The Marco Island City Council met in Special Session on Monday, April 23, 2018 to take under advisement the wording for the Request for Proposal (RFP) being advertised for the search for new city manager candidates. That vacancy was a result of the removal of former City Manager Dr. Lee Niblock from that position after less than three months of employment due to violations of the International City Managers Association’s Code of Conduct. (Read Niblock’s full employment contract at coastalbreeze.demo.our-hometown.com/pageview/viewer/NiblockEmploymentAgreement).
Niblock’s hiring was a result of two nationwide searches, the first of which was clouded by a process that the search firm pointed out was biased and unfair to applicants due to attacks on all but one, which resulted in discrediting of that field of hopefuls. Those attacks included one that a candidate was, “too old,” according to the Mercer Group.
In the end, the only candidate remaining, who was seen as the choice of preference by both the then Chairman and Vice Chairman, was rejected by a four to three vote against his candidacy.
The Mercer Group resigned from the process after a heated exchange with the then Chairman of Council. Only after five days of courting by some councilors and subsequent apologies did the firm return for the second search for potential candidates.
In October of last year, the Mercer Group brought back seven candidates, which eventually was reduced to a list of four applicants. One of the applicants was Niblock, who only two months earlier had been terminated from his position in Alachua County as its manager.
Niblock was accused of battery against the Marco Island Academy’s Principal Melissa Scott, in a complaint filed with the Marco Island Police Department early in February of 2018. Police Chief Al Schettino referred the matter to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to eliminate any possible claims of bias and insure impartiality.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office has concluded its investigation and turned it over to the Florida State Attorney’s Office for its review and decision as to whether formally charge Niblock. He faces a first-degree misdemeanor charge with the potential of a one-year jail sentence and $1,000 fine.
Since then, Niblock has been charged with a similar count of battery against another female, which allegedly occurred in June of 2017 when he was employed as the County Manager with Alachua County. That separate complaint was made by a Gainesville woman. The State’s Attorney in that jurisdiction filed charges on April 3, 2018 based upon an investigation by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. Niblock will now face a first-degree misdemeanor charge of battery in Alachua County, which carries the same punishment.
Niblock was officially terminated on March 19, 2018 from his job as the Marco Island City Manager. He initially requested a hearing on the matter, as is provided for within the City Charter. However, after the second accusation of battery and the subsequent filing of charges in Alachua County, he withdrew that request.
Monday’s Marco Island City Council meeting would find councilors questioning the wording regarding the RFP. After some confusion on the dais, councilors would come to understand that the document was identical to the one created and approved by them in April of last year.
Council Chairman Grifoni suggested that wording be added which better describes the “geographic” nature of the island, such as its beaches and canals, in addition to a reference that residents will undertake a vote in August as to whether they will assume responsibility for EMS services within the community. Councilor Larry Honig suggested adding the former search firm’s descriptive wording of the community.
It would be Councilor Howard Reed who voiced his concern that they were again placing expediency ahead of the need to get the search right. “I’ve been through this twice and we are rushing it again,” said Reed. “I’m going to continue to push back hard on moving too quickly. We need to get this process right,” said Reed.
Councilor Rios disagreed. “We should take our time with the candidates, but not with the search firm,” said Rios.
One other area that was discussed included Councilor Reed’s suggestion that individual councilors, at their own expense, be able to visit the home communities of the finalists for the manager’s position. Only Reed would push for that and it was rejected.
The contract and the RFP for the scope of work would remain essentially the same as the last contract with the Mercer Group. No discussions were held regarding the Mercer Group and whether the board would entertain an outreach from them.
The Mercer Group defended itself against what they felt were unflattering comments and allegations by some council members during the last month. In a letter from the Mercer Group’s attorney to the City Attorney, Mercer outlined its belief that two councilors allegedly derailed the first search attempt in an effort to steer the selection to their preferred candidate. (Read the letter from the Mercer Group’s attorney at coastalbreeze.demo.our-hometown.com/articles/mercer-group-defends-its-reputation-casts-shadow-on-councilors-actions/)
The second search brought forward four finalists, from which the council chose Niblock. The vote was 5-2 to hire Niblock, with Councilors Batte and Brown objecting.
The RFP for search firms for this third attempt at hiring a new manager would be received until May 14. Council would then review the staff’s evaluation of those proposals at council’s regularly scheduled meeting on May 21.