MADEIRA BEACH — The city commission is taking steps to resolve a dilemma about allowing a contractor to serve as finance director.
At an April 26 workshop, it was clear the commissioners were trying to find a middle ground between an outspoken resident’s view saying voters “don’t want a contractor in that job,” versus the city attorney’s view that the city can simply continue with a contractor serving as finance director.
Resident Bill Howell, who spoke passionately at two previous meetings on the subject of a recent ballot issue, had said, “I call on you the commissioners to take immediate action on this need for a full-time finance director.”
At the workshop, Commissioner Anne-Marie Brooks advised against taking immediate action.
“Changing the finance director is a big deal, especially right now during budget season,” said Brooks. “We need to do some more exploration and education” in light of the fact that constituents had told her they would not have voted against the ballot issue had they better understood it.
The wording on Ballot Issue #2, which was defeated in a 537 to 427 vote in the March 14 municipal election, read: “This charter amendment would amend Section 5.5 of the charter to provide the Board of Commissioners with the option to delegate to a contractor or firm to perform the services of the Director of Finance and City Treasurer. Should the charter be amended?”
That wording has created confusion about the meaning of the “no” vote. Comments from Brooks and other commissioners indicated that they were not wanting to make a hasty decision, either in favor or against replacing the contractor who is currently finance director.
“It still makes a lot of sense to me to keep what we have,” said Vice Mayor Ray Kerr. “But I am concerned that we did have a vote, and based on that vote they would like an employee to be the director of finance.” While City Attorney Thomas Trask has said even after the charter vote that there is no requirement to put a full-time employee in the position, Kerr said he would like to also get an opinion from the state attorney general on the subject.
Trask said the city could request an opinion from the attorney general, but she may not give an opinion, because the matter has nothing to do with state statute. He also said that before the city can request an opinion from the attorney general, there is a requirement for the commission to pass a formal resolution authorizing that action.
“I would support a letter to the attorney general, I would support a town hall meeting,” said Commissioner David Tagliarini. “I would love to have a place where the residents of District 1 could go and find out what the heck they voted for, because they’re very loud about this right now. Clearly, they voted ‘no,’ but nothing changed.”
Mayor Jim Rostek said the people he has talked to said they understood what they voted for, and “that’s what they want.” He suggested the city look to hire a finance director and have Andrew Laflin, the current contractor, apply. To which Tagliarini responded, “If we do go in search of a full-time (finance director), I suppose Andrew wouldn’t even apply, because it wouldn’t be as beneficial for him.” Laflin is owner of his consulting firm, Aclarian LLC.
“Let’s see if we can get more understanding by the residents,” said Tagliarini, “but also let’s see if we can get some kind of documentation to say we can or can’t (have a contractor as finance director).”
Commissioner Eddie McGeehen had a word of caution for the commission. “The people spoke, and I believe that they knew what they were talking about when they voted. It sets a very dangerous precedent if we question the voters, and how they voted.”
During public comment, the first person to speak contradicted that view.
“People in this town do not realize what they voted for,” said Jeff Brooks. He believes people thought a contractor would cost the city more, but in this case a contractor, who is part-time, saves money because the workload does not require a full-time director. He said the city should have done a better job of informing the citizenry about the issue.
John Connolly, who is a member of the Planning Commission, brought up the fact that city officials often wonder why more residents do not show up and participate at city meetings. He said people have told him, “We have given our opinion, and no one listened to us.” Now the city is not listening to the result of the vote on the ballot issue, Connolly said.
The April 26 meeting was a workshop, so there was discussion with no specific action taken. Two proposed actions likely to come up at the next regular meeting that seem to have support are to schedule a town hall meeting to get resident feedback, and to write a letter to the state attorney general to ask for her opinion on whether the city can proceed with a contractor as finance director.
Other professional services
Up for discussion on the agenda was the status of other professional services required by the city — the city attorney, engineering services, and IT services. These have traditionally been contracted services.
In the case of the city attorney, which is a charter officer position, the discussion was about putting out a request for proposals (RFP) for the position because Trask has been serving in an “interim” capacity for three years. The prior commission had not taken action on formally choosing a city attorney after Ralf Brookes left.
City Manager Robin Gomez said he will be putting out the RFP and “hopefully we will be getting responses within the next six to seven weeks.”
The city will also be issuing RFPs for engineering and IT services.
Meeting structure discussed
Each year, the commission considers changes to its policy handbook. With Rostek’s emphasis on resident involvement in the meetings, he was interested in increasing the time allotment for public comments. It was agreed to raise the individual time limit from three to five minutes.
If there are responses from city officials, those will come after the resident has finished speaking, not as a back-and-forth during the resident’s time. Also, if residents want someone to get back to them, they will be asked to fill out a card with their contact information.
Tagliarini brought up what he called a “big ask.” He requested the Board of Commissioners meetings be moved to Mondays rather than Wednesdays. Tagliarini, who was new on the commission last year, has said he works as a musician and sometimes has conflicts with the 6 p.m. Wednesday night commission and workshop meetings.
However, Brooks said she made the commitment to join the Board of Commissioners based on the Wednesday schedule.
The board agreed to keep Wednesday as the regular day, but would consider changing the date or time of individual meetings as they had in the past.