St. Lucie spirit that he's creating."

Faiella said she's going to move the community forward with continued transparency and accountability. She said she has an open-door policy and will answer any questions residents ask her.

"The reason why I got elected in the first place is people wanted change," she said. "So do you want a mayor that's going to rubber stamp everything or do you want a mayor that's going to get out there and do her job?"

Faiella said she was just doing her job when she checked out

Novick.

"Even with this happening, I've gotten a lot of support (from people who) have called me and said, 'Mayor, we know you didn't do anything. We expected you to do that. We know your personality, that you were going to get the information we asked you about," she said. "You can't make everybody happy and that's something as a mayor or an elected official you have to accept. But in my heart, if I could sleep at night and say I did the right thing I'm OK with that."

Excerpts from this interview

These are excerpts, not in order, from a 90-minute interview Mayor JoAnn Faiella gave the St. Lucie News Tribune about the controversy during her first 18 months in office:

Q: What do you think about all this controversy?

A: I'm saddened that it happened, but again, I'm not going to deviate from what I said before. I stand firm that I didn't do anything wrong. I did my due diligence as the mayor. This is the first time since I've been an elected official that we hired a chief of police. So, with that said, Mr. Oravec, the city manager, opened it up to the public for public input and also to the council to get their input and recommendations. So once you did that, the door is open. You had residents that did intense background checks. You had other residents that called on candidacies.

Q: As far as the candidates go, did you prefer Jerry Speziale over Craig Novick?

A: I had questions for both parties. For Mr. Speziale, I said, 'Well, is he going to be comfortable here being that he's a highfalutin, big-time chief of police or director or whatever he is now. Is he going to be bored here? That was my concern. And the other concern was he announced at the forum that he was the final selection somewhere else, so my concern was is he going to come here and they offer him that big position and then he's going to leave us? So, I had concerns. What I did like about Speziale is his experience and his knowledge of law enforcement that he would have brought to the police department because the police department is hungry for that. They are hungry for leadership. Would his personality fit with our community? I don't know. He was high strung ...

Novick has strong city manager and police chief leadership and his accomplishments there were really strong. My concern was, was his personality strong enough to lead these officers because we have a strong police department; that culture in there, you have to mesh that. Did I think that he could do the job? Absolutely.

Q. Was there any pressure from the unions to push for a specific candidate?

A. Not one union member called me and said, 'I want this guy, mayor.' Not one, and I will swear and take a lie-detector test. That's the funny part of this. Now, the day of the forum they were there. They expressed their opinion to everyone, not to me, that they preferred Speziale.

Q: Do you feel bad in any way or responsible for what happened with Novick pulling out?

A: I feel that he should have at least contacted me or contacted the city manager. I think this is an overreaction. I didn't mean anything by it, and I think that it's a big misunderstanding. I think that we could hash it out. We could move in a better place.

Q. Do you think the city can get past all of this?

A. Yes. ... I have a feeling there's more to this story than meets the eye because there's nothing that I said, again, I had a witness in my office, Councilman Jack Kelly. Kelly was part of a conversation I was having with the (Franklin Township councilman) that I spoke to and my secretary was in the office when I made the phone calls. Again, for this reason for transparency and accountability. And there's nothing I said that would have thought that I was gunning for him. I liked him. I told them that. Whether they took it the wrong way, but that's even more shocking because they did most of the talking. They flat out told me he did a good job and they didn't want to lose him.

Q: What are the positive things you've done for the community since being mayor?

A: We had the Chinese delegation. A mayor from China contacted me in starting a sister city and having the communication. I was elected for the Florida League of Cities for the Treasure Coast. I am the president of that and no other mayor has stepped into that shoe right away. I'm going to get a seat on the board (in August) because we're the ninth largest city. I'm on plenty of boards. I'm the co-chair of the (Treasure Coast Planning Organization). I'm very involved with the community because that's what I wanted to bring to the table. Aside from all this BS and this garbage that's going on, which I don't pay attention to because I have an open-door policy. You want to ask me anything. I'm not going to hide because the truth is the truth.

Q. What do you think your weaknesses are?

A. My stubbornness. But, again, that brings out the fight in me.

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