BELLEAIR BEACH — Following a year of mounting tensions and friction among city officials that created an atmosphere described by the city attorney as “inefficient, unhealthy and untenable,” City Council members have agreed to come together and work to resolve past differences.
The “come together” session was a special workshop before the Jan. 6 meeting, requested by City Attorney Fred Reilly, to deal with a situation that had escalated in recent weeks.
After the November meeting, an incident occurred in the parking lot at City Hall in which a loud argument broke out between Mayor Joseph Manzo and a resident couple.
There, Manzo said the resident “repeatedly challenged me to a fistfight,” while a police report also quoted a witness saying Manzo repeatedly yelled, “I’ll kick your a--.”
Tensions between the mayor and City Manager Lynn Rives boiled over at the December meeting, where Rives said Manzo’s “continuing hostility and interference in city operations” had created “a hostile work environment.” Manzo later struck back at Rives, saying he had repeatedly offered Rives the olive branch, only to have it “rammed up my butt.”
On Jan. 6, Reilly said he had seen “friction among people that should be working together” and “a focus on past wrongs and perceived wrongs instead of on the future.” The conflicts, Reilly said, have the potential to result in what would be costly lawsuits.
It is up to council, Reilly said, “to have an open and candid discussion on how to right the ship and chart a new path to the future.”
Council members responded positively to Reilly’s challenge.
“This session is definitely needed,” said council member Robyn Ache. “There has been a lot of friction on this council, among each other, among residents, and with Lynn (Rives), and I’m not one that likes conflict.” She thanked Reilly for helping to resolve the situation.
Ache also stressed the importance of hearing each opinion from different groups of citizens, but said “we’re not going to please everyone. We have to try to do what is best for the city.”
Council member Dave Gattis said the conflict between Rives and Manzo had created “a harassment type of situation” and “I don’t feel the city manager deserves the monthly problems he has been encountering during the meetings.”
He said the council could have accomplished a lot more if it had “not focused on belittling and shaming those who have a difference of opinion.”
He added, “We need to be careful and not let a small fire turn into a forest fire.”
A lot of the problems are the council’s fault, said council member Rita Swope, “because we have allowed one person (the mayor) to dominate.”
It would be a “huge loss” if Rives left, Swope said. “We need to step up to the plate, and help him do a better job, by all of us guiding him.”
Council member Marv Behm said, “The council has got a lot done. There are strong personalities here and sometimes words get a little strong. Words go back and forth and that doesn’t bother me at all.”
Behm’s advice was to find out what the problem is and work together on a solution.
Behm said social media has been a big part of the problem.
“Social media has agitated everybody, and that has got to stop,” he said.
Council member Glenn Gunn said the city’s Strategic Plan includes core values that should be followed in making decisions. He quoted from the document, which says, “As city officials and employees, we will strive for excellence in all that we do, always with courtesy, enthusiasm and respect.”
“There is a lot of pettiness going on that needs to stop,” said council member Jody Shirley. “We need to work together to get the city’s business done. Taming the tongue is a huge thing,” she added.
Manzo, who has been in the midst of much of the conflict and controversies, defended his record as mayor, and lashed out at some of his critics, but said he is starting the new year “with a clean slate” and is forgiving everyone.
“I want to move on for the good of the city,” Manzo said. “If you have a problem, tell me. But don’t go to social media.”
Manzo said, “I am very dedicated. I bust my back for this city. Yet, I take abuse, after abuse, after abuse.
“If you want respect, please show it back, and don’t go out to social media and trash me,” Manzo said. “As for the city manager, I’m willing to work with you. But letting your wife make allegations against me on social media doesn’t help.”
Manzo said he gets along well with all members of council except one, who “on the day I was sworn in, made a Sunshine Law allegation about me.”
As for his critics, Manzo said, “I’m going to forgive everything as of tonight, and start over and move forward. If you said things about me, I forgive you, but please don’t say it again.”
As the meeting was concluding, Rives said, “I appreciate the discussion, and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Ache drew applause from the audience when she said, “I think maybe we can all agree, from this point forward, we can just wipe the slate clean and go forward.”
Following the discussion, Manzo said, “Tonight we’re taking a major step.” Turning to Rives, he said, “I’ve heard that you talk to everybody else. In the future, you’ve got my telephone number, you talk to me.”
Reilly said he believes the meeting was extremely helpful.
“I’m very optimistic now that you’ve had this discussion,” he said.