MARCO ISLAND — It took five City Council members to hire him and will only take four of them to fire Marco Island City Manager Steve Thompson tonight.
Chairman Frank Recker requested an immediate performance review of Thompson, who has been on the job since May 2008.
This will be the second request for termination of Thompson in the past year and a half.
Both requests were initiated by Recker and were based on what he called poor communication, transparency and accountability issues. In this most recent request tonight for council to consider terminating Thompson, Recker added financial responsibility to the list.
He estimated it would cost the city about $175,000 in severance paid to Thompson unless Thompson chooses to resign. Thompson said he has no desire to resign.
Resident Jack Long said he fears the cost is going to be much higher due to launching a national search to replace the city manager and hiring an interim city manager.
Live coverage 5:30 p.m.
Recker motioned to add the discussion of Thompson's performance as the first businesses item on the agenda. Councilmen Bill Trotter and Wayne Waldack voted no, but the issue was added in a 5-2 vote.
Recker cited Thompson's recent performance, particularly his lack of communication with council regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's request for information from the city in 2009. The EPA made several requests beginning in March 2009 for additional data regarding alleged mishandling of the toxic substance asbestos in 2006 and 2007, during the city's reconstruction of Collier Boulevard. Only the last letter from the EPA to Marco was immediately shared with council. The letter informed the city of the potential of fines as high as $37,500 per day for violations to the Clean Air Act and requested they meet with the EPA to avoid formal enforcement action against the city.
Council was not made aware of the investigation picking back up after a lull in investigative activity since January 2008, Recker said.
Additional concerns, Recker said, include a lack of ability to communicate well volunteer advisory boards, including the audit committee, code enforcement board and planning board; contracting with former Finance Director Bill Harrison at a rate of $100 per hour for one year after his discharge from the city, totally more than $100,000 spent in 2009, and retaining a law firm based in Bradenton, FLa., Lewis Longman and Walker, without informing the city's current law firm, Weiss-Serota, or council.
"Neither Steve Thompson nor I ate dinner tonight. Neither one of us had an appetite," Recker said.
"When I ran for office, in addition to my colleagues we strongly advocated the concept of transparency, accountability and open government... I haven't change my position and I don't think they have either," he added.
Recker said he saw the issue as business and the council as the board of directors.
"We need to rely on the information we get from our C.E.O.," he said.
In fall 2008, council took the city manager to task for not disclosing information in the transition report written by then-interim City Manager Dana Souza to Thompson. The report outlined irregular financial practices and potential transparency issues in the city.
Recker said judgment on Thompson's part was flawed after paying $25,000 to former Finance Director Bill Harrison in fall 2008 for severance after he quit and then said he was actually "constructively discharged." Soon after Harrison was hired as a consultant for $100 per hour without council being informed for several months. The cost has been more than $100,000.
Recker questioned whether Harrison was really contracted for his bonding expertise as stated earlier by Thompson.
Further, Recker said he was not pleased with the annual audit being a couple months late and nearly $20,000 over budget due to city finance employees allegedly being uncooperative. The finance department recently hired two new employees, and Recker questioned the management of that staff.
Recker said the city's volunteer audit committee should have been informed and supported.
"Marco Island people want and deserve total open and transparent government," Recker said.
"I believe it was equally astoundingly poor judgment not to share with the city attorney what was going on. The liability to the city was enormous," he continued.
"Such judgment by the City Manager lends credence to the statements that we are not an open government or that we are hiding something," Recker said.
Another concern, he said, was that information to council in "yellow sheets," which are written by department heads to outline key aspects of an issue on the council agenda, did not line up with the ordinance before council.
An example, Recker gave, was when council was considering an amendment to the city charter to allow council to direct investigations of any city employee or department and the ordinance read that the city manager could direct such investigations instead of council.
"There is one person in charge of the ship of state," Recker said.
Planning Board and Code Enforcement Board members are concerned about the Community Development Director (Steve Olmsted) and Thompson did not take any corrective action, Recker continued.
Recker said after a utility advisory committee also found a 30 percent reduction in water rates from what Thompson had first proposed.
Recker called to terminate the contract with Thompson within 30 days. After a long pause, Councilman Chuck Kiester seconded the motion.
"A performance evaluation in general, much less something as important as dismissing the city manager, should not be rushed," said Councilman Bill Trotter.
"We can't have outbursts," Recker said to the audience.
"I have concerns also, but I think to try to rush through this and not give him a chance to review what he did and why he did this is not a justice to the city or the city manager," Trotter said.
He added that he came up with a process to address performance.
"I think it's fair to him (Thompson) to address all these things without any preparation," Trotter said.
"What is the rush here. There is nothing I would say is a true emergency in terms of a bridge falling down or something like that," he continued.
"We should have time as councilors to prepare our point of view," Trotter said.
"I spent my whole career in management and one of things a manager has to do is evaluate a situation and make some difficult decisions... The fundamental problem is the city manager doesn't believe the city council needs to be informed on timely issues that I believe the city council needs to be made aware of... I do think it's an emergency issue," Magel said.
Kiester agreed with Recker and Magel.
"I think you hit the nail on the head, Frank (Recker) and it's called transparency or lack there of and it began with the Dana Souza transition report," Kiester said.
"It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth that we're not moving in the right direction especially where city finances are concerned," he added.
"Even if he walks out of here tonight as an employee of the council, it would be an untenable situation for him," Kiester said.
Batte said he couldn't continue to serve the people who elected him without acting tonight.
"If the problems in my mind weren't so very blatant... I cannot learn about city business from my constituents.... As long as I sit at this dais, I will know everything that has to do with this city... I will want a staff that supports that philosophy," Batte said.
He added that he regretted that his priority of bringing the city together is not working.
Waldack said he really wanted to discuss it. "But it's a major dollar decision we're discussing here and I know it's not just money." He said he didn't want a quick decision.
Gibson said the Sunshine Laws benefit everyone but in this situation it's a detriment to discussing these things. "The fact that we labor under the sunshine doesn't allow us to discuss this," he said.
Gibson said two weeks won't make a difference to what happens to the city.
All seven council members shared their positions tonight, indicating that four of seven of them supported firing the city manager tonight. Without a formal vote, Magel, Recker, Batte and Kiester are indicated a vote to discharge Thompson.
Thompson was prepared to respond and Trotter stopped it.
"He's at a disadvantage at this point to even respond," Trotter said.
"You're an experienced trial attorney and you know how to attack," Thompson said to Recker.
"I work for City Council. You can say the nicest things about me and the next day terminate my contract, it makes no difference," Thompson said.
He added that the transition report was written at his request and that Souza used it to go after three employees. Thompson said the forensic audit cleared those three employees, including Harrison.
"The reason I asked Bill Harrison to resign was because of his attitude," Thompson said. "He reached the point he had an attitude with Mr. Kiester and others."
Harrison does not work with the city anymore as of the end of the bond issue on April 1, Thompson said. Harrison was working for the city as a contractor for two days a week at about the same pay he made when employed full time with the city, he added.
Thompson said he has not seen anything to indicate that the city did not cooperate with the audit firm.
"I will tell you in no uncertain terms, there is no EPA investigation," Thompson said. "In 2006 and 2007, the city may have made some mistakes. The EPA has cleared those sites. There is no ongoing health and safety issue here."
The outside law firm was selected by council in 2006, Thompson said.
"You do have a couple outside law firms," he added.
"This is a small city with a very small staff," Thompson said. "I have some sympathy with the mistakes," he added.
"I was kind of embarrassed about that," he said of errors in the "yellow sheets."
"You're better off improving than replacing in most of these cases and that was my goal," Thompson said.
Thompson said he had no role in the city charter amendment changes. The attorney's initial advice was that council investigations of staff was not in-keeping with Marco's council-manager form of government, Thompson said.
Further, Thompson said, the problems with the code enforcement board began with a council member (Recker) who wanted to renegotiate a settlement with Key Marco after the code board had already made a ruling. Thompson said he advised against that because it would offend the board.
"If your guidance is your community is better off without me than that direction is welcome as well."
7 p.m. Community Comment
"I think you need to start looking at the business structure of this community from the manager on down," said Marco resident Bill Flasche.
"Look at you city manager, but do your due diligence and look at the other operations too," Flasche added.
Marco resident Ken Honecker said a vote tonight and a second vote in two weeks if Thompson appeals would follow the proper process for dismissing the city manager as set out in the city charter.
Marco Island Taxpayers' Association President Fay Biles said the MITA board said: "Yes the city manager should go."
She said Marco resident Mario Sanchez deserved a round of applause for his work with the EPA, Thompson, the attorneys representing the city regarding the Clean Air Act and the money going from that law firm to Camp, Dresser and McKee.
"What's really going on?" she asked.
Gibson said they were paid for water quality samples.
"These people are scared to come in front of you that something is going to happen them," Marco resident Marge Merklinghaus said.
"Code enforcement or something is going to come after them... This town needs to come back together to know the people of Marco Island again."
"The issue here isn't Steve Thompson the city manager who replaced our previous guy and made a big difference for us," said Bob Brown. "At that time (during the first review) we gave him a chance... Citizens through freedom of information are coming up with things everyone wants to know about and we can't come to you folks (council) 'cause even you don't seem to know what's going on."
"Mr. Thompson's a great city manager, but he'd probably be a great guy to be somewhere else because we need to change the way we're doing business," Brown continued.
"You just heard a very well thought out defense by Mr. Thompson. You don't need two weeks to decide... I told him to his face six months ago that he was going to lose this job," said Ray Paret.
"You expected a high threshold of transparency and communication and we just haven't seen that happen," said Marco resident and city watchdog Bill McMullan.
McMullan wasn't pleased with Gibson's take that the Sunshine Law presented a disadvantage.
"I don't see how this community can progress at this point without a new manager," McMullan said.
"We're not in a blame game. We're not going to blame the previous city manager (Bill Moss)," he added.
"How effective would a board of directors be if they could only speak two hours a month?" Gibson responded to McMullans' Sunshine Law comment.
"Justice, justice shall you pursue. Frank (Recker), you know you've had a problem with this city manager since the beginning," said resident Irv Povlow.
He said Thompson's answers seemed to be honest.
"I think that Steve (Thompson) has his hands on everything. I think for us to find another city manager, when he has this kind of knowledge, put this on the back burner because our future depends on it," Povlow said.
"Why would you want to come to work on Marco Island if you're going to get fired within a year?" he asked rhetorically.
"You know I like Steve Thompson very much as an individual. I just don't know if he's the best city manager," said Keith Dameron.
"We just can't seem to get transparency right," Dameron said.
"There is a lot of emotion floating around in this room tonight. Not in my opinion, good rational business thinking going on," he added.
He said the search process will be a set back.
"Steve Thompson is a great guy, wonderful family. I think you deserve, he deserves, that extra time to be taken to make sure," Dameron said.
Trotter wanted to review Recker's statements and Thompson's responses in writing.
"If we make a decision tonight and Thompson goes through the appeal process, that's the wrong way to do it," Trotter said. He said it would taint the process.
He said the difference in the city and business is the political process and the number of people changing on the dais.
Last May, Thompson got nothing but accolades.
"Are there problems? Yes. Do we have to constantly work those problems? Yes. But that's the way it works in any organization," Trotter said.
Thompson fired 4-3
Interim city manager to be selected 7:30 a.m. on Friday