Saturday, October 24, 2020

City Council Votes City Manager Out

 

 

In an emotion-filled room, City Council Members voted to terminate Steve Thompson as Marco Island City Manager at Monday night’s meeting at City Hall. Councilman Frank Recker’s motion to add a review of Thompson’s performance to the meeting agenda was agreed by a vote of 5-2 before the discussion began. After hearing from all the council members, a response by Thompson, and comments from members of the audience, the decision to fire Thompson prevailed by a vote of 4-3.

Comparing the City Manager’s relationship with the City Council as that between a CEO and a company’s board members, Recker stated that, in spite of the fact that Council had asked Thompson for transparency and to “err on the side of disclosure of information,“ Thompson had not discussed issues in a timely manner with the Council.

Recker‘s motion that Thompson’s contract be terminated in 30 days was seconded by Council member Chuck Kiester. Bill Trotter expressed his concerns that the decision not be rushed, to give Thompson a chance to respond, and to get more specific input. Larry Magel’s opinion was that the “fundamental problem is that the City Manager does not believe the Council needs to be informed in a timely manner” and that it was time to act now.

Chuck Kiester supported the move. He indicated that lack of transparency had been an issue previously regarding Dana Souza and Bill Harrison, and when Council had not been informed of the asbestos problems. Likewise, Joe Batte supported the motion, saying he would “welcome more discussion if the problems weren’t so blatant.”

Wayne Waldack cautiously warned that they should not rush. Likewise, Jerry Gibson asked for two weeks to make a decision: “The Sunshine laws are a real detriment to us — being able to discuss this for only two hours,” he said.

When Steve Thompson was given his chance to respond, he spoke quickly from his notes and addressed the matters raised. He explained that the investigation he had conducted on the Dana Souza’s transition report found no wrong doing by Harrison and that Thompson had advised Council of his intention to ask for Harrison’s resignation because his attitude towards the City Council was “unacceptable.”

Regarding the audit delay, Thompson said his staff were advised in February by the audit firm that the audit would be delayed and that the audit firm was re-assigning staff. As soon as Thompson received this information, he had brought it to the Council in March. He said, “We’ve made marvelous improvements in the Finance Department and worked closely with the audit firm.”

Thompson stressed that there is no EPA investigation going on now, that the EPA continues to ask technical questions but that there have been no fines issued. He said the City Council had selected the law firm in question in 2006, but it would be no issue to send the matter to the City lawyer. He admitted that real mistakes had been made in other matters such as errors on yellow sheets, and the misreading of state legislature regarding funding for the CRA, but neither the Code Enforcement Board (in citing key Marco) nor the Planning Board, had asked for staff changes, and he (Thompson) felt it was “better to improve than to replace” people.

Comments from the audience were mixed: Fay Biles, of the Marco Island Taxpayers Association informed the assembly that MITA members agreed that Thompson should go, after Mario Sanchez had a “handle on what has gone wrong with the issues in question” in his log entries. Bob Brown asked that we “change the way we do business.” He was concerned that “even the Council does not know what’s going on.” Bill McMullen’s comments supporting the motion concluded with, “We have an opportunity to move forward here.”

Irv Povlow defended Thompson, saying that Thompson had given answers to events that had occurred before his own appointment began. Thompson had admitted to making some mistakes, Povlow said, and questioned how much time had been given to look into the allegations. Povlow’s opinion was that “Thompson’s answers were clear, concise and honest and that he has his hand on everything.” Another audience member then endorsed what Povlow had said.

When Keith Dameron stepped up to speak, he pointed out that transparency is an important issue but that there was “a lot of emotion is the room” and “not enough rational thinking.” He said that, while all that was said was “impressive,” it would be a “real setback” with a search for another City Manager. He urged action to be taken “exactly by the book,” even if it meant being “overly-cautious.”

Even though Bill Trotter then asked for time to review Thompson’s responses, the Council decided to go ahead and a vote was taken on whether to terminate Thompson (Yes – Joe Batte, Chuck Kiester, Larry Magel, Frank Recker. No – Jerry Gibson, Wayne Waldack, Bill Trotter).

When Thompson’s contract is terminated, he will receive nine month’s severance pay. Steve Thompson can appeal the decision at a public hearing within five days. If he does appeal, the Council has ten days to vote again. When asked for his reaction to the decision, Thompson said, “If I was afraid of being fired, I would not be City Manager.” He continued “This doesn’t have to be negative. It is just a contract. This is an extremely difficult community and the Council plays to negativity.”

In response to the result, Fay Biles said, “He will appeal — he should have that chance.” Irv Povlow thanked Thompson and encouraged him to file an appeal. “I’d hate to see someone fired,” he said, “and later find out he didn’t do anything wrong.”

We asked past Council Chair Rob Popoff to comment on Monday’s council proceedings concerning City Manager Steve Thompson: “I am stunned! Procedurally, there must be an emergency to bypass public notice. I can’t imagine any act egregious enough to warrant this type of action. Where was the public notice? A large segment of our citizens were not given ample opportunity to be heard. The last council election was centered around one topic: fiscal conservancy. We’ll be facing $175,000 in compensation, another $40,000 for a City Manager search, $200,000 minimum expense. Where is the fiscal conservancy? Steve Thompson is honest, hard-working, and he is loved by his staff. For the past two and half years council prided itself on transparency. Where was the discussion? This is the opposite of transparent.”

A meeting has been called for Friday, April 23, at 7:30 a.m. in the community Meeting Room to discuss the selection of an Interim City Manager.

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