NAPLES — A years-long feud between Collier County commissioners and the Clerk of Courts may finally be over.
The duel came to a head in the Collier County Commission meeting Tuesday, with Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock threatening to shut down his office and cease all non-court operations at the end of business today if the county did not agree to fund at least the $3.7 million budget it had agreed upon in July.
However, the night ended auspiciously for both parties with the county commissioners agreeing to fund Brock’s office the full $5.3 million agreed to in mediation earlier this year and Brock agreeing not to appeal an ongoing lawsuit with the county.
“The really good news is that it really appears to be a new day,” said state Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, who served as Brock’s attorney. “It really appears that they want to talk and I’m really excited about that.”
The two parties will sit down over the next six months to work on a new interlocal agreement.
But in the meantime, Tuesday’s decision means that Brock won’t have to lay off any more employees. And he may even be able to hire some back.
When he thought his budget was going to be $3.7 million, Brock laid off 46 people from his staff of about 240 and closed six satellite offices earlier in September.
After several hours of debate — which included input from former Sheriff Don Hunter and several of Brock’s employees — commissioners agreed to honor the interlocal agreement with Brock.
Shortly before noon Tuesday, Brock notified the Collier County Commission that it had until the end of the business day to fund his agreed upon budget of $3.7 million or face a shutdown of his office and cease all non-court operations. The shutdown would have been effective today.
Last month the county released a budget that included $3.7 million for the Clerk of the Courts when the mediation agreement between the county and the clerk called for $5.3 million. Brock’s initial budget request was $6.1 million.
Then, last week, Brock received a draft agreement from County Manager Jim Mudd that proposed he receive $2.5 million.
“This amount is inconsistent with any good faith desire to negotiate an interlocal agreement in light of the county’s budget approval already on the table of $3,773,500 and your prior agreement to recommend $5,273,500,” Brock said in a five-page terse letter to Mudd.
“As you know I have already disrupted the lives of 46 families in Collier County whose primary wage earner has been fired because of the rejection of the county of our mediated settlement agreement.”
Brock said he would be available to meet at any time Tuesday or today in an effort to resurrect the spirit and letter of the mediation settlement agreement.
Commissioner Tom Henning brought the letter to the attention of his fellow commissioners, asking for time to work this out with Brock.
About 25 clerk of courts employees were in Collier County Commission chambers to support Brock. They held pieces of cardboard that said “we support clerk of courts.”
“We’re working as hard as we can,” said Mindy Ragan, a clerk employee. “It’s going to affect so many things.”
Clerk employees said they’re unsure of what will be affected, but said there will be a trickle-down effect to community members.
“Dwight has made all of the cuts he can make,” said supervisor AJ Rard.
“(More) cuts are denying taxpayers what they’re entitled to,” said employee Kathy Murray.
The commission and clerk essentially re-argued the entire case, which has been in and out of courts for years.
Hunter urged commissioners to work with Brock.
Commissioner Frank Halas said all he cared about was transparency: “That’s all we’re asking for ... that shareholders in this county are getting the biggest bang for their buck.”
Coletta, who was gung-ho on the agreement, but then backed off, eventually negotiated the terms.
“Praise the Lord,” Rard said after the decision that ended the debate. “I’m pleased. I had so hoped this would happen.”
The Clerk of the Circuit Court of Collier County is an elected constitutional officer. The clerk’s responsibilities include accountant, auditor, keeper of court and public records and “watchdog” of all public funds, according to the clerk’s Web site.
Commission candidate Georgia Hiller, who is running for the seat held by Commissioner Frank Halas, said it is reprehensible to use the clerk’s employees as pawns in the fight against Brock.
“These people have families. You are playing with their lives. Stop it,” Hiller said.
Had a deal not been reached, Clerk of the Courts employees were planning to wear red today in protest of the County Commission cutting Brock’s budget.
“Everybody has been told to wear red to symbolize the anger and that we are being bled to death,” said Amy Rankin, who works in the Civil Division of the Clerk’s Office.
Employees from all departments, even those who would not be affected by further shutdowns, had planned to use their lunch hour to stand outside Building F that houses the County Commission offices.
Lee County Clerk of Courts Charlie Green said he likes Brock, but doesn’t know his business very well.
“I think the argument between his office and the county commissioners has gone on far too long for the taxpayers’ benefit,” he said.
As for closing his office, that’s a move Green said he wouldn’t make.
“I don’t know if he’s got that type of authority,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good move. I wouldn’t do it.”
Lee County reporter Charlie Whitehead contributed to this report.