Guest Commentary: Council End Run

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Seeing the Light

In the March 4th Town Council meeting – the last one for outgoing members Tracey Gore and Dennis Boback – the Council changed the agenda on the spot without proper notice and neglected to follow proper procedure. They took the Administrative Agenda item in which they were supposed to submit their annual performance evaluations of Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and improperly jammed through an amendment which turned the process into a contract negotiation, an action which should have been a separate agenda item with adequate notice and time for public input.

The amendment, presented by Vice-Mayor Joanne Shamp, extended the manager’s contract by five years, gave him a big raise and changed some wording which will make it much more costly for a future council to fire him if they should choose to do so. It was vigorously opposed by Councilmember Anita Cereceda. Councilmember Bruce Butcher was on an excused absence, so it passed, 3-1. In what has to be a town speed record, the new contract was signed by noon the very next day.

Hernstadt’s contract had two more years to run. Why Shamp decided it had to be “fixed” at the last meeting of outgoing members defies logical explanation. She said they were the right people to grant him this windfall because they had worked with him for some time. That’s ridiculous. There are only two new members coming on. Shamp, Butcher and Cereceda will still be there. They’ll continue to be in a position to evaluate Hernstadt and decide whether he would merit a big upgrade when the contract came up for renegotiation. If and when they do, it should be done with proper notice as a valid agenda item. Her reasoning that his initial contract was “a probationary period to see if we wanted him to stay, but he earned these terms,” frankly doesn’t pass the smell test. The reality is that the town manager is on “probation” from the moment he/she is engaged until he/she leaves.

What’s really going on here?  Is Hernstadt being courted by another town the same way college athletic departments do to lure coaches away to a bigger program? Is he threatening to leave? If so, let him. Do Shamp, Gore and Boback fear that the two new members have already made up their minds to fire him? I never heard or saw one word about that in their campaigns.

(It is worth noting here that when Dennis Boback came on to the Council in 2005, he voted to fire a perfectly competent manager at his very first meeting, ushering the town into a period of instability and revolving doors that persists today. When he re-joined the Council three years ago, it took him a little more than three months to find an excuse to fire another perfectly competent manager. Is that what he feared the new council might do, act on a preconceived notion the way he did?)

It is my hope that the newly-comprised Council will substantially change the direction of the town and use their power more discreetly and wisely than the old one did. Their essence, over the past three years, appeared to me to be “We gotta get this place under control and tell more people what they can’t do – and charge them for it.” Ordinances just for the sake of racking up the number of ordinances passed, or fulfillment of a personal agenda, is as counterproductive as it can be. Passing no new laws is better than passing a bunch of unnecessary and punitive ones.

Here’s another reality: The town manager’s job is to execute the policies of the Council. If Hernstadt did that to the satisfaction of the old Council, their evaluations should reflect that. Even if the policies of the new Council are 180 degrees different, his job is still to execute those policies. If he does, that should be reflected in their evaluations and in an appropriate raise when his contract comes up for renewal.  If he doesn’t meet their expectations, they should fire him.  The only thing now is that it will cost the Town a lot more to do so, thanks to Shamp, Gore and Boback.

The Town is currently being sued by a resident who claims the Council didn’t follow proper procedures in approving the TPI Margaritaville development. Anyone who followed the process knows that what the Council did then was completely within their purview and totally proper.

This recent action of doing an end-run around the agenda and passing a measure which was not properly notified has most certainly not followed proper procedures. If it were to be challenged by a lawsuit, the suit would have a much better chance of winning than the aforementioned one. I’m wondering if it isn’t time to call a meeting of like-minded unhappy citizens “to explore all legal remedies” and consider suing the Town to stop this from happening. Surely, there must be a local hotel owner who would give us a room to meet in. Of course, suing the Town would take a lot of money.

I’ve gotta buy a lottery ticket.

 

Jay Light