City manager issues, police misconduct dominate tumultuous year on Marco Island

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
File: Marco Island City Hall.

For a small city government, Marco Island garnered some of the biggest headlines in Southwest Florida in 2018.

From firing its city manager after three months on the job to accusations of a cover-up to misconduct of employees and cops having sex on duty. But for all the tumult, the sun still rose on Marco Island and as the city enters 2019, things may be looking up to a promising new year after surviving much of the chaos.

More:Marco Island City Council selects former Delray Beach manager for interim role

More:Marco Island Council votes to fire City Manager Lee Niblock with cause

More:Former Marco Island city manager turns himself in to face battery charge

Almost one year ago, the city welcomed a new leader in the form of Dr. Lee Niblock, who was selected by the Marco Island City Council as its city manager after an exhaustive search.

Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

Niblock’s short tenure, however, was filled more with controversy than accomplishments as he was quickly accused of nefarious conduct.

Niblock came under investigation in late January after allegations of battery surfaced in which he was also accused of using his position in an unethical manner. After the City Council placed Niblock on paid leave in February, it fired him the following month after it was determined that he had taken actions that were grounds for termination.

Those included:

  • Taking a prospective job candidate to dinner and ordering wine
  • Demanding his battery investigation be sent to the highest level of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office
  • Claiming confirmation of findings in an employee climate survey
  • Appearing to plot a mass firing of city employees

The State Attorney’s Office would eventually charge Niblock with misdemeanor battery for which he is currently awaiting trial after pleading not guilty.

As the criminal investigation into Niblock lingered, the City Council’s failures to hire a suitable candidate continued. After releasing a request for proposals for executive search firms, the council failed to hire any of the candidates that expressed interest. 

At the same time, the fractures on council continued to deepen as bickering turned into accusations against Councilors Larry Honig and Jared Grifoni for their handling of past candidates and the battery investigation into Niblock. For every accusation lobbed at Honig or Grifoni, no complaints were filed with the State Ethics Commission or criminal charges filed despite threats made against them.

With the city manager search process stalled, Councilor Charlette Roman proposed contacting the Florida City and County Management Association about its senior advisor program.

The advisor program offers free services to smaller cities including finding and placing interim or full-time managers.

Whittling its candidate list down to three, the City Council invited and interviewed finalists in September and October. Like the previous process, however, the Council failed to make an immediate hire. For every one of the candidates, the Council could not find the requisite five votes required by the City Charter to hire a manager.

Despite the setback, a close election saw two new councilors take their place on the dais and immediately seek to interview past finalists. At its Dec. 10 meeting, the Council selected David Harden, the former city manager of Delray Beach, as its first choice. Harden is currently negotiating a contract with the city, which may be approved at the Council’s Jan. 7 meeting.

Police misconduct

At the same time Niblock was being investigated, Police Chief Al Schettino received the evidence of police misconduct that resulted in four internal affairs investigations revolving around sex on duty.

The father of a woman involved with multiple officers on duty initially turned over messages in which then-Sgt. James Inlow was sexting his daughter and soliciting Adderall. After searching her phone and computer, additional evidence was found that implicated more officers.

Internal affairs report

Three out of the four officers involved either resigned or were terminated from the department. 

More:Terminated Marco Island police officer accused of having sex on duty

More:Investigation finds two former Marco Island cops were having sex while on duty

Inlow and then-Sgt. Neil Giansanti were found to have violated police policies despite their resignations prior to the completion of the investigations. Officer Kevin Hennings was terminated in September but has maintained his innocence and started the arbitration process to regain his job. Det. Brian Granneman was reprimanded for knowing of one of the officers having sex on duty and not reporting it to other supervisors. Granneman was recently promoted to sergeant.

In addition to action taken against those four officers, Sgt. Mark Haueter is currently under investigation after messages surfaced in which it appears that he is sexting a woman while on duty. The text messages from Haueter surfaced after the investigations into other officers were published.

Jerry Swiacki and Linda Turner were pushing for "yes" ambulance votes on primary election day, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, at Marco Lutheran Church.

Lifeline for better care

For years, Marco Island has sought an increase in emergency medical services from the County and with its requests rebuffed at almost every turn, it placed the decision in the hands of voters in August. 

The referendum looked to increase ambulance service on the island by applying for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity through the State Health Department and create its own local services if Collier County denied its request.

While initially resistant to Marco Island’s request, the County agreed to issue a COPCN with conditions and contingent on voter approval.

More:Marco says no to local ambulance service

More:Collier County offers two options for increasing ambulance coverage on Marco Island

The vote, however, failed by a mere 440 votes at the election, prompting the city to begin renegotiating with the county on increasing ambulance service.

Those negotiations are still ongoing but County Manager Leo Ochs has presented two options in which the city can added service for some cost.

The first option Ochs offered was to add an ambulance for 12 hours per day, seven days per week throughout the year.

Splitting the cost of staffing, both the county and city would pay $138,520.82 if that option were selected.

The second option places an additional ambulance 24-hours per day, seven days per week and for the entire year but shifts the majority of the costs to the city.

While the county’s costs would not differ from option one, the city’s costs would increase to $415,562.50.

Victor Rios, Sam Young and Erik Brechnitz are sworn in Tuesday after winning election to the Marco Island City Council

Council welcomes new faces

While the Marco Island City Council was labeled as dysfunctional, that moniker was due primarily to the contentious relationship between some of its members and their inability to hire a city manager.

The differences in opinion of former Councilors Joe Batte and Bob Brown, who opposed other councilors’ insistence on placing a city manager quickly, led to the process slowing down due to council requiring a super-majority.

Batte and Brown’s tenures on the council ended in November, with Erik Brechnitz and Sam Young winning election. Councilor Victor Rios was also re-elected, outpacing challengers Dr. Jerry Swiacki and Jim Richards.

More:Brechnitz, Young and Rios win Marco City Council seats

Throughout their campaigns, Brechnitz and Young voiced their support toward hiring a new city manager and on their first day in office, they backed up their campaign promises by offering to interview previous finalists so that the council could make a hire soon.

With Young and Brechnitz onboard, the Council was able to obtain the required votes to select Harden as its first choice to serve as city manager an interim capacity.

What’s next

Aside from the task of hiring a city manager, the City Council will have many important decisions to make at the beginning of next year.

At its first meeting of the year, the City Council will look to finalize changes to its endangered species ordinance in which it will add increased penalties for violators.

City Council will also see discussions about removing the code enforcement from the police department as well as changing the process for committee and commission appointments.

Perhaps one of the biggest and most time-consuming topics will be at the council’s Jan. 22 meeting.

Multiple assisted living facilities have been proposed for the island, prompting a discussion on whether they are the right fit for the city given concerns about density and maintaining the small town feel.

The Watermark at Marco Island is a three-story facility proposed for NCH’s parcel at San Marco Road and Heathwood Drive. 

Walt Chancey, owner and developer of The Watermark of Marco Island project, said he wants to build a facility with assisted living, independent living and memory care capabilities at the corner of Heathwood Drive and San Marco Road.

The facility would sit on five of the 12 acres and proceeds from the sale of that land would go toward building a new 12,000-square-foot urgent care facility on the remaining land.

More:Council supports changes LDC code change that would aid assisted living facility buildout

More:Assisted living facility's fate now in Marco City Council's hands