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Town officials move on after manager dismissal

January 22, 2014
By BOB PETCHER (rpetcher@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It has been a week since legislative action related to the removal of Town Manager Terry Stewart from office was taken at Town Hall, yet the buzz of the action or the issue has not yet subsided.

Last Wednesday, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council immediately discharged Stewart by citing Town Charter Section 6.02 entitled "Removal" during a special meeting on the one agenda item listed as a "personnel matter."

Stemming from a recommendation by Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, Stewart's unanimously approved dismissal was referred to as a "termination without cause." A few days prior, he had approached Mandel of his wishes to resign "with consideration."

Article Photos

BOB PETCHER
Terry Stewart listens in on the dialogue during his final day in office as town manager for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

The financial terms of his discharge under his signed employee agreement involve the Town agreeing to pay Stewart a lump sum severance payment equal to six months of his base salary of roughly $120,000 within 15 days of termination and any payment for accrued vacation and sick leave.

Mandel immediately asked Town Director of Finance Evelyn Wicks to fill in as acting manager at the special meeting. She stated that she has prior experience in the acting manager role at a previous job, but doesn't plan to do any major changes under her watch.

"We are just going to moving forward," said Wicks. "I have been involved with most of the issues that the Town is facing at the moment. Honestly, I think we'll be fine."

Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, who was Beach mayor for a good portion of Stewart's nearly four-year term, said Stewart should be proud of his efforts and so should the Councils that worked with him.

"All good things come to an end," Kiker said. "Having Terry there has been a positive, productive experience for everyone involved. Getting Estero Boulevard on the County's five-year CIP was almost like a twinkle in somebody's eye. With his experience and working alongside the council as well as he did, the evidence is a $50 million funding amendment from the County for a project that was 40-50 years old. There has been so many great things that have happened during his shift."

Although the paperwork states termination, people closely associated with the Beach know it was more of a resignation.

"You never know when it's your turn to jump in, but it's really important to know when to step away," said Kiker. "This was Terry's call, and I think the Council showed their respect."

Councilman Bob Raymond, who had an excused absence and was not involved in the 4-0 vote, stated he "did not favor Terry leaving without cause" via an email he sent to Town Clerk Michelle Mayher.

"If Terry wants to go, I am OK with that," he wrote. "I will not fire him at this time with or without cause."

Vice Mayor Joe Kosinski stated he did not agree with action taken against Stewart but understood the wishes of Stewart during discussion before the motion was called to a vote. He was quite upset that the issue escalated to this point.

"This is not a good day for the town," he said. "Mr. Stewart is very professional. He did a great job, and he always comes prepared. It's a loss for the town."

Former Councilman Bill Shenko was an elected official when former Town Manager Marsha Segal-George was terminated without cause. Unlike the past two meetings, he thought the special meeting was handled the right way.

"The meeting was conducted in a very professional manner," he said. "(Stewart was) very courteous, very professional (with his exit comments). I appreciate that."

Stewart, who was hired in February 2010, left soon after the decision was made. He did comment before departing the room and was thankful for the opportunity to serve.

"It has been a distinct pleasure for me to be able to work with the Town of Fort Myers Beach for almost four years now," Stewart said. "This is a great, little community, a super town, that has incredible potential and has a whole lot of really decent, kind people that live here. As with any community, there are always folks that choose to be unhappy. Unfortunately, we didn't find a way to make them happy."

Stewart was under fire for controversial building permits that were issued by one of his staff members to a developer for elevated pools and accessory structures. Calls were made for him to fire Town Community Development Director Walter Fluegel but, although a mistake was admitted, he defended his employee and refused to take any action.

"As I said at the last meeting, Town staff accepts responsibility for the initial ruling," Stewart said. "It turned out to be something that people in the neighborhood and the community are uncomfortable with. At no time, between (June) and now, had the Town staff ever advocated or continued forth with the business of allowing elevated pools to be built or continued to be built within five feet of the canal. That's just not accurate."

On Jan. 10, after a heated special meeting on the issue, Mandel said he was approached by Stewart who told him that he wished to resign "with consideration."

Mandel decided to seek counsel with Town Attorney Jim Humphrey, before calling a special meeting to address the particular issue.

"Because of the importance in the matter, I thought it best to call a special meeting where only this one subject could be discussed and possibly have action taken," he said.

Near the end of the Jan. 15 meeting, Town attorney Derek Rooney disclosed that he received a pre-suit letter from attorney Beverly Grady, who represents developer Joe Orlandini, the man who received the building permits for the elevated pools on Palermo Street. Rooney nor any other Town official commented any further on the letter.

With a number of major projects underway, Council will move swiftly to find an interim town manager.

In the meantime, Mandel has informed Wicks about a service provided by the Florida League of Cities "range riders" -retired city managers who volunteer their time to assist any staff that has a question.

"We need to replace Mr. Stewart expeditiously," said Mandel. "There is one very important thing that we all have to remember. Based on the charter, staff does not make policy and the council cannot manage staff."

 
 

 

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