BELLEAIR BEACH — Tensions surfaced between Mayor Joseph Manzo and City Attorney Paul Marino at the May 6 council meeting over an agenda item to authorize the city manager to advertise for legal services. The matter has been discussed at recent city workshops.

“We’re going to bid this out,” Manzo said.

Marino clearly saw this as an attempt to terminate him.

At the outset of the discussion, Marino said that in his 40 years as a city or county attorney he had never heard of “a sweeping action like this done without a clear, rational basis.” He said there was no clear justification for what he called “this constructive termination of an existing contract.”

Marino said he had been Belleair Beach’s city attorney for 20 years, and that it had been “a good working relationship.” Manzo stopped Marino from continuing with a recitation of his accomplishments, telling him there would be a place for that during the bid process.

In a heated exchange between the two, Marino said Manzo and the council were “trying to terminate me.”

Manzo, who is also an attorney, told Marino, “You have every right to bid, although I don’t know after that last outburst, how you’ll do on the bid.”

Other council members declined to comment on Marino, but some residents, mostly former city officials, did. They spoke highly of Marino and his record with the city.

Former Mayor Rudy Davis said he had lived in the city for 20 years and had served on most city boards. He said nearly all of the current council members are newly elected and “need all the help and experience you can get.”

“Why is one of your first actions to get rid of that experience that can help you?” Davis asked.

Another longtime resident active in civic service, J.C. Imfeld, said going out for bids on the city attorney is “fixing something that isn’t broken.”

Previous Mayor Leslie Notaro, who Manzo defeated in March, said she agreed. She said going out for bids on the city attorney is “an absolute waste of time, energy and money.”

“I have worked with Mr. Marino. I value his input. He has provided a very valuable service for us,” said former council member and longtime resident Wanda Schwerer, who did not seek re-election this year.

Following the residents’ comments, Vice Mayor Glenn Gunn said, “We have heard from the 20-years crowd.”

Responding to those who said, “Don’t fix what’s not broken,” Gunn said that the new council members were elected because “we saw things that were broken, or could be done better.”

“That’s the reason we came to council,” Gunn said.

Manzo said he agreed with Gunn. He said the city attorney position “is broken.”

“No one’s being terminated,” Manzo said. “(Marino) is free to bid; no one is stopping him.”

“There are plenty of qualified attorneys out there. I intend to vote for the best one,” Manzo added.

The council voted to finalize the city attorney bid document and make a decision at a workshop and special meeting on May 20 whether to go out for bids.

Neighborhood undergrounding spreads

Another neighborhood in the city is looking to put their utility wires underground, joining Bellevue Estates Island, where the undergrounding is already underway. In Belleair Beach, neighborhood undergrounding is paid for by the residents, who go through a petition process to undertake the project.

The City Council authorized City Manager Lynn Rives to get a binding estimate from Duke Energy to underground the utilities on Harrison Avenue. The cost estimate will give residents there a realistic approximation of what the project will cost them. They had submitted a qualifying petition for the undergrounding, which is the first step in the process.

“When they see the cost, they may or may not want to move ahead,” Rives had said in a recent interview on the subject.

Rives also said the Bellevue Estates Island experience had given the city a good basis for how to proceed with future undergrounding efforts.

“Now we know the right way to do it,” Rives said. “We learned from that.”

One lesson Rives said was gained from Bellevue Estates was to go directly to binding cost estimates from the utility companies. A binding estimate from Duke, on the Bellevue Estates job, turned out to be much higher than an earlier cost from a consulting engineer.

“We learned, if we don’t do that (get directly from the utilities), we don’t get a good price,” Rives said.

Rives said he will next get a cost estimate from Spectrum cable. He also said a decision has not yet been made on whether the streetlights will be solar, as they will be on Bellevue Estates.

If the Harrison Avenue residents decide to move ahead with the utility undergrounding project, they will become the third city neighborhood without overhead wires. The Belle Isle neighborhood was undergrounded by the developer before the homes were built, starting in the mid-1970s.

Rives also said the undergrounding of the Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood is “ahead of schedule” and about $132,000 under budget so far. That is due to savings in the boring and conduit installation, the Spectrum installation, and overhead utilities conversion, Rives said in a memorandum on the subject.

“Flip the Switch” methodology will be used to phase in the undergrounding. Six to eight homes at a time will be connected as sections of the new grid are brought on line, Rives said. That is scheduled to happen in August to early October.