There weren’t any fireworks and there won’t be any on the Fourth of July.
The Bonita Springs City Council approved a laser-light show instead of fiery big booms and at the same time didn’t cause any fireworks of their own during Wednesday’s meeting.
The debate over whether to begin negotiations with City Manager Gary Price and City Attorney Audrey Vance didn’t carry the heated tone one might expect.
Instead, a decision that could ultimately result in three months’ severance pay for the two city employees in question proved to be a dud.
By their unanimous approval, the council started the clock ticking toward the Dec. 1 ultimatum, when, if the city hasn’t completed negotiations with Vance and Price, it will be obligated to begin paying three months’ severance to each, due to a clause in their contracts designed to provide notice prior to their termination.
Members of the council, including Pat McCourt, expressed concerns that, if either Vance or Price made unreasonable demands during negotiations, the city could get stuck with the severance bill.
“I hope that I would have a history of not making unreasonable demands,” said Price, who pointed out that the three months’ severance in his contract is not unusual or unheard of, an observation City Council Member Richard Ferreria later echoed.
“It’s not uncommon at all, it’s very common in the industry,” Ferreria said.
Price also pointed to concessions that he and Vance had already made, such as waiving a car allowance, as a sign that he would be fair in negotiations, and understood the council’s economic situation.
“There are a number of things that are required of you in our contracts that we have waived,” Price said.
Another concern voiced by members of the council was the inconvenience of the timing for the negotiations, which members thought could interfere with budget formulations and even become a political issue in the next election cycle.
“I don’t think that negotiations with your city manager while he’s working on your budget is a great idea,” Mayor Ben Nelson said.
“I think this is just the way it worked out,” Price said of the timing.
Despite their concerns, the council chose to take the action that could result in Price and Vance retaining their positions.
“I’m happy with the people that we have and I would like to let the mayor move forward with the administrative end,” Ferreria said. As for the now-looming severance deadline, Nelson downplayed it as a potential worst-case scenario.
“If those negotiations go bad, or if we decide that Gary (Price) is not doing a good job, I’m willing to pay his three-month severance,” Nelson said.
As was expected, the council quickly and unanimously approved the proposed Fourth of July laser-light show. By passing the resolution, the council waved the competitive quote process, and authorized the mayor to sign a quote from Laser Productions Network, Inc.
The council estimates that, by having the light show downtown, as opposed to a fireworks show at an alternate location, it will save as much as $8,000 in costs relating to securing the site and provide a safer celebration.
Also on the agenda was a vote to establish and administrative code concerning city policy for the use of its government access channel. The question of whether allowing the broadcast of debates between candidates, and between supporters and opposition to issues on the ballot, was within the law and the city’s best interest left members of the council with serious concerns.
City Councilman John Spear questioned whether any debate sponsored by any group could truly be considered impartial.
“I think we need to spend some serious time deciding who we’re going to partner with,” said Spear, who suggested that having televised debates over issues could lead to a slippery slope, especially when it comes time to choose who should represent the two sides of the argument.
“Who makes that decision?” asked Spear.
“I think that’s an issue that the supporters should decide,” responded McCourt, who said that, for the two sides of an issue on the ballot, choosing a representative should be a “democratic process,” with each side choosing representatives in advance of the debate.
Nelson warned the council about opening the public airwaves to political debate.
“As soon as we involve ourselves, I think constitutionally, we open the door,” Nelson said.
Despite citing concerns with the language and specificity of the resolution, including a clause limiting religious language on the channel, the City Council passed it 5-2. McCourt and William Lonkart voted against the resolution.