Marco Island residents say new council majority fired good city manager

Tension between City Manager Roger Hernstadt and city council has been building for months

Lisa Conley
lisa.conley@naplesnews.com; 239-213-5308

Several Marco Island city councilors said last week’s departure of City Manager Roger Hernstadt came as a surprise, but the increasingly strained relationship between the manager and the council was no secret.

Tension between Hernstadt and the City Council was so obvious that residents began chiming in, offering supportive emails to Hernstadt and criticizing some council members.

Former Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt

“I just wanted to let you know that … I am behind you 1000 percent,” Janice Baptiste wrote to Hernstadt on Feb. 2, “and hope that the elected city officials begin conducting council meetings in a more professional and less vindictive mode.”

“I was hoping that after the initial few council meetings after the election, much of the rancor toward the city manager would stop,” Ray McChesney wrote in a Jan. 31 email to Vice Chairman Jared Grifoni, a newly elected councilor. “Unfortunately, in my opinion it has only gotten worse.

"The way some of you continually belittle Roger Hernstadt is embarrassing both to yourselves and more importantly, the citizens of Marco Island.”

Hernstadt’s departure was dubbed a resignation, but it appears he was forced out in an agreement that essentially paid him to leave immediately rather than work through the rest of his contract, which had been set to expire July 7.

He will be awarded 20 weeks' pay, which amounts to about $60,000, and will continue to receive insurance benefits through December.

“I mean, am I missing something here?” Councilman Joe Batte asked at Monday's meeting when the departure was announced.

“The actions that we’re taking … speaks volumes of negatives," Batte said.

"If you’re going to say that this man needs to leave immediately, then I have to ask you, what in the world has he done so wrong that deserves this type of treatment?

"There’s something seriously flawed with (this) kind of thinking,” Batte said.

A new majority on the seven-member council — incumbent Chairman Larry Honig and newly elected members Grifoni, Howard Reed and Charlotte Roman — are blamed by some residents for ganging up on Hernstadt.

"The foursome of Chairman Honig, and Councilors Reed, Roman and Grifoni were able to bamboozle the voters of Marco Island back in November with their fancy signage and advertisements," Maureen Chodaba wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to the editor in the Marco Eagle. "But I think their days of bamboozling are over as they have exposed themselves for what they really are."

"Congratulations on getting the best city manager we have ever had to resign," Suzanne Piro wrote in a letter to the editor. "The citizens, who voted for the slate of four, do not deserve a man with his talent and commitment.

"Now it is time for a new whipping boy to appear," Piro wrote, "and I wonder whom, these negative wonders that you voted in, will now hunt down next?"

Hernstadt could not be reached to comment.

Many residents have cited the Veterans Community Park hotel project as the origin of the tension between Hernstadt and council, and the reason behind the council's decision to have Hernstadt leave immediately.

On Aug. 3, Florida land developer Small Brothers LLC announced its plan to build a 165-room hotel at 580 Elkcam Circle and 870 Park Ave. — two parcels of land adjacent to Veterans Community Park.

To move forward with the project, the company needed a transfer of commercial intensity credits from the park, which — since it’s city property — required the city be a co-applicant in the project.

During the Sept. 2 planning board meeting, Hernstadt signed the developer’s application without the council's approval, designating the city a co-applicant, and received immediate blowback from Marco residents and council members.

Marco city councilors question planning board process

But the hotel wasn’t the first controversial project on Hernstadt’s record. In early 2016, the city became embroiled in a dispute with the Esplanade after city crews encroached on its property while constructing the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, renamed the Herb Savage Bridge.

John Arceri, an Esplanade resident and lawyer who also is a former councilman, was adviser to both the Esplanade Marina and residential boards. He said in a March 2016 interview that Hernstadt was arrogant during talks between representatives of the Esplanade and the city.

“Hernstadt dismissed all of the Esplanade complaints and concerns,” Arceri said. “He made absolutely no attempt to develop a relationship with the Esplanade residents or unit owners and acted with the highest levels of resident disrespect and arrogance I have ever seen.”

Settling the dispute ended up costing taxpayers more than $30,000.

Spanning the years: Rancor persists after Esplanade, Marco Island settle bridge issues

Another source of bitterness between Hernstadt and the council began several weeks ago when council members started questioning his contract.

The agreement did not include a job description but contained a clause that permitted the council to perform an annual review of the city manager's performance. Several council members said Hernstadt's job performance had not been evaluated during his three years of service.

“We know council never took that initiative before and it’s my understanding that the city manager never demanded one be set any time during his employment, or even that a written job description be provided, for his own peace of mind, which surprises me,” Grifoni wrote in response to McChesney's Jan. 31 email. “Without objective goals, standards or job description, one would think it would make the job more difficult.”

The evaluation and how to conduct it were heated topics at several council meetings until council members finally agreed they each would provide a written evaluation of the city manager's performance and summarize those evaluations at their Feb. 21 meeting.

As part of his departure agreement, Hernstadt requested that no members of the City Council, city staff or the city’s boards and committees “make any disparaging statements, oral or written, regarding my tenure as city manager that could possibly effect my future employability (and) I will similarly commit to not make any such statements about the city.”

Council members agreed to Hernstadt's request, and Honig urged everyone, including members of the public, to not say anything about the manager, not even anything positive.

"We cannot say anything negative about the manager, and therefore, if somebody starts talking positively about the manager, the other side of the story is not told," he said during last week's meeting. "So I plead with us, no discussion on performance. No good will come from that."

Hernstadt had been city manager of Marathon, in the Keys, and experienced similarly tense times with the City Council there before abruptly resigning, according to an October 2013 Florida Keys News article.

He has been Marco Island’s city manager since Jan. 31, 2014.

The council appointed Finance Director Guillermo Polanco as acting city manager until the council hires a new city manager, and he will receive a $3,000 per month stipend.

Council members met Wednesday to discuss the process for searching for a new manager. Some of them think they won't find anyone as capable as Hernstadt.

“I think we had a city manager who was looking to retire on Marco Island, but he felt there was enough friction with the new City Council that, for the good of the city, he had to move on,” Councilman Bob Brown said.

“I want the best city manager for Marco Island, but I think we had the best," Brown said. "I don’t think we’re going to find anyone better than Roger Hernstadt.”

The council will continue its discussion about finding a new city manager at its next meeting, scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, in the community room at 51 Bald Eagle Drive.