Lack of supermajority vote dooms Marco Island interim city manager search

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
Councilor Howard Reed gestures to the members of Marco Island City Council where he believes the bar should be set for a new city manager.

The Marco Island City Council has once again failed to hire a city manager.

In a special City Council meeting that had it all -- accusations of badgering, sabotage, sexual assault and corruption -- the Council failed to find a supermajority vote for any of the three finalists for the interim city manager position.

A motion was first made to select David Harden, former city manager of Del Ray Beach but despite a 4-2 vote, the motion failed because the city charter requires five votes from council to hire a city manager.

Motions were then made individually to hire Maria Menendez, former assistant city manager of Coral Gables and assistant village manager of Pinecrest, and James Hock, former city manager of Joliet, Ill. and Park Ridge, Ill., but each failed to receive a supermajority vote.

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In each case, Chairperson Jared Grifoni, Vice-Chair Charlette Roman and Councilors Larry Honig and Victor Rios voted in favor of hiring an interim manager. Councilors Joe Batte and Howard Reed dissented each time. Councilor Bob Brown was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

Referring to responses and reactions from the candidate forum that took place the night before, Honig said it was the will of the people for the city to hire a new manager.

Marco Island city councilor Larry Honig

“I’m pleading with you, Joe,” Honig said. “I’m pleading with you, Howard. Let’s do the right thing.”

Although the Council hired Lee Niblock last year, his tenure only lasted three months after allegations of battery surfaced against him at the beginning of the year. While Niblock was on administrative leave, the council voted to terminate him after an investigation found there was cause to do so. 

Following Niblock’s termination, the State Attorney’s Office charged him with misdemeanor battery. Niblock pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial.

In the meantime, the city has been under the control of acting City Manager Guillermo Polanco, who in the past expressed his desire to return to his normal position as the finance director.

While City Council voted against hiring a search firm to find city manager candidates, it elected to use the Florida City and County Management Association’s Senior Advisor Program to help with finding a replacement.

After going through resumes and background checking finalists, council held both public and private interviews with the candidates over the last few weeks.

Reed, who was praised Polanco for his performance, has expressed concerns with the council’s approach to hiring a manager in the past and referenced those reasons in his decision not to hire any of the candidates.

“Nothing we do is as important as this so I take it very seriously,” Reed said. “I believe that we have failed to accomplish that goal in the last two years for quite a number of years that I have enumerated and won’t go into tonight.”

After the Council failed to reach the requisite number of votes to hire Harden, Reed said that he was not ready to break the tie and said that another candidate had made a better impression on him.

Reed, however, still voted against motions to hire Menendez and Hock. 

Marco Island City Council Chairperson Jared Grifoni responds to Councilor Joe Batte’s motion on a vote of no confidence by calling it “frivolous” and “ineffective.” The vote of no confidence passed by a 4-3 vote but Grifoni remains as the council chair.

When asked by Grifoni if he could explain why he voted against all the candidates, Batte said that he did not have to explain himself to the council.

“Once again, your disrespectful attitude shows up loud and clear as it has so many times, unfortunately,” Batte said. “It’s probably why you were called out for not being responsible as our chairman. As far as I’m concerned, this is a decision to be made by a new council and in my judgment, loud and clear, this council doesn’t have the qualifications or the ability to pick our next city manager.”

The lack of movement on Batte or Reed’s part, however, set off more contentious discussions. 

Grifoni recalled from the previous meeting that Reed said he would let the negotiation process influence his vote and questioned how the dissenting councilors could question the qualifications of candidates including Harden, who had 36 years of experience as a city manager in Florida.

In total, the candidates had 116 years of experience in municipal government, Grifoni said.

“These are quality city managers and by not ranking these candidates, let alone voting for them, it’s tone deaf to our constituents,” Grifoni said. “This process is being subverted at the last moment.”

As Grifoni continued, Batte accused him of badgering them, leading to further back and fourths.

Reed referenced the previous attempts to hire a city manager and accused fellow council members of nefarious conduct throughout that process.

“People more qualified by a lot were ripped to shreds so that a candidate certain individuals had already agreed needed to be our city manager could be brought down here unopposed,” Reed said. “People more qualified than the three candidates I’ve interviewed in the last two weeks were excluded from the process. (They were) not just excluded a little bit but their qualifications were dismissed (and) their age made a factor, which was both wrong, inappropriate and illegal.”

As a compromise, Grifoni offered to change the negotiation process, which Reed had taken issue with, but it was to no avail.

“I’m willing to compromise (but) you’re not,” Grifoni said. “That’s the difference here. The citizens of Marco Island deserve the best from their leadership and they are not getting it with this decision.”

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