Guest Commentary: Town Council Follies

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It only took a couple of weeks for our esteemed Town Council to reverse its firing “for cause” of Town Manager Don Stillwell, and instead terminate his employment “for convenience,” as his contract with the town allows. Firing Stilwell without “cause” means the town will have to pay him 20 weeks’ worth of severance pay plus his accrued personal leave and his attorney’s fees.

The fees, yet to be determined, were basically for a letter from Stilwell’s lawyer pointing out all the reasons why the firing “for cause” was deficient – little things like there was no stated “cause,” and that “as a public sector employee with an employment contract,” Stilwell is protected by law to due process which includes “notice and an opportunity to respond in a pre-termination hearing and an explanation of the evidence” of his alleged nonfeasance. If Stilwell sued for wrongful termination, it would have been a slam-dunk win and really cost the town big bucks.

The fact that Council member (and attorney) Rexann Hosafros pointed out everything that the lawyer’s letter said at the meeting when the firing took place didn’t matter to Mayor Dennis Boback, Vice-mayor Summer Stockton and Council Member Tracey Gore. They chose to ignore the warning and dug the town into a hole that just kept getting deeper. Had they listened to Hosafros in the first place, they could have saved the town some money. But they were hell-bent on their misguided adventure and did it anyway.

Boback later commented that he was “100% certain that the determination of ‘with cause’ would be upheld” and that he was changing his vote “against his better judgement because it would cause a lot of chaos in the town over the next year . . .” Too bad he didn’t think about all that chaos before making his original motion. His statement has a ring of defamation in it that might give Stilwell pause about accepting the deal.

It would be comforting if just one of the three council members who made the mess would have the integrity (and guts) to stand up and say, “We made a mistake. We acted hastily without thinking through where this action would take us.” I’m not holding my breath for that. We’ll have to be satisfied that their reversal of the action is all the admission of error we’ll get.

But wait. There’s more!

At the June 3rd meeting, Boback openly admitted that he had consulted an (unnamed) outside attorney about the firing. As a result of this consultation, he believed he could pull it off without having to pay Stilwell anything and at the same time, didn’t have to be specific about stating “cause” or offering Stilwell due process. If that was the actual advice, it has to be some of the worst legal advice ever given. Boback declined to reveal the identity of the mystery attorney. (So much for the transparency in government that Boback lamented the lack of during the campaign.)

But wonder of wonders, a public records request by the Sand Paper revealed an email from Boback to attorney, former council member and apparently still-angry man, Bill Shenko – the text of which is, “Bill, Attached is the reconsideration request for Stilwell fro (sic) Attorney George Knott. Would you be available sometime afternoon today or tomorrow morning anytime after 10am to discuss?” So, the unknown attorney is revealed, to no one’s surprise.

But wait. There’s still more!

Last September, the Charter Review Commission (of which I was a member) heard concerns from Bill Shenko about a proposed amendment to delete a section about “revenue sharing” which then-town attorney Derek Rooney had advised us was unnecessary because it was already covered in Florida General Law. He inquired about this with the Attorney General’s office by phone and was told that his take on the issue was correct.

In February, Shenko raised the issue with new town attorney Dawn Lehnert who believed the town could lose as much as $200,000 by not having that clause in the Charter. An “official” ruling in writing was asked of the Attorney General, the status of which no one seems to know anything about. Nonetheless, in April newly-elected mayor Boback made it clear that if it turned out that Rooney was wrong, it was his intention to seek reimbursement from him for giving the town faulty legal advice.

That brings us back to the current situation. If Boback was ready to go after Rooney for allegedly giving the town bad legal advice, then consistency would dictate that he go after Shenko for at least the attorney fees that Stilwell incurred in straightening out his botched firing. Boback sought and received legal advice without any authorization that ended up costing the taxpayers money, some of which was mine. I want it back.

This whole fiasco began with Boback stating that the town had lost faith and trust in the town manager. He, Stockton and Gore should think about that statement the next time they look in a mirror.

 

Jay Light
Fort Myers Beach