Ritz director's dismissal draws ire
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 12, 2012.
When Carol Alexander talks about the LaVilla neighborhood of the 1920s, '30s, '40s, she conjures up a time when the area was the Harlem of the South, a place with a "grand artistic and cultural focus, " where novelists, songwriters, musicians and filmmakers practiced their craft.
For 14 years, Alexander painted such mental pictures as executive director of the Ritz Theatre and Museum, a lodestone for the African-American history of Jacksonville.
That changed last month when Alexander was abruptly gone from the theater - a sudden change prompting questions: Where did she go? Had she died? Taken another job?
The answer: Days after she announced plans to retire, Alexander was basically fired by the city.
"I was stunned, " she said a few weeks later.
Such an ending has enraged some members of the community, particularly those serving as a sort of volunteer advisory board for the theater.
"I don't think there's consideration as to the value of the institution or the people who lead them, " said Cleve Warren, a leader of that group. "It's a callous attitude, or at least that's what it came across as."
Even considering the theater had little contact with Mayor Alvin Brown's administration, Alexander said, the order for her to leave came out of nowhere.
On Wednesday, May 2, she had told the administration she planned to retire at the end of the month.
The following Tuesday, she got a call from the city's human resources director: "They thought it'd be best for me to leave now, " Alexander said.
By "now, " she said, they meant right then, that evening.
Alexander typed an email to people involved with the theater, hit send, collected a few mementos and left.
At noon the following day she signed her exit paperwork, bringing to an end her celebrated career as the face of the Ritz.
After Alexander was dismissed, Warren sent Brown a letter about the situation but has not gotten a response.
The move highlights a broader disconnect between Brown and Jacksonville's African-American community, said Florida State College at Jacksonville political scientist Marcella Washington.
The mayor goes out of his way, she said, to not appear like he's paying particular attention to the black community.
"I think it's time he faces black politics in the way he approaches other politics, " she said. "He doesn't have to be the black mayor for the black community but he can't ignore it."
Brown declined to be interviewed about the situation after several weeks of requests. In a statement released by mayoral spokesman David DeCamp, Brown praised Alexander's service without commenting on her dismissal.
"Her excellent leadership built a strong foundation for the Ritz, " the statement said. "We appreciate her vision and inspiration, which benefited the entire Jacksonville community."
Tension between the administration and the theater had been growing over the months since Brown was elected, said Alexander and others involved. The main reason, Alexander said, was no one from Brown's office seemed interested in talking.
That in itself was troubling, she said.
"We've always had relationships" with the mayor's office, she said. John Delaney had pushed for funding to set up the theater, and John Peyton once memorably played piano there. "I didn't expect any special focus."
The main thing theater supporters wanted to talk to Brown about was the future of the organization, which they assumed would at some point involve being cut off from city funding.
The volunteer advisers had thought about ways the institution could stand on its own, but the administration didn't seem interested in hearing about them, Warren said.
For Alexander, those tensions came to a head when the administration announced it was looking to sign a new facility management contract, one that for the first time would include the Ritz.
Neither Alexander nor the volunteer board was informed the management change was coming, they said.
The change is worrisome, theater supporters say, because it could point to a change in vision, making the theater more commercial and less artistic. Right now, for example, Amateur Night - "the best show ever" - costs just $5.50, a price that lets single mothers, teenagers and the rest of the community attend.
"Now that I'm gone, they'll change the price, " Alexander predicted, as it is something that has been suggested for years. "Now it will be more revenue-focused instead of community-focused."
It's important the theater doesn't lose "good, affordable family events, " said City Councilman Warren Jones, a strong supporter who grew up in LaVilla.
The administration should have done a better job communicating with the theater, Jones said.
"I know the mayor has a different view for many projects that we've been working on for years here, " he said. "Those need to come out in a good, honest exchange."
Monday night, after this story was posted online, the administration said an aide to the mayor had sat down to talk with Alexander about her plans for the Ritz a few days after the facility management contract was bid out.
In late March, Alexander met with Tonisha Landry-Gaines, then a special assistant to the mayor, for a previously scheduled conversation, a meeting DeCamp said came after some informal talks.
The administration left the sit-down meeting asking for more information about Alexander's plans, DeCamp said, and it was unclear if anything was done with the information provided in that conversation.
The facility management news, Alexander said, made it clear that it was time to consider moving on to other ventures - although she didn't expect her exit to be so rapid.
Alexander recently turned 60 and also recently got engaged. After years at the theater, she figured, the timing would be right to retire from day-to-day operations, perhaps take a place on the board and provide more strategic oversight.
After that call from the city, though - after 14 years of leading the theater - Alexander isn't on the board, isn't advising.
As of Monday, in fact, she hasn't returned to the building.