Since the scandal surrounding the battery charges leveled against former Marco Island City Manager Lee Niblock broke last month, his firing and the exposure of emails between Niblock and Councilor Larry Honig regarding a potential “Valentine Day Massacre,” the community has been abuzz with the nauseating details.
Niblock was hired as the City Manager for Marco Island following two search attempts by the Mercer Group, an executive search firm from Atlanta, Georgia.
Council Chairman Jared Grifoni has stated the city would possibly seek a return of some of the fees paid to the Mercer Group, since Niblock was on the job less than two years, and in the event that the city does not leverage the clause within the Mercer contract for them to continue the search process.
“I’m not advocating suing the Mercer Group, however they do owe us another search under the terms of their contract,” said Grifoni during the April 2, 2018 meeting. He further stated, “That doesn’t mean we get involved in a high priced litigation to get back $8,000 for a $15,000 original fee.”
The Mercer Group, through Attorney Rod Smith of Avera-Smith of Gainesville, Florida, has responded to the public statements made against them.
In correspondence to City Attorney Alan Gabriel, forwarded to council members on Friday, Smith outlined the work done by the Mercer Group and W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. in conducting the two separate searches for the city, noting that the councilors were provided a 25-page packet on Niblock that included “media details regarding the prior terminations of candidate Niblock from both Marion and Alachua Counties.” Despite reports of the two prior firings, Councilor Grifoni stated the information provided by the Mercer Group on Niblock failed to show any “red flags.” Niblock was hired as the Marco Island City Manager following a 5-2 vote, with only Councilors Joe Batte and Bob Brown dissenting.
Smith’s letter raised concerns over the actions of then Vice-Chairman Jared Grifoni and then Council Chairman Larry Honig during the search process in the spring/summer of 2017. Smith pointed out the questionable manner in which the two city council members reviewed candidates during their process. Specifically, what appeared to be an orchestrated effort to steer the selection process to a single candidate and a disqualification based on age.
In his letter to City Attorney Alan Gabriel, Smith states the following:
“Please recall that on April 24, 2017 Mercer contracted with the City to conduct a search for a new city manager. That search, which included attending public council meetings as well as interviewing with individual council members, closed on June 16, 2017. Thereafter, a list of nine candidates (recommended semi-finalists) was provided to the Council. On June 20, a special council meeting convened for the purpose of selecting finalists from the ‘semi-finalist’ list. During that meeting the then Vice-Chairman, Mr. Grifoni, stepped down from the dais and presented a prepared overhead by which he discredited each candidate other than candidate Gruber. W.D. had been made aware of the Vice-Chairman’s preference for candidate Gruber as early as May 10, 2017. At the conclusion of the June 20 meeting, the Council selected two semi-finalists, one of which was candidate Gruber.
“After having viewed the Vice-Chairman’s presentation and subsequent Council discussion, which included an assertion that one prospective candidate was ‘too old,’ the remaining finalist withdrew his name from consideration.”
Gruber attended a meet and greet with residents in July, however when it came to the voting he would fail to gain the requisite super-majority of five councilors and instead see a majority of four councilors vote against his nomination. Only Grifoni, Honig and Rios would vote in his favor. This would result in a heated exchange between Chairman Honig and Higginbotham.
That attack on a candidate, which Smith alluded to in his letter, was in reference to Garrison Brumback the City Manager of Southington, Connecticut. The comment raised concerns for its potential to result in legal action for age discrimination.
This opposition to Brumback was brought by Council Chairman Larry Honig. “I am going to tell you why I am reluctant to advancing this guy. He is a few years from retirement. He could be four years from retirement. So he is going to come down here and he’s going to retire. He is the guy I asked about at the beginning of the thing. He is going to want to find a nice Florida place; be paid 150 grand to live in a nice place bringing his Connecticut home money down here to buy a nice place and have a great time,” said Honig.
After making those remarks, Honig followed up by saying, “I don’t mean any of this to demean the man, besmirch his character, nothing to do with that and I hope that is clear. I am just talking about the kind of man that I would like to see as the next city manager for Marco Island.” “I would like to see someone that is here for a decade and not gone in four years,” Honig added.
As a comparison, former City Manager Bill Moss left Marco Island at 60 years of age to assume the top job in the City of Naples and served over 10 years. Moss recently announced his intentions to retire.
Brumback served for seven years as the Assistant City Manager in Clearwater, Florida and was the only applicant to have Florida experience, which council originally saw as an important attribute in a new manager. He left Clearwater to accept the City Manager’s spot in Baytown, Texas on the Gulf Coast before moving on to Southington, Connecticut in 2010, where he had been for the last seven years.
During the intense storm years of 2004 and 2005, Brumback headed the planning and preparations for the City of Clearwater and the recovery efforts for the city. (Clearwater has a population of approximately 115,000 residents). Before assuming his position with the City of Clearwater, Brumback spent 20 years in the U.S. Army. In 1998 he left his final position as Battalion Commander at Fort Hood, Texas.
Another drawback raised by Grifoni and Honig was that Brumback was at the top of the advertised salary scale. However, Higginbotham assured councilors that he had discussed that issue with Brumback, and due to the lower cost of living in Florida and no state income tax, it would not be a problem. He advised that the applicant felt comfortable with a package more in-line with the salary scale.
When Niblock was hired in November of 2017, Vice-Chairman Grifoni negotiated the details of his contract with the City Attorney. A salary of $185,000 was agreed upon, which is well above what Brumback was being paid when he applied for the Marco position.
Niblock was also afforded an 8% contribution to the International City Managers Association Retirement Plan ($14,800), in addition to the 6.5% contribution to a 401K plan ($12,025) that the city has historically provided. (Note: The percentage is calculated using the base salary of $185,000). This was the first time that a secondary retirement plan was allowed to be funded, and it was agreed to by Vice Chairman Grifoni in his negotiations.
It has not been ascertained whether or not Niblock was the favored candidate prior to the selection process, as the Mercer Group’s attorney alleged regarding Grifoni’s preference for Gruber, prior to any other candidates being vetted in a fair and open process.
Attorney Smith was quite clear that his law firm and Mr. Higginbotham would be prepared to take appropriate action to protect their reputations.