DUNEDIN – Angry residents’ passionate arguments in support of City Manager Rob DiSpirito failed to convince city commissioners that he should be allowed keep his job.
After hearing numerous residents chide three commissioners for a previous move Jan. 7 to fire DiSpirito, commissioners voted 3-2 Jan. 21 against a motion allowing him to remain as manager for a six-month probationary period that would have been followed by an evaluation.
Commissioners Bruce Livingston, Heather Gracy and John Tornga voted against the motion. Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski and Commissioner Deborah Kynes voted for it.
Instead, commissioners voted 4-1, with Ward Bujalski dissenting, to accept DiSpirito’s resignation offer and to retain him as a consultant for 13 weeks.
Livingston leveled strong criticism of DiSpirito, accusing him of micromanagement and intimidation.
“Staff is not encouraged to promote their outside-the-box ideas. … It is clearly my way or the highway,” he said.
Livingston said that he asked in July to schedule time with DiSpirito to discuss the flow of information that comes into city hall and how it gets shared with the entire commission, such as on the Toronto Blue Jays, which are in negotiations with city officials on future spring training options in the city.
In October, Livingston said, after he could see no progress on rectifying his concerns with DiSpirito, he lodged a vote of no confidence with City Attorney Tom Trask.
Gracy, who initiated a move to fire DiSpirito at the Jan. 7 meeting, and Tornga were critical of aspects of the parking management plan for downtown, such as the use of $2.9 million in funds from the BP oil spill to help finance it without public discussion.
Gracy said she asked for a simplification of the parking plan and although DiSpirito acknowledged he would do so, it remained complex and confusing.
“The BP money has not been discussed and I asked to have that done several times,” Tornga said. “That could have been agendized, and I’m not particularly pleased about that.”
Gracy also was critical of a lack of long-range vision in her written evaluation of DiSpirito, such as in attempts to combine strategic planning, budget and capital improvement plans.
Kynes said that DiSpirito needs improvement in communicating with each commissioner. She also was critical of excessive turnover in fiscal management and the length of city meetings.
“There is no reason we should be here at midnight,” she said.
Ward Bujalski was adamantly opposed to the resignation agreement for DiSpirito.
Saying that city commissioners are policy makers and the city manager is the expert, she contended that the commission was trying to micromanage too much.
“There are 10 ways to skin a cat. I’m not going to continue to condemn my city manager on how he skins the cat. I just want the darn cat skinned,” she said.
She gave DiSpirito excellent rankings in several areas, such as keeping the commission informed about matters critical to the commission’s policy-making role.
Outbursts from the audience were frequent during the meeting as several residents complained about the lack of due process in the commission’s process to separate ties with DiSpirito. They said the commission’s action Jan. 7 was contrary to open government principles.
A 3-2 vote to fire DiSpirito that night failed because four votes are needed under the city’s charter to remove him from office. Critics then and at the Jan. 21 meeting questioned why the move was made late at night with little discussion and before his annual performance evaluation, which had been scheduled for February. Instead, the evaluation was moved up to Jan. 21.
“Government in the Sunshine doesn’t refer to just a motion and a vote. It includes the actual debate why the decisions are being made and allowing our residents the opportunity to participate in that process,” Ward Bujalski said. “As the elected leaders in this community, we must do better.”
Manny Koutsourais, who was mayor from March 1988 to March 1994, said he could not believe at the late hour of the night Jan. 7 after a long five-hour meeting that DiSpirito’s performance was going to be discussed.
“We have had controversy before,” he said, “but never has been a question of collusion, violation of the Sunshine Law or back-room agreements. Perception becomes reality.”
Ed Armstrong, a Dunedin resident and attorney who has been before the City Commission on many development issues, questioned whether DiSpirito has received due process and has been treated fairly.
He thanked Kynes for voting against the move to fire DiSpirito on Jan. 7. Instead, Kynes had asked that commissioners have an evaluation process.
“You were the one who stopped the midnight train to nowhere,” Armstrong said.
He also said that commissioners should be mindful that city managers have their own network.
“I suggest respectfully that if you went on a search after what happened two weeks ago, you’re applicant poll will be awfully, awfully thin,” Armstrong said.
Mike Quill, a Dunedin health food store owner, said DiSpirito has been one of the best city managers he’s ever worked with.
“Stop this. Let him have his job. I don’t think anybody would argue with that,” Quill said.
Both Gracy and Livingston apologized for the timing of the motion to fire DiSpirito Jan. 7.
Gracy said she knew she “unleashed a tornado” but had to do it publicly.
“I dug as deep as I could to find the courage to do this because it is a painful process,” she said.
Livingston said if “I had to do this again a different approach would be utilized.”
DiSpirito said his first preference would be to remain as city manager for six months to address near-term city needs and to “have a platform for which to apply for a comparable position in my field.”
“This option would protect my wife and two young children and me. To a much greater extent, it would be an acknowledgment of my nine years of successful and productive service as part of team Dunedin as reflected in nine consecutive very good performance reviews from the commission,” DiSpirito said.
If that is not acceptable, he asked the commission to approve his resignation with severance pay and other benefits and retain him as a consultant for 13 weeks. A rate of $195 per hour was included and his resignation, approved by the commission, was effective at midnight Jan. 21.
Deputy City Manager Doug Hutchens was named interim city manager. Commissioners are preparing to conduct a nationwide search to replace DiSpirito.
DiSpirito said Jan. 26 that most of the complaints made at the meeting were never previously mentioned to him and before this week, he received little if anything at all in writing.
He said he only received two of the five written evaluations prior to the actual day of the commission meeting so there was no time to review three of them.
“I was never given a chance at the meeting to respond to these opinions, which I was more than prepared and happy to do. There was much said that was grossly inaccurate,” DiSpirito said.
He said there was no due process granted, which means an opportunity for him to finally hear concerns, and then a reasonable period of time with which to address any issues.
“We provide such due process for all city employees,” DiSpirito said.
He also said the city’s many accomplishments in 2015 were barely mentioned in this review, despite a detailed report being shared in advance.
Corrected dates that Manny Koutsourais served as Dunedin Mayor.