By Rich Pollack
Just weeks after praising Town Manager Valerie Oakes’ performance and giving her a raise, Highland Beach town commissioners voted at their meeting May 1 to fire her, effective immediately.
In a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Carl Feldman and Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman dissenting, commissioners agreed to terminate Oakes’ contract, which paid her a base of $139,000 a year plus benefits.
“I personally have lost confidence in our town manager,” Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said. “I think it’s time for new leadership at the top.”
Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila, who was elected to the commission in March, agreed with Zelniker, as did Commissioner Elyse Riesa.
“We really need strong, experienced leadership,” Africano Nila said. “I feel it would be the best thing for the town.”
Riesa said she thinks the town needs a manager with more experience than Oakes, 32, a former town clerk, and pointed out that the past two town managers were appointed from the town’s workforce.
“This is about the town and doing what’s right,” she said.
Feldman, who has been on the losing side of several 4-1 votes since the March election, disagreed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Feldman said. “Valerie is a well-respected employee. I’ve never heard a resident complain about her, I’ve never heard employees complain about her.”
Commissioners agreed to have Town Clerk Lanelda Gaskins serve as temporary town manager. Zelniker suggested the town look for a retired city manager who could serve as interim during a search for a new town manager.
The discussion of the town manager’s performance was added to the commission agenda during the opening minutes of the meeting. Few residents in attendance had any idea it would be brought up.
Many of the residents who were at the meeting said they were surprised and upset.
“What they want to do is micromanage the town, and they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Carol Stern, the wife of late Commissioner Lou Stern and a former chair of the town’s planning board. “They’re going to run the town into the toilet.”
Others praised Oakes, who has been popular with employees and with residents.
“She’s been one of the best town managers that I’ve seen,” said resident Tim Burnich, a former chair of the Code Enforcement Board. “We’re going to be looking into a possible recall for certain commissioners.”
Also critical of the commission’s vote was the Rev. D. Brian Horgan, pastor of St. Lucy Catholic Church, who said he received a half dozen calls from residents after news of Oakes’ termination spread.
“To lose Valerie is to lose a very important link in the chain in Highland Beach government,” he said. “She worked tirelessly to build bridges instead of building walls.”
Horgan praised Oakes for serving the town faithfully and admirably.
“It’s almost as if an air of sadness has crept upon us,” he said. “I don’t believe some commissioners are acting in the best interest of the town. There are some that don’t understand the concept of service.”
Horgan said that even before the recent meeting, residents had asked him questions about the commission.
“They see some commissioners acting on a personal agenda,” he said.
Oakes’ firing comes just a few weeks after another surprise personnel move in which commissioners asked that Town Attorney Glen Torcivia be replaced by another member of his law firm, Pam Ryan. Discussion of that issue was also added to the agenda at the beginning of a commission meeting without public notice.
Within minutes of the vote, Oakes had packed up her office and was surrounded by employees as she walked to the parking lot. Some were in tears.
An employee for nine years, Oakes started as a deputy clerk and has been town manager since February 2017, having served as interim town manager after the September 2016 forced departure of then-Town Manager Beverly Brown.
Oakes has a severance clause in her contract that says the town must pay her an estimated $55,000. Also, the town must pay for six months of health insurance and accrued and unused vacation and sick leave.
Oakes said she plans to spend time with her two children before returning to work.
“I’ve truly enjoyed serving the community of Highland Beach for the last nine years,” she said. “I’m proud of the work that’s been accomplished during my time as town manager.”