Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District supervisors Tuesday appointed Loxahatchee Groves Councilman Jim Rockett to negotiate a new contract with LGWCD Administrator Clete Saunier.
Under the arrangement, supervisors would provide input through the district’s legal staff and forward it to Rockett. Saunier said he preferred to avoid public discussion of his contract before a final settlement is reached.
Saunier’s 2003 contract was for $80,000 a year with an automatic 3 percent annual increase each October, plus benefits. Nine years later that has translated to a base salary of approximately $122,800, which rises has high as $176,000 once benefits are included, according to various district sources.
Supervisor Don Widing had been named at the board’s last meeting to review Saunier’s contract, and a question arose for legal staff whether it was appropriate for a board member to negotiate. Other supervisors desired to provide input, but it was deemed inappropriate under Sunshine Law provisions.
“My concern was issues with Sunshine, and I’d like legal staff to give us interpretations of whether it applies or not,” Widing said.
LGWCD Attorney Mary Viator said the Sunshine Law permits a person or entity to discuss contracts outside the law’s purview as far as information-gathering goes.
“These discussions could then be relayed back to the entire board for consideration,” Viator said. “That type of meeting would not be subject to the Sunshine Law.”
Viator said it is OK for Widing to discuss the contract with Saunier, but they must be careful how it is done. “Mr. Widing would not be the one who would sit down and discuss all the options, and determine those options with that particular employee,” she said.
Supervisor Frank Schiola said he thought the other supervisors’ hands were tied as far as providing their thoughts about the contract.
Widing said the contract had been in effect for almost 10 years and was drafted under conditions of unrest within the district.
“The district was trying to move forward with some professional engineering, and to secure the contract. What was agreed to was a contract that by today’s standards probably has very limited protection for the district,” he said, adding that financial liabilities in the event Saunier were to be dismissed are substantial.
Widing pointed out that if Saunier were terminated, the district would be bound to pay the equivalent of 15 months’ compensation.
Supervisor John Ryan said his understanding was that Widing would meet with Saunier, then board members would review the results and meet individually with Saunier regarding changes they thought appropriate.
“That would be done between this meeting and the September meeting,” Ryan said. “At that time we would get into discussion of details of how the contract would be addressed.”
Ryan said that it is a clumsy process that no one is comfortable with. He suggested a closed-door session, but Schiola said he would prefer to have public discussion of the contract.
“I don’t see the reason for not including the contract on the agenda,” he said, pointing out the outcome of the town’s recent executive sessions with Callery-Judge Grove, which resulted in stalemate and numerous complaints from residents. “I’m for keeping this in the public eye. The public has the right to know what the manager is making.”
Schiola added that he was looking for significant reductions in the contract.
Supervisor Robert Snowball said he would like someone not on the board to negotiate with Saunier. “I would like to get a volunteer from the public to go to Clete and negotiate,” he said. “I don’t want to discuss this in front of a bunch of people.”
Ryan suggested Rockett, who has experience at employee negotiations in the private sector. “If we go to a member of the public, I think Jim Rockett would be the solution,” Ryan said. “The contract will involve significant changes. We have to face up to the cost of doing that and rely on Clete’s continued interest in doing that.”
During public comment, Rockett said he would put aside his opinions of employment agreements during negotiations but that he felt that all salaries need to be predictable and controllable.
“There should be no such thing as an automatic increase,” Rockett said. “It should be based on some measurable method. It is unimaginable in my mind for an administrator to be making more than $100,000 with comp time over 40 hours.”
Rockett said he also was opposed to carryover of annual leave and company car use for personal business. “This contract is far too lucrative,” he said.
Resident Lung Chiu, who is also the Palm Beach County School District’s new inspector general, pointed out that his contract negotiations were done in a public meeting by the school board.
“My contract was discussed openly, page by page,” Chiu said. “Don’t worry about discussion in public. I agree there should be public discussion.”
Town Councilman Ron Jarriel said he favored Ryan’s recommendation to appoint Rockett. “Responsibilities of the district have changed,” Jarriel said. “If Jim is willing to volunteer, it gives all of you the opportunity to communicate with him.”
Saunier said he has thoroughly enjoyed working for the district and never felt his position was unsafe.
“In many respects, I still feel that way,” he said. “The provisions of my contract were developed over a number of years.”
Saunier pointed out that he has not exercised all the provisions of his contract, such as a new car every three years.
“The last car I had had 117,000 miles and was seven years old,” he said.
He added that the district has always come in under budget during his tenure. “We have accomplished more in the past 15 years than the previous 85 years,” Saunier said.
Saunier said he has reservations about negotiating with Rockett, considering Rockett’s views on employee contracts. “God bless Mr. Rockett, but he has stated some strong things that he said should be in my contract,” Saunier said, adding that he would prefer a politically disinterested consultant.
Ryan said he has no confidence in finding an outside consultant and made a motion to have Rockett discuss the contract with Saunier.
“Mr. Rockett brings character and experience and does not have preconceived notions,” Ryan said. “We might decide not to go with what he recommends, but that’s a reasonable and efficient way to proceed.”
Rockett said he would agree to volunteer, adding that his comments that evening were public input. “My job would be to take your recommendations as board members,” he said.
The motion carried 4-0, with Chairman David DeMarois absent.
Saunier’s current contract expires Nov. 14.