City Council rejects Hernstadt separation agreement, committee appointment and more

Lisa Conley; 239-213-5308

Fireworks flew at Tuesday’s Marco Island City Council meeting as the councilors discussed former city manager Roger Hernstadt’s separation agreement, a controversial Beach Advisory Committee appointment and more.

The Marco Island City Council listens to a resident in this file photo. Council's next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday in the community room, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.

A messy divorce

The councilors engaged in a heated discussion regarding the separation agreement between the city and Hernstadt, who resigned at the Feb. 6 City Council meeting.

In Hernstadt’s resignation letter, he requested to receive 20 weeks' pay, as well as benefits through December, for a severance package totaling $132,430. He also requested to retain his city-issued iPad for consultation purposes.

City Attorney Alan Gabriel negotiated with Hernstadt and drafted a separation agreement with a $115,946 severance package. The agreement also includes a non-disparagement clause at Hernstadt's request.

Former Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt

Vice-Chair Jared Grifoni pointed out several issues with the current separation agreement, including its inconsistency with both Hernstadt’s letter of resignation and his contract, and the inclusion of a clause that retains Hernstadt as a consultant through Dec. 31.

“That has never been done before … (and) it seems to me to be unnecessary,” he said.

Councilor Victor Rios agreed.

“It’s counterproductive, unprofessional and not fair to the city staff or new manager,” he said. “There has never been a need for a continued relationship (with former city managers.)”

Grifoni also took issue with the non-disparagement clause, saying it leaves “significant … litigation potential to determine what is factually correct.”

He recommended that the council either revise the separation agreement or consider alternatives, including rescinding its acceptance of Hernstadt’s resignation and terminating him instead, which would actually cost less than the current separation agreement.

“If we are not comfortable with this agreement, we should not sign off on it just because it wipes the slate clean and we can all move on with our lives,” he said. “This ultimately comes down to what is in the best interests of the taxpayers of this island (and) I can’t move forward with an agreement that pays over and above what’s reasonable considering the original terms of the contract.”

Marco Island City Attorney Alan Gabriel

However, councilor Bob Brown said the council should trust that Gabriel negotiated the best possible agreement for the City of Marco Island and its residents. Gabriel then warned the councilors that if they don’t accept the current separation agreement, there’s no telling how long or in what direction the re-negotiations might go.

“If you want this matter completed, this is your opportunity to do that today. If you want to negotiate it further, this may go on for a long period of time,” he said. “I can’t tell you that we’ll reach another agreement, who will participate or what those terms will be because every one of you, and there’s seven of you, have had a different perspective.”

The council rejected the current separation agreement 5-2 with councilors Bob Brown and Joe Batte dissenting. Council also agreed that Grifoni, who’s a lawyer, would help Gabriel draft a new agreement.

Politics prevent appointment

Emotions also ran high during a discussion of a resolution appointing Gene Burson to the city’s Beach Advisory Committee. Councilor Brown nominated Burson, who previously served as the committee’s chair, following the resignation of Katie O’Hara, whose term does not expire until February 2019.

Gene Burson

Although the appointment was initially on the consent agenda, Grifoni asked that it be removed because he’s concerned that Burson is too political to serve on a non-partisan committee.

“Rise up in arms to stop this City Council from tearing down this city. Scrutinize everything these councilors say or do. Don’t let these councilors impose their will on our city,” Burson wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to the editor, which Grifoni quoted at the meeting. “Fight back in every way possible. Attend every City Council meeting and advisory committee meeting that you can. Speak up whenever you can and make your opinion heard. The ‘slate’ does not represent the true voice of Marco Island.”

“My concern is whether or not this individual can be trusted by council as whole … to provide unbiased and the best possible advice,” Grifoni said. “I’m concerned whether or not the best interests of the city will be put first and foremost, or the best interest of how to destabilize and undermine through the use of inflammatory rhetoric and this ‘us against them’ mentality that has been rejected by this island time and time again.”

Bob Brown

However, Brown defended Burson’s right to free speech, and said that there are many current committee members who have strong political views. Furthermore, it’s been common practice for the council to respect and accept a councilor’s appointment without question.

“I will be extremely offended if this is the direction we’re headed,” he said, “and … I’ll back off. You guys go ahead (and) pick anybody you want and load the committees any way you want and I’ll just stay away from the whole damn thing,” he said to applause from the audience.

The council rejected Burson’s appointment 5-2, with councilors Brown and Batte dissenting.

In other business

The council approved a resolution temporarily allowing sidewalk, alley and swale parking until Nov. 1, approved a resolution to issue a request for proposals for executive search services for a new city manager, and decided to further tweak a letter to the county commissioners about Goodland Drive.

The council also postponed several items until the next meeting, including: a three month budget status report; a discussion about changing the council’s rules of procedures; and a discussion about rezoning Veterans Community Park.

City Council’s next meeting is 5:30 p.m., March 6, in the community room, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.