Friday, May 27, 2016

UF's Questionable Removal of Horticultural Agent: Jake Martin's Investigative Article

University of Florida's dictatorial termination of highly acclaimed St.Johns County horticultural agent Keith Fuller, exposed in Jake Martin's investigative article. Good job by St. Augustine Record.

No response from County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK during the May 18-20, 2016 Budget Hearing when I asked about the possibility of canceling UF's contract as a result of its invidious discrimination against horticultural agent Keith Fuller.
While Sandra Parks says, "a budget is a moral document," County Administrator WANCHICK lacks moral character.

Here's Jake Martin's investigative story:

St. Johns County horticulture agent's removal raises questions of UF's power over county facility, resources
Posted: May 27, 2016 - 11:23pm | Updated: May 27, 2016 - 11:58pm

Keith Fuller, who was the horticulture agent for St. Johns County for nearly 20 years, was given notice of his non-renewal of his annual contract on Aug. 4, 2015. He is to be terminated when his contract expires in August.  PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM
Keith Fuller, who was the horticulture agent for St. Johns County for nearly 20 years, was given notice of his non-renewal of his annual contract on Aug. 4, 2015. He is to be terminated when his contract expires in August.
Keith Fuller, who was the horticulture agent for St. Johns County for nearly 20 years, was given notice of his non-renewal of his annual contract on Aug. 4, 2015. He is to be terminated when his contract expires in August. PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM

Supporters of Keith Fuller, the former horticulture extension agent for St. Johns County removed from his post last year by the University of Florida, say his ousting is indicative of problems greater than personnel spats at the county’s Agricultural Center and symptomatic of the university’s power on the county’s dime.

Fuller, who has also been an unpaid columnist for The Record for three decades, was given notice by UF of the non-renewal of his annual contract on Aug. 4, 2015. What ensued has become a nearly yearlong fight to regain his job, aided by Agricultural Center volunteers loyal to Fuller, against a backdrop of questions raised about St. Johns County’s memorandum of understanding with UF for extension services.

The terms of that memorandum, approved by the Board of County Commissioners in June 2014, changed the status of Fuller and others at the Agricultural Center from long-standing county workers to non-tenured and non-permanent employees of UF.

Meanwhile, the county continued to pay 100 percent of Fuller’s salary and benefits, as well as those of several other former county employees. According to county documents, Fuller’s salary for the 2015 fiscal year was $51,594.71 plus $14,343.33 in pooled fringe benefits.

Of the 12 extension positions identified in the county’s projected payroll budget for the 2015 fiscal year, eight were paid 100 percent by the county, three were paid 60 percent by the state and 40 percent by the county, and one was paid 20 percent by the state and 80 percent by the county.

The county’s reimbursement to UF for salaries and benefits for the 2015 fiscal year was $501,478 but budgeted at $582,715. Budgeted for the 2016 fiscal year was $600,200, which has again been requested for the 2017 fiscal year, according to this year’s Administrator’s Budget Workbook.

County officials have said limiting liability of tenured faculty is the reason why St. Johns County has refused to amend or cancel the memorandum to bring Fuller back as horticulture extension agent. Additionally, County Administrator Michael Wanchick has said there is nothing particularly unique about the arrangement with UF.

Opponents of the memorandum — many of whom are Fuller supporters — say the county is paying for less responsibility, but also for less control, particularly in matters of the selection or retention of employees. They also question the fairness of ceding such power to UF considering taxpayer money is footing the bill for extension services whether those dollars come from the university or from county, state or federal sources.

According to the UF/IFAS Extension Impacts and Budget Annual Report for 2014, UF/IFAS Extension received a total of $77,391,889 from federal, state and county governments in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Federal sources, not including grants and contracts, provided $4,782,341, or 6.2 percent; state sources provided $42,510,882, or 54.9 percent; and county sources provided $30,098,666, or 38.9 percent.

Supporters of Fuller say what’s been lost since his departure is a county voice in a leadership position at the Agricultural Center in exchange for several voices from the university’s headquarters in Gainesville calling for volunteers to put the matter to rest and move on.

Fuller told The Record in April that he and other employees were not aware of the full ramifications of the memorandum until a meeting with UF human resources staff after it was signed.

“The deal was done and then we were informed,” he said. “We were kept out of all that. It finally came to light.”

Fuller, whose annual contract was renewed the month prior to receiving his notice of non-renewal, was removed from his post and transferred to the Florida Partnership for Water, Agriculture, and Community Sustainability in Hastings for the subsequent year. He is to be terminated in August at the expiration of his contract.
A longtime St. Johns County resident, Fuller had put in nearly 20 years of service to the county and UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences as an extension employee. He graduated from St. Augustine High School in 1977 and, later, from UF, where he majored in what is now called environmental horticulture.

UF/IFAS administrators say the university is not required to provide justification for Fuller’s dismissal because he does not have permanent status with the university. However, administrators have cited “personnel infractions” in meetings and communications with extension volunteers and community members.

Florida is an employment-at-will state, meaning an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason — without having to establish “just cause” for termination — and without warning.

Supporters of Fuller’s reinstatement point to his work with the county’s Master Gardener program, 4-H, an Arbor Day program he implemented and his assistance in establishing two community gardens on extension property.

Fuller said there has been some bad blood at the Agricultural Center that was partly a result of a lot of changeover in the St. Johns County extension director position following David Dinkins’ removal from the post in July 2010. Further complicating matters, the memorandum resulted in a mix of annual contract employees of UF and tenured UF faculty.

Asked why he thought he was targeted for dismissal, Fuller replied, “It was the easiest fix because I wasn’t tenured.”

His stated goal from the very beginning: “I just want my job back.” But it would appear Fuller’s fate is all but sealed.

UF/IFAS administrators told extension stakeholders this week Fuller will be replaced by Terra Freeman, a Level II employee who holds a master’s degree in landscape design. Fuller was a Level I employee due to his degree level. UF advertised the position at Levels II-IV, meaning the replacement would cost county taxpayers $10,000 to $60,000 more in annual salary. Freeman is expected to start at the St. Johns County Extension on July 1.

In a meeting with county Master Gardeners and other horticulture enthusiasts shortly after Fuller’s reassignment, Tim Momol, central district extension director for UF/IFAS, said he couldn’t go into specifics as to why Fuller was removed.

Momol said it was a personnel issue and that Fuller went through a counseling process twice, starting in September 2014.

Counseling, however, is not considered disciplinary under UF Regulation 7.042. Further, termination for “personnel infractions” is not covered under UF Regulation 7.013, which was cited in Fuller’s dismissal letter.

However, UF Regulation 7.013 does state the university can terminate any non-tenured or non-permanent faculty member, any time, for any reason. The non-renewal notice also said Fuller had the right to appeal the decision if he believed his rights were violated.

Fuller has argued throughout his grievance process that because of statements made by Momol and Nick Place, dean of extension for UF/IFAS, concerning Fuller’s “personnel issues,” the university should have pursued termination via the “just cause” regulation.

UF Regulation 7.048 defines “just cause” for termination as incompetence or misconduct and requires that the notice of termination or suspension specify the reason for termination or suspension.

Momol signed Fuller’s last annual performance appraisal, dated Feb. 5, 2015, in which Fuller was given a “commendable” overall rating.

Comments accompanying Fuller’s “exemplary” performance in delivery/contacts read: “Number of local programs and clientele contacts are admirable. Teaching skills are top notch and agent relates well to his audience.” However, comments for his “improvement required” performance in communication and reporting skills read: “A professional tone of voice with faculty, staff and volunteers is required at all times. We will appreciate your attention to this area in 2015.”

Additional comments, lacking in Fuller’s three previous appraisals, said Fuller “puts an extreme amount of effort into his extension programs and provides knowledge and skills that are respected throughout the community.”

Fuller was given an “exemplary” rating in each of his three previous appraisals, all of which were signed by Momol.

Fuller entered the grievance process in September.

Master Gardeners and Fuller supporters Linda Gillis and Grace Paaso said they assumed they had a commitment from UF that Fuller’s position would not be filled until his grievance process was over.

As written in an email from St. Johns County Commission Chair Jeb Smith to Paaso dated Oct. 13, 2015: “I just received an email from Gainesville saying that Administration wants to relay the message that they intend NOT to hire anyone to fill Keith Fuller’s position until his appeal process is complete.”

However, UF announced in April it would begin interviewing candidates. The offer to Freeman was made earlier this month. Fuller, in the meantime, is still in Step III arbitration of the grievance process.

Smith, who was not on the County Commission when the memorandum was approved, requested a meeting with Place, which took place on Thursday. Calls to Smith on Thursday and Friday were not returned. Place was not reachable for comment on Friday.

Understanding the memorandum

St. Johns County commissioners approved the memorandum of understanding with UF for extension services as a consent agenda item at their meeting on June 17, 2014.

The five-year agreement with UF is effective through Sept. 30, 2019, barring modification or earlier termination. According to the memorandum, either party may terminate the agreement, without penalty or cause, with one-year written notice to the other party. The agreement may also be extended in five-year increments by mutual written agreement, and with formal approval by the board.

One purpose of extension services, according to the agreement, is to provide research-based educational information from the university to Florida residents on subjects relating to agriculture, aquaculture, family and consumer services, 4-H youth development, environmental horticulture, natural resources, Sea Grant, energy and other programs.

Another purpose, as stated in the memorandum, reads: “To assure that educational programs meet the needs of local clientele, and comply with Section 1004.37 of the Florida Statutes, it is essential that the University of Florida and the County identify respective responsibilities.”

The Agricultural Center is county property, not UF’s, although UF is responsible for the programs on site. According to county documents, county responsibility for recurring operating costs and non-recurring capital costs at the extension were $94,326 and $27,497, respectively, for the 2015 fiscal year.

As laid out in the memorandum, with respect to broad program authorization, “all extension programs within the county are subject to the county authorization and approval.”

“Substantive program changes (additions, deletions, etc.) are subject to county approval prior to implementation,” the memorandum continues.

With respect to matters of employment, however, the memorandum states “the county shall pay the county’s proportionate share of the funding for salaries and fringe benefits of the extension faculty and staff.”

There is no explicit mention in the agreement of the county’s involvement in the hiring or firing of extension employees.

Fuller’s supporters say the county and UF are not abiding by Florida Statute 1004.37, dealing with county extension programs.

As written in Florida Statute 1004.37: “Boards of county commissioners or other legally constituted governing bodies will approve or disapprove of persons recommended for extension positions in the county.”

If a county’s governing body notifies the extension that it wants a list of three qualified candidates, the extension service “shall, for each position, make its recommendation by submitting a list of not fewer than three qualified persons, or all qualified persons if three or fewer.”

Even without such a resolution, the statute says “the extension service shall recommend one qualified candidate to the governing body.”

County attorney Patrick McCormack told The Record he did not think UF’s selection for the horticulture agent position would have to come up before the Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

He said some of the statutory language only applies where a staff member is “recommended” to the county, which, he added, does not occur through the current agreement. He also said Fuller’s employment status, per the agreement, is not a county personnel issue but rather a UF personnel issue.

There are no reported cases specifically interpreting Florida Statute 1004.37. However, McCormack said the Florida Supreme Court has described that when directions of a statute pertain to “the proper, orderly and prompt conduct of business merely,” the provision may generally be regarded as directory and not mandatory.

He said the memorandum was mutually negotiated and that the county’s interest in entering the agreement stemmed from a situation in which the county was “forced to defend” personnel-related complaints against a university staff member the county could not control.

“The county does not want to be liable for something it does not have control over,” he said.

McCormack said the county is not alone in reacting to liability issues and that other counties, such as Leon County, have, or are considering, similar agreements.

“Any county agreement can be re-looked at,” he said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily any need to do that in this instance, but the county may consider revisions if needed to optimize the program.”

McCormack did not participate in the negotiation of the memorandum.

According to its website, UF/IFAS has extension offices in each of Florida’s 67 counties. But not all counties have memorandums of understanding with the university.

At least five counties with such memorandums approved within the last five years include language pertaining to the hiring of extension employees under university and county responsibilities, all of which cite Florida Statute 1004.37.

Another, Lake County, has an agreement including additional county control over hiring and firing.

As written in that memorandum: “University and the County will jointly agree on whether to fill vacancies in positions of County Extension Faculty and/or Program County Extension Faculty. ... The County has the authority to remove an individual appointment with or without cause and shall provide written notification to the University of such removal.”

The appeals process

Fuller requested his personnel file on Aug. 21 and formally filed for appeal on Aug. 30. The request was not fulfilled until after 5 p.m. on Sept. 15, just days before his grievance process was set to begin.

He traveled to Gainesville on Sept. 21 to meet with Place for Step I of his grievance procedure and received a negative decision from Place on Oct. 18.

Fuller again traveled to Gainesville on Oct. 28 to meet with Jack Payne, senior vice president of UF/IFAS. Fuller and his supporters said that meeting took less than 15 minutes.

Like Place, Payne issued a negative decision, denying Fuller’s reinstatement within a week.

“Both Regulations 7.048 and 7.013 are available for use when terminating a faculty member who does not have Permanent Status,” Payne wrote. “Termination under Regulation 7.048 results in immediate termination. Regulation 7.013 provides an appropriate notice period. Your notice period was one year.”

Fuller then filed for Step II of his grievance procedure on Nov. 17 and soon after traveled to Gainesville to meet with associate provost Angel Kwolek-Folland. The provost’s negative decision was dated Dec. 18, at which point Fuller filed for his Step III arbitration review with UF President Kent Fuchs.

Tackling disruption

On Jan. 15, Place issued a letter to the St. Johns County Stakeholders of Extension and IFAS stating there would be a review of “continuing disruptive influences” in the extension. After a Jan. 25 meeting with Gillis, Wanchick agreed to ask Place to postpone the arbitration process until the results of the review of the extension office were available. Place denied the request.

Stakeholders at a March 3 general meeting provided comments including: “UF has ignored the office,” “MOU between County and IFAS not giving candidates to County Commission for approval of hiring,” “Employees not being forthright, fear of repercussion,” “[Fuller] fired for lack of education & employee complaints,” and “UF should have terminated [Fuller] rather than sending him to Hastings (so UF would have had to tell him why so he could defend himself).”

Place sent an email to stakeholders on March 31 attaching the formal report dated March 16.

Included in the report were comments from stakeholders including: “Lack of leadership,” “These processes have been done over and over — it’s a dog and pony show,” and “There is misperception about the Keith Fuller grievance process — it didn’t look into the reason he was fired. They only review whether or not they followed UF procedures in terminating him.”

Extension faculty and staff, when asked what they could do to improve working relations with Master Gardener volunteers, gave replies including: “Try to understand that many SJC Master Gardeners are Type A personalities and set in their ways,” “Remember the Golden Rule,” “Hold volunteers accountable for code of conduct (+terminate volunteers if deemed necessary),” and “Don’t bring in past issues to new volunteers.”

When asked what UF/IFAS administrators could do to improve working relations between volunteers and employees at the extension, faculty and staff provided responses including: “Hurry up and hire [a horticulture extension agent],” “Stop giving volunteers so much power,” “Support office,” “Correct inaccurate information in the media,” and “Official ‘rebuttal’ to [Master Gardeners] to dispel misinformation and address their allegations.”

As written in the report’s conclusion: “What is lost in the dry listing of issues and solutions is the associated depth of feeling expressed by many parties. Distrust, anger, and frustration were expressed as were real loyalty and concern for St. Johns County Extension.”

UF/IFAS administrators, in conversations with the county’s Master Gardeners, have asked for everyone to “move on,” but some volunteers say that’s asking for too much.

In a May 24 letter from Master Gardener Nana Royer to Jim DeValerio, interim horticultural agent for St. Johns County, she said UF’s statements on the Fuller situation haven’t helped volunteers make sense of “confusing changes” at the Agricultural Center over the past year.

“I do not agree it is okay to simply stand aside, pretend all is well and let a wrong (Fuller’s dismissal) go unrighted,” she wrote. “To move forward, as you have suggested, would require that I stand on the shoulders of the bullying, the lies, and the disrespectful censorship by the UF/IFAS administration, as well as the inaction of the St. Johns County Commissioners.”

She closed her letter with notice of her resignation as a UF/IFAS Master Gardener volunteer.

For Royer and other volunteers at the Agricultural Center, in lieu of an explanation for Fuller’s dismissal, it remains to be seen what, if anything, is gained in his absence.

mlawrenc 05/28/16 - 05:36 am 32I hereby resign from the Master Gardener program in protest
It's obvious the county was and still is unwilling to amend/rescind the MOU despite advocacy and testimony from their own constituents. Kudos to Commissioner Smith for trying to get to the bottom of this. Kudos to Grace Paaso and the Gillises for standing by Keith's side for almost a year. Keith taught me everything I know as a Yankee transplant. His communications skills and knowledge were outstanding. Now we will pay more for an outsider. The plan for his removal after a commendable review shows the fix was already in. Our AG center will never be the same without his energy, enthusiasm and knowledge. Our county is losing a true asset and one of
the kindest people I've ever known.

sponger2 05/28/16 - 07:59 am 42Goes to show you...
All these alleged "separate entities" are in fact intertwined politically as well as financially. Add to that, his replacement will cost 10 to 60 thousand more a year of taxpayer money. Care to comment on that Muse?

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