Fort Myers Beach manager, formerly a Marco manager, ousted

Will Watts
Roger Hernstadt has now left his follow-up post with Fort Myers Beach Town Council.

Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, former Marco Island city manager Roger Hernstadt has now left his follow-up post with Fort Myers Beach Town Council. With the new Town Council in place, members quickly moved to make the change in its leadership.

Critical of Hernstadt’s handling of the Hurricane Ian aftermath and other issues, the council suspended him Nov. 14 to negotiate a separation agreement by a 3-2 vote.

New Mayor Dan Allers, new Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt and council member Karen Woodson, who was elected last week, supported the measure. Council members Bill Veach and John R. King, who also was elected last week, voted against.

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Hernstandt, in the job for more than five years, offered a resignation letter that would have allowed him to stay on in whatever role the town needed him for a transition to new leader. But that was not backed by the majority of the council.

Atterholt then suggested his uncle, Jim Steele, as the interim manager. The council voted 3-1, with Veach opposed and Atterholt recusing himself. Steele, a retired Indianapolis controller, has previously served as interim manager for the town.

Steele said he would work for free for a week while the council figures out its next move.

On Feb. 6, 2017, Hernstadt resigned effective immediately during the Feb. 6 City Council meeting. He had been the city manager since Jan. 31, 2014.

Hernstadt, who was not present at the meeting, submitted a letter of resignation to city attorney Alan Gabriel, who read the letter to the council. He wrote that he felt it was no longer in the best interests of the city for him to be the city manager.

"Although I had hoped with my heart that we could move forward for the community, I'm now of the belief that a new beginning might be best for the city," he wrote.

At the time, councilors Joe Batte and Bob Brown moved to reject Hernstadt's resignation, citing the good that he’s done for the city and hinting that his sudden resignation might be the result of recent political issues, namely a developer’s controversial application to build a hotel near Veterans Community Park; Hernstadt signed the application, without the council's approval, designating the city a co-applicant.

Ultimately, the council accepted Hernstadt’s resignation 5-2, with Batte and Brown dissenting. One resident said accepting Hernstadt's resignation was a "serious mistake (that would) destroy the city.”

The council then discussed the matter of a replacement city manager. In his letter, Hernstadt said he would be willing to remain as city manager until his contract expires on July 7, 2017, but — in a phone call with City Council Chairman Larry Honig during a 15-minute recess — he urged the City Council to move forward and expressed his desire to “focus on [his] personal transition … immediately.”

On April 14, 2017, we reported that Hernstadt has accepted a job as town manager of Fort Myers Beach.

The Town Council there voted 5-0 to select Hernstadt from a slate of four candidates.

Hernstadt and the three other town manager candidates appeared before the Fort Myers Beach Town Council for interviews.

“I’ve had a ground-up career, which means that I have a working knowledge of every city department and can work with you all and the employees and the public … to move this community forward in a way that everyone can get behind and be supportive,” he told the Fort Myers Beach Council, “and the way I’ll do that is by being communicative with you and the public.”

Fort Myers Beach had been without a long-term town manager since the council voted 3-2 to fire with cause Don Stilwell. The council fired Stilwell after learning $3.2 million on invoices on the town’s water project went unpaid for six months.

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During the interview with Hernstadt, Councilor Anita Cereceda asked him whether there was a moment in his career where he wished he had a “do-over card.”

Hernstadt said that in one of his previous positions, he blindly followed the advice of the city attorney when he should have “taken a step back.”

“Sometimes an attorney will give you advice, and in the heat of the moment you have a tendency to say, ‘OK, let’s just do what the attorney says’ without stepping back and thinking about it,” Hernstadt said. “I was involved in one of those situations. It was in the middle of a public meeting, the attorney gave me a piece of advice and I followed. I probably should have stepped back … and brought (the item) before the City Council before we proceeded.”

Hernstadt did not offer any additional details, but the situation he described mirrored the controversial Veterans Community Park hotel project that many Marco Island residents have cited as the reason behind the City Council's decision to have him leave immediately.

Before moving to Marco Island, Hernstadt was the city manager in Marathon.

He began his career in 1980 as the code compliance manager for the Public Works Department of Miami-Dade County. He then was chief of causeways and special taxing districts, chief of public services and administration and assistant director of public works.

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He later joined the Miami-Dade County manager’s office as the capital improvement coordinator and the director of the office of capital improvements. He also was assistant city manager and chief of staff for Miami.

Phil Fernandez and Lisa Conley contributed to this report.