Related story: Thrasher returns to public service as interim town manager
By Rich Pollack
By forcing out three town managers in about three years, Highland Beach faces costs — in dollars and in stability — for the high turnover in its top executive position. Since January 2015, when Kathleen Weiser agreed to step down after learning she no longer had support from the majority of commissioners, Highland Beach has paid out an estimated $225,000 in severance packages to Weiser, Beverly Brown and Valerie Oakes, who was fired early last month.
In 2012, Highland Beach spent $215,000 to settle a lawsuit with former Town Manager Dale Sugerman, who claimed the town refused to pay him severance when commissioners did not renew his contract. Sugerman had previously been suspended — with pay — for five months.
People who work with government leaders say high turnover among managers can also have an impact on overall operations of counties, cities and towns.
“The stability gets shaken up — not earthquake level but tremor level,” said Lynn Tipton, executive director emeritus for the Florida City and County Management Association, who was speaking generally, not specifically about Highland Beach. “If the top position changes a lot, employees can feel [leaderless] and projects suffer from a lack of leadership.”
As part of her separation agreement in 2015, Weiser received 20 weeks’ salary, or about $53,000. She said she also received unused sick and vacation time of about $15,000.
Brown, who reached an agreement with the town that allowed her to retire early and receive three months’ salary while not working, estimated she received about $78,000 when she left, including unused sick and vacation time and four months’ health insurance premiums.
Oakes, who was fired with a 3-2 vote last month, said she received more than $53,700 in severance pay, the equivalent of 20 weeks’ pay, and about $15,125 in unused sick and vacation time and $12,000 for health insurance coverage.
Weiser, now Kathleen Meneely, said both Oakes’ termination and her own came after elections changed the commission, which led to a shift in the majority.
In Oakes’ case, Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila — who was elected in March — and commissioners Rhoda Zelniker and Elyse Riesa voted to fire Oakes, while Mayor Carl Feldman and Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman voted against Oakes’ firing.
“When I heard about Valerie, it was almost like déjà vu,” Meneely said.
Both Meneely and Tipton say it’s not uncommon for new commissions or councils to change managers following elections or other changes.
“When there’s an election, it is not unusual for new commissioners to want to choose their own manager, it’s just a manner in how they do it,” said Meneely, who now helps run special government districts on Florida’s west coast. “Those of us in city government know this can happen.”
Tipton said that the average tenure for city or county managers in Florida is about 6.5 years, slightly shorter than the national average of seven years.
Part of that, she said, is because elected officials in many Florida municipalities and counties have shorter terms than in other cities.
“Often the turnover of elected officials equates to turnover with the manager,” Tipton said.
She said internal struggles on commissions might also be a factor in turnover.
“When councils are regularly dismissing managers, it is often indicative of their own turmoil or that the managers haven’t matched their expectations with the right skill sets,” she said.
Both Brown and Sugerman, now the manager in Briny Breezes, said similar factors are in play when a revolving door of town managers exists.
“Something weird happens in [small towns and cities] when someone gets elected,” said Sugerman, who said he is not familiar with the current commission and was speaking in general terms. “It’s like a switch goes on and they suddenly believe they’re an expert. That will run headlong into anyone who is a professional.”
Sugerman said the phenomenon is not unique to Highland Beach, but may be enhanced by the fact that it is an affluent community with a large retiree base.
Brown said during her tenure as manager, she worked with a commission that didn’t fully understand the role of the manager as the person who runs the day-to-day operation and the role of the commission as a policy-making board.
“I believe elected officials didn’t and still don’t understand their roles,” she said. “That leads to confrontations between managers and commission members. There are some who believe once they get elected, they can control everything that goes on.”
Riesa, who was elected after Meneely and Brown left and after Oakes was hired, thinks there may be another reason for the turnover.
She points out that both Brown and Oakes were town clerks before being promoted to city manager without a search for other candidates.
“They were not compared to any other candidates,” Riesa said. “We have no idea what we could have gotten from a qualified pool.”
She thinks some of the turnover could have been avoided had the town done a better job of filling the position.
“In the end the town lost money spent unnecessarily for severance and the time wasted would not have been necessary if commissioners initially did things correctly,” Riesa said.
She said she is pushing for a nationwide search that will give Highland Beach the best possible manager. In the interim, former Gulf Stream manager Bill Thrasher is doing the job.
“I want to be sure we find the best and brightest candidate with the perfect leadership capabilities to take our town into the future,” Riesa said.