In a meeting marked by passionate and sometimes spiritual overtones, the Deltona City Commission averted the departure of Acting City Manager John Peters for several months, at the earliest.
“This is a difficult one,” Peters told the elected officials, referring to his stated intention to step down and resume his former post of director of public works.
For more than two weeks, tension in the city has seethed and simmered following Peters’ release of his letter of resignation.
Without naming names, Peters said some commissioners were interfering in his administrative duties, particularly pertaining to personnel and code enforcement. He also said social media was being used to discredit him.
“I plan to resign based on breach of contract,” he said at the outset of the debate about his future.
The interference of commissioners in the day-to-day operations of the city government, he noted, was a violation of his contract and Deltona’s charter.
In cities, like Deltona, that have a city-manager form of government, the elected officials make laws and set policy, while the manager wields administrative and executive powers. There is a strict separation of powers, and members of the City Commission are expressly forbidden to involve themselves or interfere in the activities of the administrative branch.
The climax of the story came at the commission’s June 7 meeting, which may be called the 3 R’s meeting: resignation, reconciliation and revival.
Barring something unforeseen, Peters will remain at the helm of the city for at least six more months. The discourse ended with a unanimous vote to rebuild and strengthen the working relationship between commissioners and the city manager.
Peters said he had worked to keep members of the City Commission informed and to bring transparency to a government that lacked the confidence of many Deltonans.
Complaints about stalled requests for public records and allegations about the use of code enforcement as a weapon against critics were common during the tenure of prior managers.
Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, the City Commission abruptly demoted former Interim City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper, after he had lost the confidence of the commissioners. In a surprise move, the commission named Peters, who had not sought the position, as Deltona’s chief administrator.
“I’m not the city manager. I’m the acting city manager. I’m probably still public-works director,” Peters told commissioners.
Peter’s went on to cite an instance in which code-enforcement officers were investigating a parking violation and discovered a resident repairing cars in a neighborhood. Members of the commission, he added, broadcast the story on social media.
“I’ve got two commissioners ... that I don’t trust,” Peters said.
In an otherwise silent chamber, all attention was on Peters. He described his work as an engineer, without political ambitions or favoritism.
“I’m here to serve the public. I want people to believe their government. It is extremely important for people to have faith in their government,” he said.
At times Peters’ voice broke, showing emotion that had welled up over days, including time spent in spiritual reflection. Citing the Bible, he quoted Mark 3:25: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
Moreover, as the audience remained quiet and attentive, Peters said he had attended church Sunday, and the minister had used in his sermon an analogy fitting for Deltona.
“You could take a jar and put 100 fire ants in it and 100 red ants,” he said, and they will get along — until somebody shakes the jar,” he continued.
“Who shakes the jar in Deltona? Agitators,” Peters said. “Who are the agitators? I’ll leave that to your judgment. ... we keep agitating the jar.”
Peters reiterated the three resignation options he had given to the commission:
— Immediate departure and return to his post as Deltona’s public-works director
— A delay in the effective date of his exit as manager to allow him to finish work on Deltona’s 2021-22 budget, probably in late summer
— Resignation to become effective at the end of December, to allow time for a national search for a new city manager.
In the end, after some soul-searching of its own, the commission voiced unanimous confidence in Peters and asked him to remain at the top for a while longer.
Peters’ bosses had their turn to speak, also.
Commissioner Dana McCool opened by saying she would admit “my sins.”
“I have never aimed an arrow at the city,” she said, recalling her work as an activist with the nonprofit group Deltona Strong. “I have learned a lot, and I have a lot to learn. ... I apologize to you.”
“You’re a good man and a good leader,” McCool told Peters.
“I think Mr. Peters has done a good job of bringing transparency to the city,” Commissioner David Sosa said.
“I don’t want to see you go,” Commissioner Loren King told Peters, as he called upon his peers to “table this discussion until June 2022.”
Audience members chimed in.
“If you let this man go, each and every one of you should resign your positions,” Elbert Bryan said.
“You’re a man of principle and a man of integrity,” Tara D’Errico told Peters.
“Don’t let the agitators dictate the policy,” former state Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, said.
Not all speakers wanted Peters to remain in charge.
“I would accept Mr. Peters’ resignation tonight. The man is a lame duck,” Mike Williams said.
When the time came to vote on King’s motion to table consideration of Peters’ resignation, all seven commissioners closed ranks in support of retaining him.
For her part, Mayor Heidi Herzberg asked Peters to bring any concerns or problems to the City Commission.
“I’m willing to work with you all,” Peters said humbly.