In a 4-1 vote, the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council on Tuesday invoked its option to extend its current contract with Underwood Management Services Group after its choice for a new management firm backed out.
Two weeks ago, the council chose Severn Trent, a large, multi-national firm with a local office in Coral Springs, to replace Underwood. The firm removed itself from the running last week, citing possible conflicts of interest and a lack of support from residents.
Severn Trent was one of only two respondents to a recent request for proposals. The other applicant, Royal Ascot Estates resident Larry Tibbs, was deemed unqualified for the job because he is not a certified manager, as required by the town’s charter.
Underwood chose not to participate in the RFP process.
Councilman Tom Goltzené made a motion to reject the bids and act on the council’s option to renew its contract with Underwood.
Councilman Jim Rockett was the sole opponent to retaining Underwood. It was his opinion that all options had not been explored to find a new management team, pointing out that the council had not inquired with the International City/County Management Association for possible candidates.
“We have the option to go to ICMA and ask if they have an opinion to offer,” Rockett said. “I would have asked for that information if we had not gotten a commitment from Severn Trent.”
Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel said he was disappointed that Severn Trent had backed out.
“They backpedaled,” he said. “I think they acted unprofessionally.”
During public comment, Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association Vice President Virginia Standish read a letter from LGLA President Marge Herzog that she had been asked to write by the LGLA, explaining that they had a long discussion at their Aug. 27 meeting and decided to ask the council to extend Underwood’s contract for at least another year.
“That would give the council more time to respond to an RFP,” Standish said, reading from the letter.
LGLA members also expressed concern that the town’s position was made more precarious because its legal firm, Goren, Cherof, Doody & Ezrol, had recently announced its resignation.
Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Supervisor John Ryan, who had favored the town hiring Severn Trent, gave the council papers to receive and file, highlighting portions of the management contract, along with the town’s procedures manual and a report of the Financial Advisory & Audit Committee (FAAC) outlining the duties of the management company.
“These excerpts are a reminder of what is expected of the town manager,” Ryan said. “We all hope to go forward in a positive and constructive manner.”
Resident Tim Hart-Woods thanked the council for considering Underwood. “We might just be going in the right direction tonight,” Hart-Woods said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Resident Todd McLendon also urged the council to keep Underwood.
“The best thing Severn Trent did was back out,” McLendon said. “A wise man changes his mind.”
Recently elected LGWCD Supervisor Laura Danowski urged the council to listen to numerous residents who had spoken in favor of keeping Underwood.
“I love it here,” Danowski said. “We live in a space that allows us to do many different things. We need to stop the division. We live in a country where everybody can be heard.”
Resident Joyce Batcheler pointed out that the council had been ready to hire Severn Trent at a higher rate, although it had cited saving money as the reason for seeking new proposals. She also did not like that Severn Trent had been hired without revealing who the town manager would be.
“I agree it should be civil on all sides,” Batcheler said.
Pointing out that both Jarriel and Mayor Dave Browning asked her to serve on committees, Batcheler took objection to being dismissed by the council as a dissident.
“I care about the town,” she said. “I should not be regarded as someone who disagrees with everything the town does.”
Batcheler thanked the council for the positive things it has done, including controlling manure hauling, increasing police coverage and getting illegal campgrounds shut down.
But Rockett said the current management company had not followed the rules, most recently postponing an FAAC meeting, which he said the management company is not authorized to do. “There may come a time when we see an analysis,” he said. “My general concern with continuing with the current management team is what may happen. We seem to make up rules and ignore ones that we have. The difficult thing for me is that I really like the team, but when they take actions that I feel are incorrect, I cannot support them.”
Goltzené’s motion to retain Underwood carried 4-1, with Rockett opposed.