Once again Marco Island City Council stumbled in their attempts to move forward on filling the position of city manager. They also voted their displeasure with one of their own in a heated exchange later in the evening.
Fear of sliding down the slippery slope of failure once again, some Marco Island City Councilors questioned the suggestion by Council Chairman Jared Grifoni to make their selections for a search firm for the replacement of the city manager ahead of their scheduled meeting on Monday evening.
Some, such as Councilor Bob Brown, were in opposition. “I was concerned that as a collective body we never had an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of each of those respondents before casting our votes. Voting on our preferences prior to coming into the meeting is wrong,” said Brown during a break in the four-hour meeting. “We should do our business in the sunshine and with public input,” commented Brown.
In an email earlier in the day, the city clerk advised council that the Chairman had suggested the scoring sheets be filled out for the prioritizing of the executive search firms before the meeting. The concern regarding that suggestion was councilors would score each of the firms prior to the meeting without input from citizens or open discussions by the board.
Chairman Grifoni explained he felt it would serve to “move the process along.”
Council has been mired down for the last 15 months in an effort to replace Roger Hernstadt, the former City Manager who resigned in February of 2017. After two searches, council finally found a replacement, Dr. Lee Niblock who was only in office for less than three months. Niblock has been charged with first degree battery against the principal of Marco Island Academy, Melissa Scott, arising from an incident that took place early in February of this year.
After placing Niblock on a paid leave of absence for 30 days, council voted on March 20 to discharge Niblock for violations of the International City Management Association’s Code of Ethics and other concerns surrounding employee issues.
A subsequent dispute with the Mercer Executive Search Firm due to comments the firm felt were injurious to their reputation by the council chairman, has further clouded the process. Mercer, along with other firms from the State of Florida, opted not to present proposals for a third go-around in the replacement search for the recently terminated Niblock.
“I felt we should be holding a discussion before voting on this. I believe this is one of the most important things we do as councilors,” said Councilor Howard Reed. “Not one executive search firm located in Florida decided to respond in a positive manner. I believe the search firms are sending us a message to step back and get our house in order before moving forward,” said Reed.
Slavin Management Consultants, Colin Baenziger and Associates and the Mercer Group, all of which had previously performed searches for the city, chose not to respond to the inquiry. Out of the more than 20 firms approached, only three responded. Of those three, one had never placed a city manager in Florida.
Councilor Larry Honig agreed that council had its issues. “We are a tough bunch and I’m not sure that will change,” said Honig. “The right thing we have to do is get a new manager in here fast. We are not doing our duties as city councilors if we don’t,” continued Honig. “We don’t need a difficult process which only four of us want to do,” concluded Honig.
Honig reflected on the availability of the remaining three candidates from their last search, who may still be available. Although he did not suggest taking that path, but he did say it could be an option.
Councilor Charlette Roman questioned how they could go forward without having outside help to “coach” her fellow councilors to make the necessary changes in how they carry out their duties and interact with each other.
Chairman Grifoni angrily responded to the implication that the process was flawed by requiring councilors to rank their choices prior to coming to the meeting. “There have been a lot of assumptions made about why firms did not apply to run this search,” said Grifoni. “We don’t know the caliber of the candidates we could attract. To suggest councilors would vote ‘no’ is not correct. If we’re unhappy with the candidates, we can look again. There is strong support for moving forward by members of the community,” said Grifoni.
Councilor Honig moved to nominate GovHR USA to conduct the proposed search. That firm scored highest in the ranking by councilors. That motion would fail due to a lack of a second.
Councilor Victor Rios moved to nominate the second ranking firm, Springsted Waters and Councilor Honig seconded that motion.
That vote failed 4-3, with only Honig, Rios and Grifoni voting in the affirmative. Batte, Brown, Reed and Roman would vote in the negative. That would end the discussions regarding how to move forward regarding the search process for a new manager.
Grifoni Receives a Vote of No Confidence From Colleagues
In an unprecedented move by his fellow councilors, Chairman Grifoni received a 4-3 vote of “no confidence,” following a heated discussion. That issue arose when Councilor Joe Batte attempted to make a motion to that effect, but was quickly ruled out of order by Chairman Grifoni. Grifoni would label Batte’s motion as being “friviolus,” which infuriated Batte.
Councilor Reed challenged the ruling of the chair, saying, “My heart is broken, this council is broken and Councilor Batte deserves to have his motion heard.” Reed quoted from the rules of procedure, and called for a vote to override Grifoni’s rejection of Batte’s attempt to have his motion brought to the floor for discussion.
Councilors Roman, Brown, Reed and Batte voted to overrule the Chairman’s objection to Batte’s motion, therefore allowing Batte to bring his motion forward with Brown seconding it. This opened the motion to discussion, and Councilor Batte made his points regarding the intent of his motion, and his desire to remove the “cloud” he believes has descended upon the community since the Niblock incident, and lingering questions concerning some councilors’ alleged involvement in attempts to mitigate the situation.
Reed spoke of his concerns that the Chairman was abusing his position to deflect criticism, while also voicing concerns regarding how the community views the details surrounding the Niblock incident and how it was handled.
Councilor Roman was blunt and to the point when she said, “If we can’t find a way to be more respectful we might as well adjourn until we can… we are not moving forward.”
Councilor Honig attempted to dispel the notion that there was a “cloud” lingering over the community regarding the Niblock incident, but did agree with Councilor Roman that more needed to be done to improve the working relationship of council.
When it came time for Chairman Grifoni to speak, he lashed out at Councilor Batte, referring to him as a “bully.” Grifoni complimented his own management style and spoke of his personal accomplishments. When Batte attempted to rebut the Chairman, Grifoni cut off the debate.
The motion for a vote of no confidence passed by a 4-3 margin with Brown, Roman, Reed and Batte voting in the affirmative and Honig, Rios and Grifoni opposing.
The vote did not remove Grifoni from his position as the Chairman, a position that will expire in five months. It is, however, the strongest admonition that has ever been bought against a sitting councilor by his colleagues in the 20 years of Marco Island cityhood.