No new city manager – Marco council rejects Gruber in 4-3 vote

Lance Shearer

Wednesday evening’s special-called Marco Island City Council meeting had just one agenda item: “Selection of City Manager.” After three and a half hours of debate, though, the council did not select a manager; instead, it went back to square one in the process.

Marco Island city manager candidate Joshua Gruber speaks to the Marco Island City Council Wednesday, July 20, 2017. In a 3-4 vote, council opted not to hire Gruber, the sole remaining contender for the position.

To be selected as city manager, the sole remaining candidate, Joshua Gruber of Beaufort, S.C., needed a supermajority: five of the seven city councilors. When the council finally voted, he didn’t receive even a simple majority.

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Councilor Victor Rios’ motion to select Gruber as the new city manager and enter into salary negotiations, seconded after a pregnant pause by chairman Larry Honig, received only three votes: Rios, Honig and Vice-Chair Jared Grifoni. Councilors Bob Brown, Joe Batte, Howard Reed and Charlette Roman voted no.

Tempers flared during the meeting, with Batte and Grifoni exchanging terse remarks, and a visibly frustrated Honig attempting to adjourn the meeting after the vote, being thwarted by the other members.

Marco Island City Council Chair Larry Honig, right, speaks with search firm representative W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. after a special-called council meeting on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. In a 3-4 vote, council opted not to hire city manager candidate Joshua Gruber, the sole remaining contender for the position.

Honig also drew the ire of search firm representative W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. of The Mercer Group, Inc., who said, “Mister Chairman, you’re pushing me. I’ll be blunt,” and indicated he may or may not be back on August 7, the date the council is due to restart the process of selecting a new city manager to replace Roger Hernstadt, who resigned under pressure in February.

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During Wednesday’s meeting, Higginbotham indicated it would take two plus months to bring a new group of candidates before council for consideration, and he doubted whether any of the candidates who were already considered and rejected would put their hats in the ring a second time.

In extended remarks the councilors made it clear their discomfort was more with the process that left them choosing from a field of just one candidate than with any perceived shortcomings in Gruber’s qualifications. All of the councilors praised Gruber, who alone among the finalists for the position advanced on a unanimous vote, with the only criticism being his relative youth and lack of experience.

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Marco Island city manager candidate Joshua Gruber speaks to the Marco Island City Council Wednesday, July 20, 2017. In a 3-4 vote, council opted not to hire Gruber, the sole remaining contender for the position.

Members of the public in attendance at the meeting clearly backed Gruber’s candidacy. Half a dozen spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, uniformly in support of Gruber, and several expressed their displeasure with the outcome before quickly exiting council chambers after the vote.

The crowd repeatedly broke into applause when speakers concluded their remarks with an endorsement for the city manager candidate.

One resident who spoke during public comments, longtime island attorney Craig Woodward, expressed a concern echoed by several other speakers; Marco Island’s reputation for divisive politics and a higher-than-average turnover among its city managers will make it difficult to attract the most qualified candidates.

“There are consequences,” he said after the vote, adding that candidates contacted about the city manager position would certainly be reviewing Wednesday’s meeting and the selection process.

Gruber became the only potential city manager up for consideration when the one other finalist, Anthony Hamaday of King of Prussia, Pa., unexpectedly dropped out just days before Wednesday’s meeting. Three years ago, a similar situation led to the hiring of Hernstadt.

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Gruber and Hamaday were picked to come for interviews from a field of seven semifinalists, who had advanced to that point from an original field of 85 candidates.

In response to a question, Gruber indicated he would not remove his name from consideration if the council opted not to choose him Wednesday, but would still pursue other opportunities.

With a law degree and a master’s degree in public administration, Gruber is currently deputy county administrator and special counsel for Beaufort County, S.C., and is under consideration for the county manager job there, with the incumbent manager due to resign at the end of the year.