There's a new sheriff in town: Harden takes the reins of Marco Island city government

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
File: Marco Island City Hall.

A new face will be taking the reins of the Marco Island city government as of Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The Marco Island City Council has selected and approved a contract Monday for David Harden to serve as its city manager in an interim capacity until the city can hire a permanent replacement in the coming months.

Harden, who was a longtime city manager in Delray Beach and served in an interim capacity in Port Orange, will receive an annual salary of $180,000.

David Harden, current Marco Island city manager

“I’m excited about it, anxious to get started and looking forward to digging in tomorrow morning,” Harden said.

More:Ex-Marco Island manager censured, barred from professional organization

More:Fired Marco Island City Manager Lee Niblock faces second battery accusation

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

Harden will replace acting city manager Guillermo Polanco, who was asked to serve in that capacity after the City Council fired Dr. Lee Niblock in March last year. Polanco will now return to full-time duty as the city’s finance director.

City Council fired Niblock three months on the job after he had come under investigation for an alleged battery incident in late January.

At first, the City Council placed Niblock on paid administrative leave before terminating him a month later after it was discovered that he had taken numerous actions that were actionable.

Those behaviors included:

  • Ordering wine at a restaurant during a meeting with a prospective job candidate
  • Demanding the battery complaint against him be investigated by the highest levels of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office
  • Claiming to confirm the findings of an employee climate survey
  • Appearing to orchestrate a mass firing of city staff, which he referenced as the “St. Valentine’s Day massacre” in an email
Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

The State Attorney’s Office charged Niblock with one count of misdemeanor battery, which he has pleaded not guilty to and is currently awaiting trial. A second battery complaint surfaced in Alachua County, where Niblock previously served as the county manager, after news broke of Niblock’s alleged indiscretions on Marco Island.

For the better part of last year, the City Council struggled to find a replacement – often due to its own disagreements on the when and how.

Shortly after Niblock’s termination, City Council released a request for proposals for an executive search firm but failed to find the requisite votes to hire any of the firms that responded.

Council appeared to reach a compromise on using the Florida City and County Management Association’s Senior Advisor Program, a suggestion of Councilor Charlette Roman.

The program assigned one of nine senior advisers to the city to identify and select either an interim or permanent city manager.

With the majority on council looking to move quickly, it resulted in it whittling a list of 16 candidates down to three by September.

Those candidates included Harden, former Joliet, (Illinois) city manager James Hock and former Coral Gables assistant city manager Maria Menendez.

City Council, however, was unable to reach the required five votes needed to hire any of the candidates in October, stalling out the process again until November when two new councilors were seated and revisited the subject.

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.

Councilor Howard Reed, who cast the lone dissenting vote in selecting and approving a contract with Harden, said his vote was merely symbolic of his previous record in opposing council’s search process and his belief that council should have been looking at hiring a permanent manager.

Reed has consistently called the hiring, retention and managing of its top employee the council’s most important task.

“This is not a fulfillment of that obligation,” Reed said. “It’s not the fulfillment of the promises made at the forums by the candidates that they would make that the first order of business. This is an opportunity to have a very excellent person with unbelievably excellent credentials come and assist us.”

Finding a permanent manager

With Harden on board, the City Council will now determine how it will go about filling the position permanently.

The City Council has unanimously approved approaching the FCCMA about continuing to work with senior advisor Ken Parker to define the search process and find a permanent candidate.

Although the Senior Advisor Program worked to place an interim candidate with the city, Parker had told the City Council that it could also perform a permanent search when he met with them last summer.

Councilors already have proposed ideas of trying to build a candidate pool by forwarding resumes of interested candidates to Parker to review as well as reviewing candidates from the city of Naples city manager search.

Prior to the selection of Harden, Reed contacted Baenziger & Associates, the firm which conducted the Naples search, about reaching out to candidates about Marco Island’s vacancy.

Council Chairperson Erik Brechnitz also dismissed comments that there might be trouble finding a permanent manager.

“The reason we’re all here is because this is a fabulous place to live,” Brechnitz said. “The notion that we can’t sell this island, and someone can’t come in and manage a $25 million operating budget is crazy.”

Roman, however, said the city might encounter some issues due to its history of government instability and the revolving door in the city manager process. Roman suggested that the whatever the process the City Council moved forward with had to remain transparent and completely above board due to the past hiring decisions that appeared to result from cronyism.

While Parker had provided a sample timeline to council should it wish to be aggressive in selecting a manager, Brechnitz was opposed to being confined to specific time frames, whether it be 60 days or eight months.

“I don’t know why if we get a really qualified resume in, why we can’t consider it,” Brechnitz said. “Why do we have to wait for this artificial date? I think we can merge these processes together.”

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

More:Amidst dysfunction, Marco Council punts on hiring firm to find next city manager

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