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

Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

The Marco Island City Council voted to fire embattled City Manager Lee Niblock with cause at its meeting Monday.

Niblock has been on paid leave since Feb. 20, pending the outcome of a Collier County Sheriff's Office investigation into an allegation he committed battery.

City attorney Alan Gabriel said Niblock has taken four actions that could be cause for dismissal:

  • He claimed he confirmed every finding of last year’s employee climate survey, which has yet to be proved.
  • He interviewed a female job candidate at a restaurant and ordered wine.
  • He “demanded” the battery investigation be sent to the highest level of the Sheriff’s Office.
  • He appeared to be planning a mass firing of city staff, which he dubbed the ‘St. Valentine’s Day massacre.’

More:Marco Council set to discuss suspended City Manager Lee Niblock, who is accused of battery

More:Marco Island City Manager Lee Niblock put on paid leave after battery allegation

Councilman Victor Rios made a motion to fire Niblock with cause according to his contract. The council unanimously approved the motion.

”I believe our city attorney has effectively provided us with the reasons," Rios said.

Niblock’s attorney, Sawyer Smith, said he plans to fight the decision.

“This certainly isn’t the first time we have represented a client against a rogue city government,” he said. “We’ll be by Dr. Niblock’s side until the end. He has rights and we intend to enforce them.”

Niblock, who did not attend Monday's meeting, will not receive a severance package.

However, since the council did not give him 30 days' notice prior to dismissing him, he will receive 30 days' pay. That prospect upset some residents. Niblock's annual salary was $185,000.

More:CCSO: No timetable for Marco Island city manager battery investigation

More:Editorial: Right call, difficult time, for Marco manager’s leave

“Our city has become a revolving door for city managers,” Phil Kostelnik said. “This system has become an expensive, bad deal for taxpayers.”

Councilman Joe Batte was critical of Niblock's paid leave.

“Unfortunately, the taxpayers had to pay for this paid vacation while he’s filling out applications for other jobs,” Batte said. 

When Gabriel said Niblock would be paid for 30 more days, Batte replied, "Wow, that's despicable."

Marco Council Chairman Jared Grifoni, who helped negotiate Niblock’s contract, said Niblock's departure is less expensive than the exit of the last city manager. Marco Island gave former City Manager Roger Hernstadt an $89,000 severance package when he resigned in February 2017.

Councilman Bob Brown called for Niblock’s immediate firing at the Feb. 20 council meeting, but his motion failed 5-2. The council instead voted 6-1 to suspend Niblock, who began his job as city manager in December.

Marco Police Chief Al Schettino emailed the council and the city attorney Feb. 16, informing them of the battery allegation, which the department received Feb. 6.

According to Florida law, a person commits battery when he or she "actually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other."

Niblock, who consistently has denied the allegation, further surrounded himself with controversy when he wrote an email to Councilman Larry Honig hinting at a mass firing of city staff.

More:Marco police chief, residents: Two officials want to fire city employees

"The St. Valentine's Day massacre will be a little late this year. You will be pleased," the email reads.

Niblock sent the email one day after the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The City Council had voted 5-2 in a special meeting in November to hire Niblock as city manager. The council had begun its search for a new city manager in February 2017 after Hernstadt resigned Feb. 6. 

Niblock, of Maquoketa, Iowa, was the county manager of Alachua County from 2014 until his dismissal in September because of differing views between him and the commission.

He earned a bachelor's degree in geography/resource planning from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a master's degree in recreation and public administration from the University of Iowa, and a doctorate in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

“I hope that we have learned a lot from this experience,” Councilman Howard Reed said. “We did the best we could with the choices we were given.”