Wednesday, December 7, 2022

New Selection Process For City Manager Stalls

Photo by Steve Stefanides | Ray Seward questions the councilors on the process.

At the recent meeting of the Marco Island City Council, council heard from both Chairman Jared Grifoni and Councilor Howard Reed as to how to proceed regarding the selection of a new city manager. Former City Manager, Dr. Lee Niblock, was recently terminated by council for cause, based on violations of the International City Managers Association Code of Ethics. This was related to his interaction with a Marco Island woman that resulted in a battery allegation against him, which is currently being investigated by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

A Gainesville woman has made a similar allegation of battery against Niblock based on an incident in Gainesville, Florida during the summer of 2017. That allegation led to an investigation by the Gainesville Police Department, the results of which were forwarded to the State’s Attorney Office in Alachua County.

In Chairman Grifoni’s white paper, in which he outlined his thoughts on filling the vacant position of city manager, he suggested that the city council move forward to request that the Mercer Group, who did the search for a new city manager, be required to return the funds expended for that task. Under the provisions of the contract with Mercer they would be required to do a subsequent search for free should the candidate they place not stay in the position for at least two years.

Councilors Grifoni, Roman, Reed, Rios and Honig chose Niblock from a field of four candidates brought forward by Mercer in October of 2017. Only Councilors Brown and Batte objected to the choice due to a lack of background information.

As Reed made his alternate presentation, he emphasized his feeling that the previous process was “rushed.” Both he and Grifoni agreed that they didn’t want to go forward with another executive search firm, but would prefer to move forward reissuing invitations to former candidates. Grifoni suggested that he and the City Clerk would be the point of contact for this process.

Grifoni also suggested that potential entries would be open to internal applications, and to those within the community. He suggested fast forwarding the process so that a timeline with a May target date for hiring a new manager would be its goal.

Councilor Roman was the one to announce that the city attorney had been contacted by two of the three former candidates from the last search. She suggested council might be wise to initially invite those two back for additional interviews and go on from there, rather than going back to square one or initiating an entirely new process.

“Council should not be in the business of conducting outreach and selecting applicants. That should be done by a professional consultant or human resource department,” said Roman.

“Our history over the last 8-10 years shows us what happens when council gets too involved in this application process,” said Roman. “Our main priority should be the stabilizing of our government,” continued Roman.

Chairman Grifoni has received a number of inquiries regarding the open position, beginning as early as March 20th. Council voted to terminate Niblock’s contract on March 19. At least one of those letters referred to a phone conversation regarding the now vacant position.

Councilor Batte suggested that the city have a one-year cooling off period. “Let this city rest,” suggested Batte. “We have a city manager, he’s sitting right over here,” said Batte motioning to Guillermo Polanco, who has held the interim manager’s positon for close to twelve months. I see a person over here with character, leadership and integrity. Let our city get back on its feet again,” concluded Batte.

“We as a council should pay attention to what we’ve done this last year and a half. We’ve embarrassed ourselves and our city,” said Councilor Brown. “I agree with Councilor Reed, we did rush this,” said Brown.

“Red flags were out there; he was let go from his former job and the evidence was there regarding employee issues,” said Brown. “I agree with Councilor Batte, we need to take a deep breath, we can’t rush through this. We have someone in place that can do this,” concluded Brown.

Councilor Rios suggested that the runner up for the job, David Frazier, be hired as a temporary city manager to provide Guillermo Polanco with some mentoring time to grow into the position. His motion failed to get a second.

When the public came forward to speak, former city councilor Ken Honecker suggested that a year be taken off. While addressing council he held up a binder, which included approximately 100 pages on each of the two candidates who were finalists when the city picked the former manager in 2013. He challenged the fact that in his opinion, council had not demanded or received the depth of background information needed to make a reasoned decision to hire Niblock, who was fired after only two months in the position.

After Honecker concluded his comments, Chairman Grifoni challenged his assertions and stated that they had also received a similar report on all of the four finalists. However, a review of the packet of information on Niblock revealed that merely a two-page synopsis was provided to each councilor.

Ray Seward came forward to suggest that the council move forward and hire Guillermo Polanco, praising his abilities. “We’re picking people that have been fired from previous jobs, who have been here for three months and [we] have had to fire them.”

“You have a man here that is doing the job. You’ve got a guy here doing the job and I find this terrible,” said Michael Cunningham.

Grifoni made a motion to reach out to all former applicants to determine if they still had any interest. That list would include Polanco if he had an interest. Grifoni restated his motion to include any additional individuals who showed an interest. Councilor Honig seconded the motion.

Councilor Reed questioned the logic in bringing back individuals who failed the first vetting. Councilor Roman questioned the process which she saw as having serious flaws; some which may include ethical challenges.

That motion would fail, 4-3 against. Councilors Grifoni, Honig and Roman would be the only support, with Reed, Brown, Rios and Batte voting against.

No further discussions were held regarding how to move forward.

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