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Issue 675

01/16/2014 at 4:10pm

Terry StewartStewart Steps Down

At a special meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council agreed to accept a request from Town Manager Terry Stewart that he be terminated without cause. Despite the controversy surrounding his departure, after the motion was made Stewart gave a speech in which he graciously thanked the council for allowing him to serve, and quietly left council chambers for the last time as his supporters applauded.

Mayor Alan Mandel opened the meeting by explaining that Councilman Bob Raymond was out of town and could not attend. All remaining council members were present.

"As Mayor, in accordance with Town Charter, I called this meeting in order to share comments made to me last Friday where the Town Manager approached me and said he wished to resign," said Mandel. He then asked for a motion to remove the Town Manager without cause, effective immediately, which was made by Council-woman Jo List and seconded by ViceMayor Joe Kosinski.

During the discussion that followed, Kosinski said he doesn't agree with Stewart leaving.

"This is not a good thing for our Town, but if it is what Terry wishes, I have to respect that," he said. "

Town Clerk Michelle Mayher then read a letter from Raymond, who echoed Kosinski's comments.

"I cannot be at the Wednesday meeting,” she read. "I do not favor Terry leaving without cause - if he wishes to go I will respect that, but I will not fire him."

Council then voted 4-0 to terminate Stewart's contract, after which he spoke to the packed room and Town Council.

"I want all of you to know it's been a pleasure to work for the Town for almost 4 years now,” he said. "This Town has an incredible future and is filled with a lot of decent folks. Unfortunately, I could not make all of them happy. I don't think it's any secret that it's this issue with the elevated pools that has created this controversy. There are those who continue to perpetuate the myth that staff is trying to force this issue down people's throats, and that is not true. We brought this issue to you (council) in June and again in August. At no time has the staff advocated for these pools to be built or continue to be built."

"Now to the matter at hand,” he continued. "This Town has a lot on its plate and it had a lot on its plate when I got here. It was in good financial condition then, and now it's even better. The potable water project is now being done and the reconstruction of Estero Boulevard will begin soon. I am not taking credit for this - it is all of you that made this happen, along with many other projects, some controversial, some not - like COP on the beach, which actually did not result in a bunch of drunks brawling on the sand. On Tuesday morning, we sat down and went over all the major projects, and I think you're in good hands with the people here.”

"Prior to my arrival here, the manager's job had been a revolving door, and I hope you will go out and find someone that will work hard and stay here for years. I want to thank you for the opportunity to come here and continue my career.”

Stewart then briefly addressed the controversy by telling a story about an old friend.

"When I first became an assistant city manager, I kept reading stories about a manager in Clearwater named Mike Roberto, and one of the things I saw is that when he was under fire in his city, he walked away with dignity and grace,” he said. "That man became my friend, and I wrote to him once saying that if that ever happened to me, I wanted to be able to do the same. Thank you for letting me walk away without rancor.”

After asking permission to leave, Stewart then quietly got up from his desk. As he made his way out of council chambers, his supporters stood and gave him a standing ovation.

Mayor Mandel then named Town Financial Officer Evelyn Wicks acting Town Manager, telling her that he has contacted a group of retired city managers who are available to assist her.

"Let me assure all of you - Council will not be running Town Hall,” he said. "We have a meeting on January 21st and I will have a list of possible Interim Town Managers."

During Public Comment, the only person to speak was Jay Light, who encouraged council to rehire former Town Manager Jack Green.

"First, thank you, congratulations to Mr. Stewart for handling this the right way," he said. 'When I first heard this was going to happen, I got on the phone with Jack Green, who left this position for a variety of reasons. He says he may be interested in returning, so I seriously urge you to consider it."

Following the meeting, resident Garr Reynolds told us he believes that Stewart's departure is "just the first step”.

"Next we have to get rid of (Community Development Director) Walt Fluegel,” he said.

Mayor Mandel told us that the Council will continue to move forward with the projects it has been working on.

"At our next meeting on the 21st, council will have the opportunity to select an Interim Town Manager,” he said.

We also spoke to Terry Stewart after the meeting, where he revealed the reason why he asked to be terminated.

"When I was in the Cape, there was a controversial issue during an election cycle,” he said. "My staff and I worked to stand behind the council, but the situation got very rancorous and we all fell very hard. I am so grateful to all of those people for sticking it out with me, but I felt later that I probably should have left sooner as everyone ended up going after the staff and I did not want to see these folks here go through that.”

Stewart reiterated that he and staff did not advocate for elevated pools to be allowed on the island.

"That is a downright lie, and the facts will show it,” he said. "That being said, I am very grateful to the Town Council to allow me to make my exit a cordial one.”

Wednesday's meeting came about after Stewart offered to tender his resignation following a speech he gave at a meeting last Friday concerning the elevated pools issue (see the front page for that story). No members of Town Council addressed Stewart’s offer to resign at that meeting, though Mayor Mandel did speak with him afterwards and upon confirming Stewart’s statement regarding resignation on Monday, scheduled the Wednesday afternoon special Council meeting.

"Council is the only group that can make this decision, therefore a special meeting has been called for us to consider it,” Mandel told us on Monday.

According to Stewart's employment contract, which he and Town Council signed on January 3rd, 2011. 'Termination Without Cause' must come with a majority vote of the council and entitles him to severance pay equal to six months of his base salary, any payment for accrued vacation and sick leave payable within 15 calendar days after termination unless otherwise agreed to by both parties. No other benefits - including vehicle allowance, deferred compensation contributions or group health insurance will be paid following the effective date of the termination.

Stewart first came to Fort Myers Beach as an Interim Town Manager in early 2010, after serving as the Town Manager of Cape Coral for eight years. Six months later he was unanimously offered a permanent job after being given a 4.1 out of 5 rating for his performance by the council who warmly welcomed him, saying he brings 'much needed stability' to Town Hall. During his four-year tenure, Stewart helped oversee long-awaited projects such as North Estero, renourishment of the north end of the island, the renovation of the Newton Property and the Mound House, the beginning of the fix to the Town's aging water utility and the reconstruction of Estero Boulevard, to name a few.

Prior to Stewart, the Town went through seven town managers in five years, after the resignation of Marsha Segal-George, who was Town Manager from the time of incorporation until 2005.

In an article written by the Sand Paper in October of 2009 about whether or not then-Town Manager Jack Green planned to remain in office, Finance Coordinator for the Town - Amanda Anderson - reported that the total amount of money spent by the Town either searching for or rejecting town managers was up to $271,056.56 at that time.

Keri Hendry Weeg