COLLIER COUNTY — Commissioner Georgia Hiller is proposing a title change for Collier County's top employee.
Hiller wants the county manager to become the county administrator, repealing the decades-old county ordinance to match an ordinance conforming to state statute.
Leo Ochs, the current Collier County Manager, said the title change wouldn't alter his powers and duties.
But Commissioner Fred Coyle objected at Tuesday's commission meeting to the switch in semantics. Coyle worries an ordinance change will give commissioners freedom to interfere with employees and would open the county to corruption.
"I think it is dangerous to eliminate this prohibition of commission interference," he said. "I think it could create a patronage system in which commissioners get employees to do things for their constituents."
So, Commissioner Tim Nance played peacekeeper, coming up with a solution.
"Why don't we have the county attorney and the county manager look at this and make thoughtful changes. I don't think we should change everyone's titles, that could cost a fortune," he said. "But the county manager's ordinance hasn't been looked at in 20 years, why not see if there are things we can improve?"
Commissioners liked that idea and unanimously approved the examination of the county manager's ordinance by Ochs and County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, with the recommendation that the two bring back a revised ordinance at the board's second meeting in April.
Hiller said she brought up the issue after looking into the roles of the board and the county manager. She said she thought the county manager's ordinance should incorporate the state statute, while removing many things that should go in other places other than a county manager's ordinance, including termination language she said was best left in Ochs' contract.
She also addressed concerns from two commissioners that the removal of the current ordinance would give commissioners carte blanche to direct staff under the county manager's supervision and interfere in their work.
"This codifies the role of the county administrator," she said. "The approval of the division heads would remain as is. I don't want to approve 25 department heads."
Commissioner Donna Fiala questioned Hiller about changing the ordinance when it was more or less what the county was doing now.
"If we change Leo's title, we will have to print up new cards, new signs. That could be expensive," she said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Ochs said he went through the state statute and the local ordinance and the enumeration of powers and duties match up almost identically. He also spoke of concerns about the cost to change his title.
But he also said he was concerned about a provision added by commissioners in 1984 that keeps commissioners from interfering with employees under the county manager's supervision. Ochs told commissioners he thought that provision was a reminder to all parties about the board's role of policymaker and the county manager and the staff's role of police implementers.
Commissioner Tom Henning said he doesn't understand where the concern about the provision comes from since Chapter 125 of Florida Statutes does not give commissioners the right to interfere with employees.
"The commissioners have no obligation to suspend or discharge employees who work for the county manager. The spin that it would lead to the county commissioners interfering is untrue," he said.
Coyle disagreed, saying it opened the door to commission interference.
Hiller, who pointed out that the county settled a lawsuit in 2007 brought against them by an employee who claimed Coyle was interfering with his employment, said the statute would make the county administrator's role clear so no ambiguity would exist.
Coyle, who denied interfering with the employee, said it was why the language was important, so it would keep commissioners from interfering.
"It's very clear and it tells us what is expected," he said.
Henning said he has also been sued using the ordinance because he asked questions about an employee who had been accused of accosting someone in the county parking lot.
"The county had to defend me," he said. "Employees are using that. It says don't do your job when a constituent comes to you and says, 'An employee accosted me in the parking lot.'"
Klatzkow said he would like to go through the ordinance with Ochs, compare it to state law and figure out what the county would lose and gain.
"You will all get the backup for what we have and why the state law positions are there," he said.