Former city manager candidate denies Marco resident's accusations

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
Marco Island city manager candidate Joshua Gruber speaks to the Marco Island City Council Wednesday, July 20, 2017. In a 3-4 vote, council opted not to hire Gruber, the sole remaining contender for the position.

The May 7 Marco Island City Council meeting was akin to the collision of two warring factions: those claiming a "cover-up" by Chairman Jared Grifoni and Councilor Larry Honig over the city manager fiasco versus staunch support for the two members on the dais.

Packed to capacity with interested parties spilling over into the lobby to watch the proceedings, the first public speaker, Joe Granda, laid the groundwork for what was about to come when he accused Grifoni of impropriety with respect to the potential hiring of Joshua Gruber, the current interim county administrator in Beaufort County, S.C.

In his public comments, Granda alleged Gruber told his neighbors that he would be hired in Marco Island based upon what Grifoni said and that among the people Gruber told were the mother and father of Granda's son-in-law.

“When you got rid of Roger Hernstadt, your first priority was to get a city manager that would do the dirty work for you since Roger refused to do it,” Granda said. “Mr. Gruber, who you remember from South Carolina, talked to you Mr. Grifoni before he came to our city and you made a deal with him. I’m sure he can testify to that.”

The problem with Granda's statement though is Gruber will not testify to that and denied his allegations in response to hearing the comments.

"Those are indeed salacious accusations," Gruber wrote in an email Thursday. "They are also third-party hearsay that I can unequivocally deny as being factually untrue." 

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Months before the city hired now-former city manager Lee Niblock, Gruber was a finalist for the city manager's position last year along with Marple Township (Pennsylvania) manager Anthony Hamaday.

After Hamaday withdrew his candidacy, the council voted 4-3 during July 19's special council meeting against hiring Gruber, which sent the city manager search back to the drawing board.

Gruber, who at the time of the council vote was the deputy administrator, has served as the Beaufort County interim administrator since Gary Kubic announced his retirement in September.

Granda also suggested the possibility of a recall, but according to state law, a complaint against an elected official must fall under one of seven different possible criteria and would require signatures from 10 percent of registered voters.

Those grounds are: "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, and conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude."

The specific comments made by Granda were not the only accusations leveled against Grifoni or Honig.

Bill McMullan called for both elected officials resignations and threatened to file complaints with the ethics commission and state bar against Grifoni over interference into the handling of the battery investigation into Niblock.

Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

Niblock was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery last month after he was accused of making inappropriate physical and verbal overtures toward Marco Island Academy Principal Melissa Scott during and after a dinner meeting on Jan. 31.

Scott told investigators Niblock also offered to mentor her with the possibility of becoming the next city manager once he retired.

Niblock was placed on administrative leave by the council on Feb. 20 before being terminated for cause on March 19.

A separate battery complaint also surfaced in Alachua County, where Niblock was once the county manager, after Scott came forward.

From the beginning of the investigation into Niblock, Grifoni has maintained that elected officials and City Attorney Alan Gabriel have acted accordingly and were respecting Scott's desire for privacy. Several public speakers during Monday's meeting attested to their actions and character. 

In the Collier County Sheriff's Office report, Grifoni told investigators he never attempted to influence Scott to sign a resolution agreement. At the council meeting, Grifoni also detailed his support of the school, which he said had not changed from before or after the Niblock incident.

Grifoni took issue with the perceived witch-hunt and threats against his law license, which he noted provides for the well-being of his family.

“The fact that you would come up here and threaten that based upon what would be a frivolous complaint highlights just how low some are willing to stoop,” Grifoni said during the May 7 City Council meeting.

The ethics commission does permit those falsely accused to recoup attorneys' fees if a complaint is determined to be frivolous.

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