What The Sam Hill Happened to City Hall?

Of legislative radicals, a zealous lawyer and the folks who work in the seat of Mount Dora government every day

Sept. 20, 2016

The story about whether Lonnie Groot, Mount Dora’s new city attorney, bungled legal advice to council about making fire chief Skip Kerkhof acting city manager — in potential violation of Florida law about holding dual offices — is no longer new. Kerkhof has gotten the assurances he needs about getting his old job back, and the city’s pension fund lawyer says the loss of his pension contributions will be small.

In her Sept. 18 commentary, Lauren Ritchie of the Lake Sentinel writes that Mount Dora council should expend less energy protecting their attorney and more to safeguard and compensate their devoted fire chief as best they can.

Ritchie also wrote in that column that the city is now dealing with a hostile workforce complaint due to tensions between Lonnie Groot and one of the city’s department managers. This could prove far more costly than reaching into its pockets to pay one month’s pension benefits for the acting city manager — both in terms of legal fees and, far more crucially, the reputation of the city as an employer. There are many open positions right now in City Hall, and trying to fill them in what is perceived in the professional community as a toxic environment may more prove more difficult than it was getting Bubbles the elephant to water-ski on Lake Dora for Honky-Tonk Freeway.

Since his hire earlier this year, Mr. Groot has been performing legal reviews on a wide swath of city government functions, apparently with the aim of strengthening the executive powers of council and the mayor at the expense of the administrative reach of the city manager. Who had directed Groot’s work, and why? The election mandate of last fall that saw three incumbent council members replaced by Mayor Girone and council members Mark Slaby and Laurie Tillett burbled with anger at the city’s administration, but there were no details about just what needed to change. All that begun to become apparent as soon as the new council members took their oaths of office, and in the coming months just how far-reaching and deep the changes were intended for City Hall have slowly come into focus.

Behind the actions of council regarding these changes, there has been a steely will which has been impenetrable to compromise or just plain empathy. Worse, shining a light to find out what is behind all these radical changes is like using high beams in fog. The existence of outside influences in City Hall is never addressed in city council meetings.

The victims of all this are the city’s employees, who now work in a needlessly difficult environment of distrust and fear for their jobs.

Victim too, perhaps, is a complex future for the city which will not turn out well if all stakeholders in the city — council, staff, peripheral powers, business owners, citizens — don’t find a way to bury this hatchet before it gets bloodier and try to get some work done.

Mark Slaby, Mark Crail, Nick Girone and Laurie Tillett at the city council swearing-in on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: Amber Riccinto / Leesburg Daily Commerical)

The 2015 election mandate which swept Nick Girone, Mark Slaby and Laurie Tillett into their council seats seems largely fueled by anger at how the city was managing its affairs: How it treated its downtown oaks; how it paid for things out of never — quite-sufficient pots; and how — though this was never quite articulated, explained or justified — administrative staff was in need of a trip to the woodshed. (Marc Crail ran unopposed for the Fourth District seat and has been somewhat independent of the actions of the other three.)

With wind in their sails from a news site created apparently for the sole purpose of stirring up anger against incumbents and creating an effective hammer to take to local government, the three took advantage of an off-year election and dubious campaign advantages in the Lakes of Mount Dora to handily win two council seats and the mayor’s office.

After their swearing-in ceremony at council’s Nov. 17 meeting, Mayor-elect Girone told the room that things were changing. “What the citizens have spoken to is the fact that they want a council that is going to listen to them and basically respect them as citizens,” he said. “The big thing that I’m going be pushing is the topic of respect and just making sure that the people understand their position at the top of the organizational chart.” Mount Dora’s residents will be the top priority, Girone said, followed by the City Council and city staffers.

“The organizational chart needs to be respected,” he said. “It has been lacking for a while.”

As if speaking from the same script — and perhaps it was, though created off any traceable stage — Mark Slaby exulted on his Facebook page that “people are on top of the organizational chart” (my emphasis), likening it to the American Revolution. “Our forefathers rose up and broke away from a government that did not listen. Lost on no one should be the total of votes (I) received — 1776 — symbolic of those before us who in 1776 said ‘Enough!’”

And then, marching resolutely to that revolutionary drumbeat, the new council’s first 100 days created a bloodbath in City Hall that saw the replacement of its 10-year city attorney and the forced resignation of its new city manager and its 23-year planning director, experienced professionals whose collective fault was just that. Also in their wake other city employees left — the chief information officer, the assistant planning manager, a budget staffer also in the planning department. These actions ripped massive holes in the city’s central operation which to this day keep things limping along while the economic development clock keeps ticking away.

The agenda Mayor Girone, Mark Slaby and Laurie Tillett brought with them was not outlined for either staff or citizens. Only now, looking back at council meetings from last November, do the outlines become clearer.

If this was what voters were asking for, they were of a single and ambitious mind. Repeatedly Mark Slaby has mentioned those constituents in his council comments as justification for adding agenda items ranging from review of legal services, restructuring code enforcement and submitting purchasing decisions to greater legal review.

He’s suggested that he rode into office on shoulders of those angry villagers who storm the castle with their pitchforks — but substitute the word “handlers” for “constituents,” and the source of his agenda perhaps makes more sense.

In their first council meeting last Nov. 15, the new council promptly named 11 of their chosen to citizen committees without allowing other citizens to apply, over-filling the quasi-judicial planning and zoning committee (on which already sat a former council member and editor of the news site which so vigilantly engineered the election outcome). They bickered then with the city attorney over rules of procedure (as in how to call a “shade” meeting over the Medallion suit) and with the city manager about eliminating the deputy city manager position which Mark Reggentin was holding (thereby getting rid of him).

Lauren Ritchie — ever the watchdog of this council’s awkward and aggressive performance these past nine months, to the annoyance of those in town not favorable to a professional journalist’s scrutiny — was quick to take council to task for what she saw a disturbing attitude of the new council members toward staff. She wrote in a Nov. 18 column,

Most troubling, however, was the council’s obvious distrust and dislike of the city’s staff, including (former city manager Vincent) Pastue, who clearly has a nuanced and deep understanding of the community and has done a solid job amidst recent political bickering.
“I’ve never had a situation arise where someone has expressed such public distrust with me as a manager,” Pastue remarked Wednesday while discussing how agendas should be created.

Mount Dora News— a local website dedicated to “Shining A Light On Citcy Government’ which has since folded—responded with their own broadside titled, “What The Sam Hill Happened at The Council Meeting.” In it, editor Glenna Burch placed the fault squarely on the new council’s intended target. “CITY STAFF misstepped on the first meeting of the new council where four of seven members are newly elected,” she wrote, saying that it was city attorney Shepard who caused all the errors due to his absence at the meeting.

(Although the Mount Dora News website ceased operation without explanation earlier this summer, posts are still available through archives. The site’s Facebook page was renamed “Shout Out Mount Dora,” and Burch still occationally posts to it.)

Council assembles for a group portrait at their Dec. 1 meeting. Bottom row: Ed Rowlett, Nick Girone, Marie Rich; top row, Mark Crail, Laurie Tillett, Mark Slaby, Cal Rolfson.

At the Dec. 1 meeting, Mr. Slaby took issue with the process by which the council’s policy book had been written, citing criticism by several U.S. Supreme Court justices that the federal legislative branch was ceding too much power to the executive branch. “I might be full of it,” he said, “but council is giving too much power to city staff.”

At the same meeting, Slaby motioned to fire outright city attorney Cliff Shepard, adding, “this is about fresh eyes to look at the city.” Cal Rolfson was appalled. “It is legally dangerous for us to do this,” he said. “We should not risk the legal issues of 13,000 citizens because of campaign promises.” After furious public comment, Slaby amended his motion to remove the discharge language and instead call for review of attorney services within 90 days—a process which ultimately saw the city’s attorney for the past 10 years replaced by one of far less experience.

Tensions grew between newly-hired city manager Vincent Pastue and Mayor Girone. He was frustrated that his skills as a strong city manager were not wanted and that his judgment was in question. (One bone of contention, offered up by Mark Slaby, that council should decide the meeting agenda and not the city manager.) Pastue’s extensive analysis of city operations (known as the “SWOT” memo) went unaddressed.

But what prompted Pastue to take action was that City Hall staffers were going to Human Resources concerned for their jobs. Rumors of “big changes” were directly affecting morale.

Concerned about his employees’ welfare, Pastue announced at council’s Jan. 19 meeting that he would resign unless the mayor and council work revise its working relationship with him. Furthermore, he said attempts to pressure him into terminating deputy city manager Mark Reggentin had to stop.

Girone was prepared to accept Pastue’s resignation on the spot, but councilmen Crail and Rolfson interceded for more deliberation and comment from the community. A special council meeting was scheduled in the community center on Jan. 26 .

Alarmed at the speed of developments, more than 100 citizens met several days after to discuss what was happening and examine ways to get involved, including a recall election of Mayor Girone.

On Jan. 26, the community center was packed with both supporters of Pastue and those on council who were happy to see him go.

Supporters for Vicent Pastue at council’s Jan. 26 meeting in the community center.

At that meeting, Pastue again reiterated his frustration over “the lack and trust in my ability as a manager,” adding this pointed reminder that the center of power in Mount Dora be somewhere outside City Hall:

There are outside influences other than those in the manager’s office and the city attorney that affect council decisions. It is hard for me to develop a cohesive council-city manager relationship when that environment exists.

Girone weighed in on the controversy with a written statement that was likely delivered to him by those same “outside influences”:

The charter and the city’s organization chart show us, the city council, works for the citizens. It also shows us the city manager works for the council, and not the reverse. Our form of government defined in the charter is the COUNCIL — Manager form of government with all powers of the City vested in the elected City Council. According to the Florida League of Cities training & manuals prepared for elected officials, that form of government is defined as a council hiring a professional administrator for implementation of policies.

Despite the vocal support for Pastue and Reggentin (mixed, however, by a stinging criticism from opposing members of the community), council voted 4–3 to accept Pastue’s resignation.

At the next council meeting, ex-councilman Ryan Donovan handed council a 200-signature petition asking them to keep Pastue, Reggentin and Shepard. There was never any response.

Vincent Pastue resigned and left City Hall in early March, soon after Mark Reggentin also resigned. On March 15 council fired Cliff Shepard and signed Lonnie Groot on as its new city attorney.

A city council meeting attended by Lonnie Groot while Kim Leinbach was interim city manager.

As I previously reported for the Mount Dora Citizen, since he began last March, Mr. Groot has been busy looking into many aspects of Mount Dora government. One of his first actions was a lengthy analysis of the powers of council and mayor as defined by the city charter. In one section of his May 2 memo to the mayor and council, Groot trained a close beam on the powers of the mayor as sole spokesperson for the city, distinguishing those powers from the city’s public information officer.

Groot has looked into making the city clerk a charter position — which would mean it would be appointed by council and not hired by the city manager — and suggested ways to do this without going through the usual charter review process by citizen committee.

In her Sept. 18 commentary in the Lake Sentinel, Lauren Ritchie reported that Groot is now urging council to add a provision to the city employees’ code of conduct policy that would silence them from expressing their views about council decisions except “in appropriate settings when recommendations are solicited.”

All this leads to the latest development of a complaint that Groot has created hostile workforce environment for one of the city’s department heads. The complaint contends that Groot suggested the manager had violated an ethics provision without offering proof. (Groot wrote Ritchie in a later email that his comment had been misunderstood.) An inquiry to Megan Glass on Sept. 19 about the complaint, she replied that the city is still not able to comment due to the ongoing investigation.

Of course Mr. Groot has undertaken all these things at the direction of the mayor and council; how much they in turn have initiated these reviews at the suggestion of the city’s shadow powers, not much is known. (A June 20, 2016 e-mail from Glenna Burch to Mark Slaby obtained through open records request has her pointing out a discrepancy in the city’s charter and code of ordinances “relative to filling/election to council office.” It was apparently submitted by Slaby to William Colbert for review, because a June 21 memo in the thread has him opining that the charter and code of ordinances should be in agreement — similar to Mr. Groot’s comments in his earlier review.)

Council has stood by Groot and his firm since all this started coming to light, fending off a cost-saving recommendation by a fellow council member to revise the firm’s hourly billing increment to the industry standard and (by Girone) criticizing acting city manager Skip Kerkhof for seeking advice from someone other than the city attorney for concerns about the city attorney’s advice. At that same meeting on Sept. 6, Mark Slaby complained that staff was not responding fast enough to requests from the city attorney.

Laurie Tillett, Mark Slaby at the Sept. 6 council meeting. Attorney William Colbert sits in for Lonnie Groot.

(Second district representative Cal Rolfson deserves the Lone Ranger Award for the singular opposition he has mounted on so many occasions to the unmoving majority’s alignment on decisions which have furthered this new agenda. Hope he enjoyed it — Rolfson is running unopposed for re-election.)

Meanwhile, work continues somehow in City Hall. To date, only the public communications officer has been hired (Megan Glass replaced Kelda Senior), although Robin Hayes, Mount Dora’s new city manager is supposed to start Sept. 26. Interim planning director Vince Sandersfield — one of Reggentin’s former reports — has had to carry the load of three positions all by himself, without any assistance and sitting on seven citizen boards. He said that Planning and Development is now interviewing for the CRA position vacated by Gus Gianikas. As for the planning director job once held by Mark Reggentin, that is supposed to be filled by the new city manager.

Whoever is found to replace these seasoned professionals — Girone complains that the city doesn’t pay enough for good replacements, though it’s more likely that good replacements have no interest in stepping back into the same frying pan — things do not look to improve soon. It’s hoped that new city manager Robin Hayes can do something to intercede on a hurting staff’s behalf, but her inexperience may make this more difficult.

Why the resentment against staff? This has been the most daunting aspect of council’s behavior since last November.

Certainly dirty laundry has accumulated. After the 2008 real estate meltdown, the city struggled for years to balance its books, sometimes robbing Peter to pay Paul out of its varied operating budgets. Cans got kicked down the road, like water utilities rates and debt obligations, which make present budget decisions more difficult. Contractors have complained about a labyrinthine permitting process for jobs.

This is the stuff of correction for sure, but the determined path our present council has cut through City Hall suggests a more personal animosity. In the past, there have been significant run-ins between a former council member and local police regarding code enforcement, and another former council member was outraged that news of 2010 Sunshine Law complaint filed against her and several other council members was leaked to the press from City Hall. Resentment about the city’s working relationship with Main Street Leasing, primarily by Mark Reggentin, ran high.

An Orlando Sentinel My Word commentary submitted by fellow resident Gary McKechnie provides a crypitic clue. It was written after Lauren’s Ritchie’s Nov. 18, 2015 column that took an exasperated look at the “Shining A Light on City Government” council’s first meeting. With near-Pynchonesque opacity, McKechnie lay the fault of Mount Dora’s malaise on a “Peyton Place” City Hall environment of “entrenched alliances, battling factions, conflicting stories, power plays, bruised feelings, whisper campaigns, stubborn grudges, character assassination and, especially at election time, poison-pen letters mailed under a cloak of anonymity.”

As the Mount Dora News was quick to blame staff for the new council’s missteps, McKechnie blamed the messenger for the bad news:

… My hunch is Ritchie is determined to continue her long-running grudge match with the group who felt elected officials, staffers and behind-the-scenes power brokers had long been dismissive, arrogant and unresponsive. This animosity carried over into her column and ignored the very real feelings of citizens who overwhelmingly backed the new council. In fact, in his first remarks Mayor Nick Girone noted that while on the campaign trail the most oft-heard comment was that “council doesn’t care.”

What we still don’t know is where these concerned citizens are, what exactly their beef is with Mount Dora government, and what they specifically intend to do. The list of constituents may actually be quite small, and their animosity quite personal; what is coming apparent is how much City Hall is changing as a result. And with municipal elections becoming far more influenced by gated communities where messages are much more controlled, then it’s very possible for these shadowy brokers will further consolidate its power to legislate from afar.

At least for the departed, things have worked out OK, maybe even for the better. Cliff Shepard was recognized again this year for Florida Trend’s Legal Elite, a list of 1,144 attorneys held in highest regard as professionals by their peers — — lawyers with whom they have personally worked and would recommend to others. Vincent Pastue is now the city manager for Monroe, a Michigan city of 20,000 close the Ohio border. Mark Reggentin is now Apopka’s community development director, working on a hot host of plans for the city which includes an Innovation District-style commercial development south of where Mount Dora’s is planned and a 34-acre city center development that will transform the juncture of State Road 436 and Orange Blossom Trail. Gus Gianikas (the former assistant planning manager) is now a senior planner for Ocala.

Mount Dora’s new city manager Robin Hayes was in the peanut gallery for council’s Sept. 6 meeting, and took a bow when she was introduced.

Everyone’s hoping that the Robin Hayes, the new city manager who starts on Sept. 26, will be a balancing force again in City Hall. Hayes however has no experience as a city manager, selected by city council over other candidates with significantly more time in that job. (Mark Slaby admitted at the July 30 in which she was selected to being one of Hayes’ greatest advocates. In his questioning during the council’s group interviews with the candidates, he asked about her experience outsourcing municipal services.)

Lord knows the staffers who make Someplace Special work deserve a strong advocate in City Hall.

—David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

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