Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Niblock Saga Continues


Dr. Lee Niblock Photo by Steve Stefanides

Dr. Lee Niblock Photo by Steve Stefanides

Since the beginning of February, Marco Islanders have had to endure the embarrassing revelations surrounding the continuation of what some have referred to as “Niblockgate.”

It began when it was first revealed that Dr. Lee Niblock, the community’s new city manager, hired in November 2017, had been accused by a Marco Island woman of inappropriate behavior and she was lodging a complaint of battery against him. Marco Island Police Chief Al Schettino advised the city council that he was turning the case over to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office for a thorough and impartial investigation.

Complaint of Battery

Niblock stood before the Marco Island City Council on February 20, 2018 and requested that council place him on a (paid) leave of absence. “I very much deny what has been said about me,” he stated, when he addressed the council. Niblock was placed on leave, as requested, and was paid up until March 19, 2018. Niblock’s salary is $185,000 per year plus benefits. However, there is no specific provision within the City Charter or by ordinance that allows a “leave of absence” to be granted to any employee.

Disparaging Emails

Since the February city council meeting when Niblock requested (and received) his paid leave, a number of unflattering emails have surfaced between Niblock and Councilor Larry Honig, in which the two men make disparaging remarks about city employees. (It was also discovered that Councilor Honig had also communicated disparaging remarks about Marco’s police department with newly elected Naples City Councilor Linda Penniman.) Rumors of a “hit list,” stemming from Niblock’s promise of a “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to Honig, persist at city hall.

The results of an employee climate survey, released in 2017, cited concerns by the city’s workforce regarding the councilors and their treatment of city employees. The employees felt that the councilors’ behavior towards them created a negative work environment. As clearly set forth in the City Charter, city councilors are forbidden to direct any city employees (other than the city manager and the city attorney).

Questionable Consultants Contract

Another disturbing email surfaced, indicating that a contract was directed to be issued to a newly-formed utility consulting service (Mellinger Environmental LLC) to review the management of the Marco Island Utility Department. This, after the Ad-Hoc Utility Options Committee had already found that the utility was well run, having provided its report to city council in October 2017. This no-bid contract was being awarded to a former Marion County colleague of Niblock’s. The contract was for a review of the “management of the utility,” something already accomplished by the Ad-Hoc Committee.

Mellinger reduced its fees originally proposed to Niblock, so that its contract would total less than $25,000, Marco Island’s purchasing policy threshold for competing bids. Reducing the contract price eliminated the need for the city to obtain competing bids from other contractors, allowing Mellinger to be automatically hired.

The cost to the city taxpayers would have been nearly $23,000 had the contract been finalized.

Mellinger Environmental LLC had been formed on January 29, 2018, less than two weeks prior to Niblock’s February 12, 2018 email instructing the city’s purchasing agent to “process the appropriate documents to secure Mr. Mellinger’s services.”

Mellinger and Niblock have a history of ventures together, going back to when Niblock was the Alachua County Manager. Research reveals that the men were involved in a proposal for a regional landfill venture. This became a matter of concern to the Pasco County Commissioners since the county had been moving away from burying waste, and instead was utilizing an incinerator.

The eventual result came just last week, with the hasty resignation of Mr. Mellinger from his position as Pasco County Assistant Manager for Infrastructure, following numerous questions that were directed at him at a recent Pasco County Commissioners Meeting. It was discovered that Pasco County employees were utilized to gather information that would assist Mellinger on the Marco Island contract. This was done on county time, at the taxpayers’ expense.

Council Votes To Terminate

At the March 19th meeting of the Marco Island City Council, council voted 7-0 to officially terminate Niblock’s employment contract for cause. This action set up a 30-day window which would enable him to request a hearing to challenge that termination vote. Council would cite violations of the International City Manager’s Code of Ethics, which is part of the contract for Niblock’s employment.

On Wednesday, April 4th at 5 PM Niblock will take advantage of a clause in the City’s Charter which provides him with a right to a hearing as detailed below:

Section 4.02 – Appointment; Removal; Residency; Compensation.

(1) Appointment. The Council by an affirmative vote of five of its seven members shall appoint a City Manager for an indefinite term. The City Manager shall be appointed on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications.

(2) Removal. The Council may remove the City Manager, by the affirmative vote of at least four members of the Council. Upon request by the City Manager, to be made within 5 days after receipt of written notification of such vote, a public hearing shall be held within 10 days after receipt of such request. After such hearing, the Council by affirmative vote of at least four Council Members shall decide whether to reconsider its previous action

The hearing is open to the public and it will convene at 5pm in Council Chambers at 51 Bald Eagle Drive. Second Battery Charge Surfaces

Late in the afternoon of March 21, the Gainesville Sun would break the story that Niblock was now under investigation for a second battery complaint by a woman in Gainesville. That incident occurred in June of 2017 and involved the manager of the Hippodrome in Gainesville, Jessica Hurov. The Hippodrome Theatre is a professional theatre in downtown Gainesville.

According to the Gainesville Police Department, Niblock is being accused of battery, a first degree misdemeanor.

The police report states that Niblock and Hurov met at Volta Coffee, 48 SW 2nd St., in Gainesville on June 10 to discuss “a future job opportunity.” The two then agreed to drive in his vehicle scouting locations for what Hurov thought was related to the potential job.

During conversation, Niblock made several references to his wife being out of town and said he was “a bachelor for the weekend.” He also referred to the meeting as a date, according to the report.

While driving through Micanopy, the report said, Niblock placed his hand on Hurov’s left thigh and lifted the hem of her skirt. He then said he “loves it when she wears short skirts and shows off her legs,” according to the report. Upon arriving back in Gainesville, while parked, the police report stated that Niblock put his hand on Hurov’s thigh again, and his other hand on her shoulder, and then attempted to kiss her on the mouth. Hurov ducked and he kissed her temple, the report added.

Council Meets April 2

Council will meet next on April 2, at 5:30 PM in chambers to take up regular business. The Niblock saga will continue with his hearing, as requested, on April 4th at 5 PM.

For updated information as this story unfolds, and for other local news, visit our website: coastalbreezenews.com and our Facebook page.

2 responses to “The Niblock Saga Continues”

  1. Hector C Fernandez says:

    So can we discuss impeaching any of our sitting Councilmem who have acted inappropriately and betrayed the public trust? Seems like a good opportunity to do so much needed “Sprung Cleaning”.

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