Monetary costs for failure to hire and retain permanent city manager exceed $156K

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

Marco Island residents have paid a steep price for the City Council's inability to hire and retain a permanent city manager since last year.

Between legal costs, paid administrative leave, severance and expenses for a city manager search, the failure to hire a permanent city manager has resulted in Marco Island taxpayers footing a bill in excess of $156,000 since last year.

The Marco Eagle calculated the figure after submitting multiple public records requests for legal costs associated with the battery investigation of former city manager Dr. Lee Niblock, his paycheck history and costs associated with multiple searches for candidates since the resignation of Roger Hernstadt.

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While the city hired Niblock in December last year, his tenure was short-lived as the council terminated him a little more than three months into his reign as city manager after an investigation ensued into allegations of battery.

As a criminal investigation commenced, a separate investigation into Niblock's conduct found that his actions while city manager were grounds for termination and resulted in the City Council voting to oust him at its March 19 meeting.

Niblock, who was ultimately charged with one count of misdemeanor battery by the State Attorney's Office, has pleaded not guilty to the charge and currently is awaiting trial.

Robert Meyers, an attorney with the city's legal firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, said that through Nov. 1, the city has paid $54,120 in legal fees related to the Niblock investigation.

"At the present time, we do not anticipate billing more time with respect to Niblock, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely," Meyers wrote in an email.

Prior to Niblock's hire, the city underwent multiple searches for a city manager through the executive search firm, The Mercer Group, Inc.

This included three separate payments of $5,250 to the firm between May and July 2017 as well as lodging costs and the reimbursement of candidates' travel expenses to Marco Island.

The first search ultimately failed as the Council did not have enough votes to hire then-Beaufort (South Carolina) County deputy administrator Josh Gruber.

Another search was commenced and thousands of more dollars were spent on lodging costs and travel reimbursements before the Council selected Niblock to lead the city.

Prior to his termination, council voted to place Niblock on paid leave at its Feb. 20 meeting.

From that date until the last paycheck, issued May 4, 2018, the city paid out $60,648.35 in wages, personal leave, car allowances and severance despite the fact that Niblock was not working as the city manager.

The expenses did not stop there.

With the city operating without a permanent manager, the council voted in April in favor of releasing a request for bids to find an executive search firm. After paying $175 for a legal advertisement in the newspaper, council failed to garner enough votes to hire any of the firms submitting bids.

As a matter of compromise, the City Council turned to the Florida City and County Management Association's senior advisor program, which offers free services through its nine advisors to place managers in smaller municipalities. 

Although the advice and guidance from the FCCMA was free, the overall process of placing a candidate was not as the city incurred more expenses as it vetted candidates interested in serving the city in an interim capacity.

Two rounds of background checks for interim city manager candidates totaled $9,359.96. The city also paid $3,590.88 last month for lodging and reimbursements to the three finalists, Maria Menendez, James Hock and David Harden.

With the Council requiring a super majority or five votes to hire a city manager, individual motions to hire each candidate all failed by 4-2 votes. 

The $156,000-plus overall figure does not include the $89,000 severance package the City Council approved for Hernstadt at its March 6, 2017 meeting; nor does it take into account the salary if a manager were currently in place.

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