Saturday, January 29, 2022

Council Continues to Wrestle With Manager Search

Josh Gruber, former city manager candidate from South Carolina. | Photos by Steve Stefanides

Since February of 2017, the City of Marco Island has been without a permanent city manager to replace former manager Roger Hernstadt. Hernstadt had come to the city with extensive municipal experience on the east coast of Florida, having served in various roles within Miami Dade County and the City of Miami. Prior to coming to Marco Island, Hernstadt had served four years as the City Manager of Marathon, Florida. The City Council burned through two prominent city manager consulting firms and hundreds of applicants while completing that recruitment with city staff.

The election of 2016 brought forward a slate of four candidates, led by incumbent City Councilor Larry Honig who was running for a second and final four-year term. He joined with newcomers Charlette Roman, Howard Reed and Jared Grifoni. They ran as a block and campaigned for change.

At the first meeting in February of 2017 Hernstadt tended his resignation with a provision that he would stay on until July of 2017 to help facilitate the transition. The council chose to accept his resignation immediately, which triggered a substantial payout to Hernstadt as provided for in his contract.

Many were shocked at the council’s actions, which brought forward a loud outcry from the community in protest.

Council moved forward and hired the Mercer Group to search for a new city manager. Those efforts resulted in what many think was an embarrassing first try. That brought forward what had some citizens believing was a pre-arranged deal to hire a young man from Beaufort County, South Carolina who had been serving as the Assistant County Manager.

One scene involved an uncomfortable incident when Vice-Chairman Grifoni stepped down from the dais, strode to the podium and proceeded to attack the credibility of several candidates who were vying for finalist positions. Council Chair Honig also exhibited a considerable angst towards one candidate that caused many to question his motives and worried it may have exposed the city to liability for some of his comments.

The entire ordeal ended in an embarrassment for the council as they could only muster three votes out of the required five to hire. Only Honig, Grifoni and Rios voted to hire the now tainted final candidate left standing. Subsequently, the South Carolinian was also passed over as County Manager in his home county.

This also resulted in an embarrassing exchange between Chairman Honig and the Mercer representative after the failed vote; that exchange saw Mercer walking away from the process due to that incident. It required an intervention by several people to have Mercer agree to come back to the table and re-engage in the search process.

Niblock Debacle

Mercer brought back another group of finalists in the fall of 2017 and council focused on hiring Dr. Lee Niblock from Alachua County, Florida. Niblock had been terminated from his position in Alachua only 45 days previously.

Niblock’s tenure would only last three months because council terminated him for cause due to violations of ICMA ethical standards as well as unresolved charges being brought against him for first-degree misdemeanor battery for unwanted advances against Marco Island Academy’s principal.

Following Niblock’s termination, council then flirted with the idea of conducting their own search, but could not reach a consensus. Ongoing concerns arose out of that incident regarding councilors’ involvement and what some saw as an attempt to mediate a resolve to the issue which would have resulted in Niblock maintaining his position.

As a result, a subsequent vote of “No Confidence” was passed concerning the actions of Chairman Jared Grifoni, the first such vote ever undertaken since creation of the city.

Polanco Continues in His Role as Interim

For 19 months now, the city’s finance director, Gil Polanco, has served in the role of interim manager. This is not his first time in that position, having served after the planned resignation of then-City Manager Jim Riviere prior to the hiring of Hernstadt.

Polanco has agreed to stay in that position until council can find a suitable candidate, but has not desired to take the position on a permanent basis.

Latest Attempts Fail To Resolve Open Position

Late this summer Councilor Charlette Roman suggested that the city engage with the Florida City and County Management Association (FCCMA) to utilize the services of their Senior Managers’ Program to help assist in finding an interim manager, one in transition that could take the role and help guide them to finding a permanent manager, while handling the role of manager for the next six to 12 months and allow for a cooling off period.

Ken Parker, who represented that group, provided the council with guidance to do just that, but in his words they proceeded with a “hybrid” style of process, which ended up bringing forth potential candidates for both the permanent and interim positions.

For the last several months Councilor Howard Reed has attempted to convince his colleagues on council that they should be looking to concentrate their efforts on hiring a permanent replacement to fill the vacant position of Marco Island City Manager after the November election.

Some would question whether it was a wise choice, given the fact that a new election was looming on the horizon and three seats would be filled for the seven-person board. The present council had struggled for almost 19 months.

Two weeks ago council met with Maria Menendez from Coral Gables and James Hock of Michigan, both of which have extensive municipal management experience. Council would interview the last candidate of the three finalists on October 4, after a day of private one-on-one conversations with David Harden.

Reed consistently voiced his displeasure with the process early on, especially with the method which would involve an open ended private negotiation regarding contract details held between only the chairman and the successful candidate, if one was to be chosen.

Details have begun to emerge regarding the closed-door negotiations with Dr. Lee Niblock. It appeared Niblock strong-armed Chairman Jared Grifoni and got a better deal from council than had been originally agreed upon after those negotiations went into a closed-door meeting with Chairman Grifoni and city attorney Alan Gabriel. At a previous council meeting, Reed displayed a chart showing the difference between what was originally voted upon and what was finally agreed to in those private negotiations.

After failing to reach the requisite super majority vote of five to hire a manager based upon the requirements of the City Charter, both councilors Honig and Grifoni questioned Reed’s motives for his vote on the issue. Councilors Honig and Roman have been critical of Polanco in the past and their desires to find a replacement, whether temporary or permanent, have been well known.

Councilor Joe Batte came to Reed’s defense at least twice when Chairman Grifoni repeatedly asked Reed to justify his vote. “Mr. Chairman I’ve sat here for two years and never once questioned your motives or reasons for your votes. You are badgering Councilor Reed.”

“I believe we have failed for numerous reasons to not accomplish the goal of hiring a manager of excellence,” said Reed, and he would later list off a litany of reasons he felt they as a group had failed.

Since that meeting, an orchestrated social media and email campaign has been launched against Reed, in addition to Councilors Joe Batte and Bob Brown. Brown was absent from the meeting due to a medical matter. Neither he nor Batte will be returning to council in November.

“We are less than a month from seating a council which will comprise three new members. I think they have a right to be part of this process. To saddle them with another failed choice to lead the city would be wrong. They have a right to have a clean slate and move forward to find the right candidate for the job, without interference from us. They are the group that will be working with the individual for the next several years,” said Batte in an interview.

It is unclear whether Reed will stand strong or relent from his position when council meets again on October 15 in chambers at 5:30 PM.

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