In a Loxahatchee Groves Town Council workshop session Tuesday, Oct. 30 that was supposed to be a discussion of Town Manager Bill Underwood’s contract, Councilman Dave DeMarois asked that at its next meeting, the council make a request for proposals (RFP) or otherwise talk about finding someone to replace Underwood.
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo reminded the council that the meeting was a workshop where they cannot give specific direction, and that DeMarois might want to include his request in his report at the next meeting.
“If you don’t do it, I’ll do it,” Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said to DeMarois.
Underwood was not at the workshop, which had about 30 people attending who grew angry and started heckling council members after Councilman Todd McLendon, Councilwoman Joyce Batcheler and Mayor Dave Browning voted not to allow public input.
“I don’t think we’d be discussing this contract if the residents didn’t have an issue with this management company,” Maniglia said.
Browning stressed that the meeting was a workshop, and they were not changing anything.
“All we’re discussing is the contract, and really it’s for the future, because we already have a contract that has been signed and executed,” Browning said.
McLendon said that he has heard from the people, and he knows what their concerns are.
“I don’t need to hear it again for the 50th time,” McLendon said. “The only new information is that there are more people who want to quit, who want this town to fail, and that’s not an option. We’re going to continue as a town, and we’re going to move forward in a positive direction. If those people want to contribute in a positive manner, then I’d like to hear from them.”
On Aug. 7, the council, by a 3-2 vote, approved a two-year extension to the management contract, with DeMarois and Maniglia dissenting. At that meeting, Underwood explained that the contract was a transition plan for the town to move toward hiring its own employees, rather than have a contractual form of management.
Maniglia began the conversation about the contract on Tuesday, saying that she did not see the date that the notarized contract was signed, and Cirullo said the date, Sept. 10, was at the top of the contract.
“I think what you’re saying is that the date is not in the notary stamp,” Cirullo said. “I don’t think it affects the validity of the contract.”
Maniglia continued, adding that the management company employs family members, which she considered nepotism. However, Browning said that it is not nepotism because the company is a private firm.
“They’re contractors, they’re not town employees, and there is a world of difference,” Browning said.
Maniglia added that the meeting had been called for 4 p.m. to accommodate staff.
“It appears to me that we are always accommodating staff, yet we are not accommodating the residents and the landowners of this town,” Maniglia said. “This town, for the past eight years, has had nothing but bad news. I would like nothing more than to have good news.”
Maniglia accused the management company of hiring its friends to become employees of the town since it took over the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District.
“We are not going to fall apart overnight if we make a big change,” she said. “There are entities in place that if we need to move on with a new manager or new company, or put out an RFP, we’ve got an assistant manager right now. I say let’s put out an RFP for a manager. Let’s start looking now.”
Browning reminded Maniglia that they were there to discuss the management contract.
“We’re not here to make a motion to dismiss or do anything like that,” he said. “We’re here to review the contract.”
DeMarois pointed out that McLendon was the council member who wanted to address certain items in the contract. “I’d like to hear his part, because he is the one who addressed the issue,” DeMarois said.
McLendon said his reason for wanting to review the contract was that he was tired of seeing Underwood and Maniglia spar at meetings.
“We have enough negativity at these meetings by a very small minority of people in town who want to come and cause trouble,” he said. “We can’t stop that. People are going to want to get up and say the town manager stole a million dollars or he ran off with $200,000 — that’s public comment. They can say everything’s falling apart and we’re going bankrupt, and that’s fine, they have that option to say that. I can’t control that, but I can somewhat control Bill. I’m one of five who can somewhat control him, and I’ve asked him time and time not to spar at these meetings.”
McLendon said he wanted a change so that Underwood does not have to sit at the meetings and hear allegations against him while remaining expressionless. “One of our problems is that the charter requires the town manager to be at our council meetings,” he said.
Maniglia did not appreciate McLendon’s reference to “sparring” with the manager, adding that she and others have been treated disrespectfully by Underwood and his employees. “He does not care for certain people in the town,” she said. “We have a problem in this town, and we need some more professionalism.”
Batcheler said that the council and staff should behave professionally.
“I don’t care if it’s the town manager or if it’s any member of the council,” Batcheler said. “I don’t know why we should be changing anything. We should be behaving as adults, and I’m talking about management, too. You find people every day who don’t get along in a business, but they’re hired to do a job, and we’re hired to do a job as well.”
Batcheler said disrespect in the community has grown to the point of citizens being rude to staff members, council members being rude to potential developers and the community potentially losing the services of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
“We should be coming together and working together for the betterment of the town, and all we do is fight each other all the time and be divisive. We talk about the same things over and over and over,” Batcheler said.
Batcheler added that the council has the ability to terminate the management company any time it wants, but she did not feel now was the time, in light of progress that is starting to show, especially with roads and culverts starting to be repaired.
DeMarois asked if new Assistant Town Manager Francine Ramaglia might be able to step into Underwood’s place, and McLendon said he did not know her well enough yet to make that judgement.
McLendon added that Underwood has taken on several additional duties since becoming the manager, with no increase in pay.
DeMarois, however, said that he feels that the manager has made plenty of money, and he accepted the responsibility. “If he’s not doing the job that the people want, then it’s up to us to give him direction to do that,” he said.
DeMarois favored putting out an RFP for a new manager or management company, but Browning said that he has been involved with RFPs for management several times, and the last time there were only two responses, and one did not meet the qualifications, and the other withdrew its application.
“If we’re going to go forward with that, I don’t know if we need to nitpick and go through this contract,” he said.
Maniglia said that she did not want Underwood involved in the RFP process and preferred that an independent agency oversee it.
“This is a small town,” she said. “We are 12 years old, and we are a diamond in the rough. We need someone who knows how to run the town.”