Guest Commentary


Monumental Screw-Ups Harm Town

What a monumental screw-up! Actually, what a pair of monumental screw-ups!

The first is the unbelievable news that, for six months, the Town has failed to pay more than three-million dollars to contractors for the water-main/storm-water drainage project. This led to the second screw-up – the totally-bungled firing “for cause” last Friday of Town Manager Don Stilwell by Town Council.

A long list of questions arises about the first mess, and until they are answered satisfactorily, the second mess, created by Mayor Dennis Boback and approved by Vice-Mayor Summer Stockton and Council Member Tracey Gore, should never have happened.

Apparently, somewhere between Public Works Director Scott Baker, who says he forwarded the invoices, and Finance Director Maureen Rischitelli, who says she never got them, $3.2 million worth of invoices went unpaid since last October. Neither accepts responsibility. Unless somebody’s dog ate the invoices, one of them is lying and once the truth is determined, should be fired.

The questions deal with the Town’s procedures for paying its bills and who should have done what. According to Town Clerk Michelle Mayher, the process was changed this past January. Before the change, invoices (U.S. Mail or e-mail) received would be delivered to the department head who would fill in the account code, sign off and deliver it to Finance to cut the checks. Rischitelli would then review the printed checks and they would be signed by Stilwell and/or the Mayor. She added that checks over $10,000 required two signatures.

After the change, vendors were asked to send the bills to an invoices e-mail account, a finance clerk would fix the code and notify the department head that there are invoices to sign off. The coded invoices never left the Finance office. If the department had a question, a copy was given. Once signed off, the check was cut and sent for signature. Asked whether either of the contractors had called or sent “reminders” about the unpaid bills, Mayher said she wasn’t aware of any.

The water project is the biggest thing the town has going now. If Baker sent the signed invoices back and Rischitelli never got them, why didn’t she ask? Should Stilwell have noticed that he hadn’t signed any checks for those contractors? Come on, people. You all work just a few steps away from each other.

Ultimately, Stilwell is the top guy and no matter where the truth lies, it’s on him. He acknowledged this and gave a very lucid explanation to the Council without ascribing blame. As soon as he became aware of the problem, he managed it – that’s what good managers do. He has worked it out with the contractors that they will not charge the town interest or late fees. He also acquired a loan from the State to pay the bills at a better interest rate than the one the previous council was ready to accept from a bank, saving the town a lot of money. So, for as big a mess as this is and as many questions remain to be answered, this isn’t going to cost the town an extra dime. If this were a basketball game, it would be “no harm, no foul.”

The second screw-up, the firing of Stilwell over this, reeks of a setup. Even during the election campaign, Boback, while never actually saying he would go after Stilwell, made it clear it was on his mind. He obviously saw his chance and jumped on it. In Friday’s “emergency” meeting, the first agenda item was about the town finances, since the rumor mill had it that the town was about to go bankrupt. Both Rischitelli and Stilwell offered plausible explanations that we weren’t, that the sun would rise the next day, and the town was indeed not broke. Apparently, we have more than $6 million in assets.

Undeterred, Boback offered his motion – a lengthy, meticulously drafted document loaded with legalese quoting chapter and verse of the town Charter, accusing Stilwell of “nonfeasance,” a failure to perform a duty required by law. The fact that the firing is “for cause” means that if the town can pull it off, Stilwell is gone without a penny of severance or benefits.

When challenged to elaborate what the “cause” is by Council Member Hosafros, he said he “didn’t have to go into specifics.” Both Hosafros and Council Member Anita Cereceda warned that they were getting way ahead of themselves in this and reminded that Stilwell was entitled to a hearing and appeal before a final determination could be made. After heated debate, in which Hosafros, an attorney, made it clear that sooner or later, Boback would have to get specific, and that by not doing so, opened the town up to legal action by Stilwell. A question arose about simply relieving Stilwell of his duties until the process could be followed through, but it was rejected.

A list of questions surrounds this episode, too. Boback acknowledged that he had sought “outside counsel” about doing this and was assured that he could. The “motion” Boback submitted was far beyond his legal knowledge and ability and could not have been drafted by him without a lot of help. Who is this “outside counsel?” Did Boback pay him for the service out of his own pocket or did the counsel give it “pro bono” (free) to a friend, because it was “in the best interest of the town” (Boback’s term). I’m straining my brain wondering who it might be.

Furthermore, once the vote to fire Stilwell passed (3-2), Boback immediately moved to hire Jim Steele, who was conveniently seated in the first row, as “Interim Manager.” After a few brief questions, Steele was voted in. Steele acknowledged that Boback had approached him about the position beforehand. What authority did Boback have to unilaterally talk to anybody about the manager position, particularly when the position was occupied? I don’t know Jim Steele. He has impressive credentials. I have some real concerns about the propriety of his standing “in the wings,” waiting to be brought on. It should be pointed out that there is no provision for an “Interim” manager in the Town Charter. When they hire you, you’re the manager.

From where I sat, the heated exchanges, the warnings about the firing being done without due process and the total lack of detailed “cause” gave Stilwell grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit on a silver platter. He would be a fool not to insist on the appeal hearing and not to sue. Stilwell is an old pro who is more experienced and better at playing this game than anybody on the Council. There is no doubt that this mess will cost the town a bunch of money to defend, no matter who wins (nobody will win). Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert made it clear that this sort of thing was “outside her area of expertise,” so outside counsel will have to be hired. The whole debacle was recorded and will provide a judge or jury some really interesting evidence.

Only time will tell which of these screw-ups will end up doing the most harm to the town.


Jay Light
Fort Myers Beach