By Joe Capozzi
Less than two weeks before an election that could shift the balance of power on the Town Commission, three top Ocean Ridge officials are on their way out.
Interim Town Manager Lynne Ladner will not get the full-time position, a job for which the commission chose her in January, because of concerns by three commissioners that she has aligned herself with a faction of two commissioners and their community supporters.
Police Chief Richard Jones will leave by May 11 after agreeing to take the chief’s job in Gulf Stream. And building official Durrani Guy submitted his two-week notice on Feb. 27. Two other Town Hall employees have left since the beginning of the year.
Although Ladner agreed to stay on as interim manager for another 90 days while the town conducts what will be a third search for a top administrator, she will not be considered for the full-time job, a divided commission decided Feb. 27.
The margin was 3-2, with commissioners Geoff Pugh and Steve Coz on the losing end of a vote to finalize her contract as intended.
The backdrop of the three departures is the March 14 election, when Mayor Susan Hurlburt, Commissioner Martin Wiescholek and resident Carolyn Cassidy are running for two seats. Cassidy has been endorsed by Pugh and Coz, a pair that has been on the short end of votes by a majority made up of Hurlburt, Wiescholek and Vice Mayor Kristine de Haseth.
Among Cassidy’s campaign pledges is to overhaul the building department, a mandate that has been echoed by Pugh and Coz and has prompted concern by employees at Town Hall.
The latest turmoil came to a head at the commission’s special meeting Feb. 27 to consider Ladner’s contract, an agenda item that would’ve been routine if not for behind-the-scenes communications Ladner had with Pugh and Coz in recent weeks about whether Jones should leave before May 11. Jones submitted his resignation Feb. 10 and under terms of his contract must give 90 days’ advance notice before he leaves.
Those communications came to light in an email Wiescholek said he mistakenly sent to fellow commissioners in late February about “serious second thoughts” he had about hiring Ladner.
In the email, which was meant only for Colin Baenziger, a recruiter hired to help commissioners find a manager, Wiescholek said he was concerned that Ladner “had been influenced by two commissioners to immediately fire chief Jones.’’
Wiescholek based his concerns on information shared with him by Jones about conversations the chief had with Ladner two days after he announced his resignation.
Although Wiescholek’s email never identified the two commissioners, it was made clear Feb. 27, when the email was dissected in a public meeting, that he was referring to Pugh and Coz.
Pugh and Coz said they spoke individually to Ladner about whether it made sense to let Jones leave before May 11 and replace him with an interim chief. But they said they did not pressure her to terminate Jones.
“I’ve never had a conversation with Lynne about terminating a police chief,’’ Coz said. “I would never have that conversation. It’s ludicrous. Somehow this entire collusion with myself and Geoff and Lynne grew out of fantasy. It doesn’t exist.’’
Jones, however, had a different take on his conversation with Ladner.
Two days after he announced his resignation, “I received some text messages from the town manager indicating that a resident in town had chosen who the next police chief should be,’’ Jones said without elaborating.
A day after that, a Monday, Ladner came into Jones’ office. “I was then informed that the commission wished for me to leave early. At this point I go, ‘The commission?’ It was clarified, ‘at least two commissioners,’’’ the chief said.
Jones said he was not told, nor did he ask, the names of the two commissioners.
Before Jones described his conversations with Ladner, Vice Mayor de Haseth said she believed the interim town manager had “aligned herself” with “select commissioners” and “a small faction in this town.’’
Ladner also “has exhibited questionable behavior,’’ de Haseth said, explaining how she warned Ladner in her early days as interim manager to be careful about information she receives from town residents.
“And she told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. I secretly record conversations with residents on a regular basis.’ To which I said, ‘I do believe that is illegal,’’’ de Haseth said.
Although de Haseth said Ladner told her the recordings “helped her create notes later,’’ she said Ladner was “counseled” by the chief and town attorney not to record residents without their consent and knowledge.
Ladner said, “When I found out that Florida was a two-party recording state, I had not made any recordings to record my meetings, I made sure to take only handwritten notes.’’
Before coming to Ocean Ridge, Ladner held management and consulting positions in Pinellas County and Pahokee government.
As for her conversations with Pugh and Coz, Ladner said she told them her intention was for Jones to stay as long as he could and help find his replacement. She also said she asked the town attorney about “the cost implications” if the town let Jones leave before the 90-day departure period outlined in his contract.
Ladner was set to get a $142,500 salary in her contract; an earlier version called for her to get $155,000. Ocean Ridge’s previous town manager, Tracey Stevens, was making $132,500 when she left Sept. 11 to become town manager in Haverhill.
Not only is the town back to square one on finding a town manager, it also has to find a new police chief and a new building official.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to retain Ladner for another 90 days while they find a new interim or full-time manager.
“What I see pretty much is a vote of no confidence” in Ladner, said Hurlburt, who called for an end to the “micromanagement” of Town Hall from outside sources.
“This latest incident is being used by a minority of residents as another political football. Ocean Ridge should be operating with good governance as the priority, not a stage for folks with personal axes to grind,’’ the mayor said.
“These power plays are doing harm to Ocean Ridge and I’m concerned our town manager might have played right into it.’’
Pugh and Coz also took issue with language in Wiescholek’s email that described “two commissioners who are dead set on burning down this town.’’
Wiescholek apologized to both commissioners for his choice of words in the email.
The meeting was interrupted multiple times, prompting the mayor to call three separate recesses, when a few of the 40 residents in the audience shouted at commissioners.