Under fire: Marco City Council criticized for city manager search, staff survey results

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle

Marco Islanders were faced with above-average temperatures on Monday with “feels like” readings creeping up to 110 degrees, but things were even more heated inside City Hall where city councilors discussed the ongoing search for a city manager.

Marco Island City Hall

The meeting had a more contentious start than usual as citizens criticized council for its handling of the city manager search.

“It is my opinion that several councilors embarrassed themselves, they embarrassed this council and they embarrassed this community,” Bill McMullen said of the council’s special-called meeting during which it reviewed the city manager semi-finalists.

More:Marco City Council selects two city manager finalists

McMullen then asked for Chair Larry Honig’s resignation.

“At the last council meeting the chairman made the comment if councilmembers (would) not have his leadership, they could vote him out,” he said. “It’s my opinion, and many others in the community, that the time has come, and I would respectfully ask the chairman to resign.”

McMullen and other citizens also took council to task regarding the recent staff organizational climate survey, which revealed that the majority of city staff believes the councilors are disrespectful and antagonistic toward them, often in public forums.

More:City of Marco Island employees feel grim about the future

“The employees described you as being intimidating,” Ray McChesney of the Beach Advisory Committee said. “Let me change that, in my words, to arrogant, and I think we’ve seen some of that already in this short meeting today.”

Honig addressed the climate survey at the beginning of the meeting, and said he’s taking the staff’s concerns to heart.

Marco Island City Council Chair Larry Honig

“These comments are candid and direct, including at us on City Council. I’ll speak for myself, but I’m sure I speak for City Council: we hear you, loud and clear,” he said. "We will figure out a way to respond. I assure you I will work on changing my behavior to the extent that that’s an issue.”

The councilors then discussed the city manager search; specifically, they debated re-hiring The Mercer Group, Inc., which terminated its contract with the city after council rejected sole city manager candidate Josh Gruber.

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

The search firm's decision appears to have stemmed from tension between Honig and The Mercer Group's W.D. Higginbotham, Jr., who remarked at the last council meeting, “Mister Chairman, you’re pushing me. I’ll be blunt.”

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 said he has since called Higginbotham and apologized. Other councilors also reached out to Higginbotham, but said that based on their conversations with him, they're surprised he's willing to return. Some councilors also questioned why the city would even want Higginbotham to return.

"I was a little surprised to see this on the agenda," councilor Charlette Roman said. "I also reached out to Mr. Higginbotham and apologized on behalf of this council because I felt so terrible about how he was treated. But Mercer Group terminated its service to the city, so I don't know why we're talking about The Mercer Group. My preference is to move on."

Councilor Bob Brown agreed, and likened the situation to former city manager Roger Hernstadt's resignation

"You take a look at what happened when the city manager put his letter of resignation in; no one even wanted to consider allowing him to ... help us along for awhile," he said. "We said, 'Hey, he made his decision, he moved on.' This is not all that different."

Council ultimately approved the resolution requesting The Mercer Group, Inc. continue the city manager search 5-2, with Roman and Brown dissenting.