MARCO ISLAND — The Marco Island City Council voted to fire City Manager Steve Thompson on Monday.
“Obviously, I wish I had been more successful here, but this is a very difficult community by anyone’s standards,” said Thompson. “Council plays to that negativity and it’s difficult to overcome that.”
Standing by his wife, Thompson said he would think about whether to request a public hearing to appeal council’s decision within the next five days.
Former City Council Chairman Rob Popoff, who heard the news via a text message from the meeting, said he’d like to be there to speak.
Many residents, including Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association President Fay Biles, city watchdog Bill McMullan, Bob Brown and Bill Flasche among others, spoke in favor of ousting Thompson on Monday. Popoff said more people would have spoken in Thompson’s defense if they knew it was going to be discussed.
“I’m stunned. I really, really, really didn’t want to be in politics anymore, but this is the kind of thing ... I would have run for (council) again because it’s just unjust,” Popoff said.
There was no transparency in the decision to terminate Thompson’s contract within the next 30 days because it was not on the agenda in time for an advertised public notice, Popoff said.
“I have to question the motives,” he said. “This is not an emergency. This is not open government.”
The move came after a decision by new City Council Chairman Frank Recker to bring Thompson’s performance up for discussion. After a long pause among council members, Councilman Chuck Kiester seconded Recker’s motion to discuss it.
Then one-by-one, each council member shared their take with four of the seven council members agreeing with Recker that Thompson lacked transparency and openness, among other acts that lacked judgment on his part. The other three members, Wayne Waldack, Bill Trotter and Jerry Gibson, said they should take more time to review Thompson in a formal process.
Kiester, along with new council members Larry Magel and Joe Batte agreed with Recker.
Thompson said he wasn’t that surprised given two new members on council. Moreover, there is a new chairman, who had called for Thompson’s termination previously.
“If I was afraid of being fired, I wouldn’t have become a city manager,” said Thompson, who was hired in May 2008.
Recker first called for the dismissal of Thompson about six months after he was hired. At that time, he cited Thompson’s poor decision not to share a “transition report” written by then-interim-City Manager Dana Souza describing financial irregularities and transparency problems in the city.
Souza used the report to go after three employees, who were later cleared by a forensic audit, Thompson said.
It was a roller coaster ride for Thompson. About a year ago, he was getting rave reviews from council.
Recker cited several reasons in calling for Thompson’s termination:
■ Thompson did not share requests for information regarding alleged mishandling of the toxic substance asbestos in 2006 and 2007.
■ The annual audit was completed past deadline and over budget without communication to the city’s audit advisory committee.
■ Thompson contracted former City Finance Director Bill Harrison after his constructive discharge, which came with paying $25,000 in severance to Harrison in fall 2008. Harrison then worked for the city at a rate of $100 per hour, earning about $100,000 in 2009, close to his previous salary.
■ The Bradenton-based law firm Lewis, Longman and Walker was paid to assist with the defense against the EPA, without informing city council’s contracted counsel or informing council, Recker said.
■ Department heads weren’t properly managed.
Thompson stood up for his department directors.
“You’re better off improving than replacing (an employee) in most of these cases and that was my goal,” Thompson said.
The city will pay Thompson about $175,000 in severance. Other expenses will likely include a nationwide search at about $50,000, an interim city manager with a temporary salary to likely mirror Thompson’s and the salary for a new, long-term city manager.
While Recker said it was his “fiduciary responsibility” to fire Thompson, Popoff said it may be the opposite.
“This is financially irresponsible. Now we'll have to pay for his golden parachute. He hasn't done anything grievous enough,” Popoff said.