At the recent meeting of the Marco Island City Council, discussion once again included the topic of finding a city manager to fill the longstanding vacancy.
Council has been considering the possibility of using the services offered by the Florida City and County Manager Association’s Senior Advisor Program. The program would enable the council to appoint an interim manager, who could also assist in the search for a permanent city manager.
In December of 2017 Marco Island City Council hired Dr. Lee Niblock, after an exhaustive search period which brought criticism of the council’s handling of the process. Shortly thereafter, following an investigation by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Dr. Niblock was charged with battery stemming from an incident involving Marco Island Academy Principal Melissa Scott.
The charges were related to Niblock’s alleged unwanted advances against Ms. Scott. Niblock also allegedly offered Ms. Scott highly compensated employment with the city.
Councilors Larry Honig and Jared Grifoni came under close scrutiny for their activities when this matter became known to them. This eventually led the majority of council to vote “no-confidence” in Chairman Grifoni. Niblock was eventually terminated by council, after taking an approximate four-week paid leave of absence, and leaving the community reeling after the events surrounding his departure.
Since then, council has balked at resuming a search for a permanent manager, having voted down a motion to hire another search firm for that purpose. The majority of the councilors have preferred to see a passage of time, in order to allow the earlier debacle to subside.
Not all on council wanted to support moving forward with utilizing the Senior Advisor Program, preferring instead for Interim City Manager Gil Polanco to stay in place and allow the upcoming election to occur before moving forward to find a permanent city manager.
Although Councilor Howard Reed agreed something had to be done, he spoke of the challenge of bringing in an interim manager who would take six to nine months to “settle in.” “I cannot support anything less than seeking a permanent city manager. It drains resources and energy from the seeking of a manager,” said Reed.
Councilor Honig complimented Councilor Charlette Roman’s suggestion. He would, however, strongly suggest that individuals who had previously applied be considered and be included within any packets brought forward by the Senior Advisor Program. “I would hope we’d consider those that we interviewed and/or brought forward as finalists, if that is possible as part of this group,” said Honig. Council would give a majority nod to that suggestion and Ken Parker of the Senior Advisor Program said he would draw together other advisors to review those packets. He attended the meeting via phone.
Councilor Victor Rios claimed that the city was on “life support,” and urged approval of this course of action.
Councilor Bob Brown cautioned the use of an interim city manager from outside the city, and referred back to the city’s experience after Bill Moss left the position several years ago. “The city slipped into disarray after Mr. Moss left when they followed that course of action. Mr. Polanco has done a good job,” said Brown.
Gil Polanco, the city’s finance manager, has filled the vacant manager’s position during the last 19 months since Roger Hernstadt resigned in February of 2017. Previous to that, Polanco ran the city during the four months prior to Hernstadt assuming the manager’s position in 2014, after Jim Riviere left the position.
Councilor Honig disputed Brown’s assessment. “I do not agree that Gil has done a good job. We should force ourselves to move forward,” said Honig.
Councilor Roman then launched into a passionate speech proclaiming that the citizens on Marco Island “Don’t have a city manager working on their behalf.” She would repeat that criticism several times during her speech. “Things are not getting better they are getting worse,” proclaimed Roman as she appeared to be reading from notes or a script as she proceeded to question Polanco’s effectiveness in his role.
Roman asserted that was the reason permits were late, emails or calls take a long time to be returned and that over the last year gopher tortoises were dying at a higher rate. She would directly tie that to the fact that Marco Island lacked a professional city manager and the staff was doing nothing over the last year.
“Our community is not getting the service you deserve, from the government you are paying for,” said Roman.
“Little will improve until we get a qualified and serious city manager,” said Roman.
She would urge her fellow councilors to move forward to utilize the services of the Senior Advisor Program to place a temporary manager until a new full time manager could be hired.
Chairman Grifoni immediately praised Roman at the end of her presentation. “That may well be one of your finer moments as a councilor,” said Grifoni.
Interim City Manager Polanco and the city staff have been highly praised for their management and professionalism in dealing with last year’s impact from Hurricane Irma.
Councilor Joe Batte did not share Roman’s disappointment towards the quiet and reserved Polanco, although he stated he would support moving forward. Batte appeared to take offense to Councilor Roman’s attack on Polanco. “I’m taken aback by your comments that we don’t have a city manager that responds to our community. We’ve got a guy sitting in that chair that didn’t want to be there but did it because we asked him to,” said Batte.
“Quite frankly you won’t find someone better than Gil Polanco, and I’m taken aback by your battering of him and that’s an easy word to describe your comments. I think Gil has done a fantastic job and has been responsive and answerable to the people. He has had one hell of a burden on his shoulder and I think you were out of line for saying what you did,” Batte added.
As they moved forward in their discussions, council did not deal with one of the three points Roman made in her White Paper, urging this course of action. This important point dealt with whether the temporary manager might be considered for the fulltime position once chosen to fill the temporary role.
In her White Paper, Roman specifically addressed that point, saying, “This is our choice, not the Senior Advisors’. It is often a deciding factor for some interim managers. That is why the candidates will know up front.” This point was, however, ignored in the discussions of that evening and the vote to move forward.
Citizen Bill McMullan took the podium and placed the blame on council for their inability to get along and the lack of leadership. “The buck doesn’t stop at the city manager’s desk, it stops at the dais with you. The fact that you seven people can’t get along and have done things behind each other backs, or the way you talk about each other, in and out of public, is deplorable. To point the finger at the city manager or any employee is wrong,” said McMullan.
He continued, “Councilor Roman, you’ve brought up the Employee Climate Survey and never addressed the fact that 57% of city employees felt threatened for their jobs and bullied by members of the city council. You’ve never addressed that except to use it to criticize our police chief.”
McMullan concluded, “We are a great city, and beating up on Mr. Polanco and some of the department heads is just incredibly bad and they don’t deserve it.”
Sam Young rose to question whether Marco was “black balled” within the city manager’s association group. “Naples had 80 applicants already in line. They have their own association. Where are we on that list? Is Marco black balled because of the history we’ve got?” inquired Young. He was not in favor of seeking an interim person to fill the post but wanted to move directly on to finding a permanent manager.
Council agreed to have resumes sent to them on August 7 and determine semi-finalists on August 20 and initiate deep background checks on those that are chosen.
Council voted 5-2 to proceed, over the objections of Councilors Brown and Reed.