After much discussion at a special meeting Tuesday, Jan. 30, the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council hired former Palm Beach County League of Cities Executive Director James Titcomb, currently manager of the Town of Ocean Ridge, as its new town manager.
In a separate resolution, the council also approved the transition of Underwood Management Services Group out of its current contract management position.
Consideration of the hiring of Titcomb came about as a result of a discussion led by Councilwoman Anita Kane earlier this month after chatting with Titcomb at a recent event.
Kane said she has received criticism that the council had not gone through a formal request for qualifications (RFQ) process before hiring Titcomb, but Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said the town does not have a set process for hiring a manager. “You have the right to hire a manager as you see fit,” Cirullo said.
Councilman David DeMarois asked if a background check had been done on Titcomb, and Cirullo said the hiring could be subject to a background check. Titcomb said he has a full background check from the Town of Ocean Ridge that can be made available to Loxahatchee Groves.
Titcomb noted that he has been in government for 25 years, including 13 years as executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, where he helped steer the town through the incorporation process.
“This is an interesting situation, and I look forward to it,” Titcomb said, also thanking Town Manager Bill Underwood for his service.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia asked Titcomb what he felt are the most urgent issues for the town.
“We’ve been a town for over 12 years now,” Maniglia said. “What would be your initial move as manager?”
Titcomb said that the town currently has a lot of competing interests that will require attention.
“I haven’t looked at all the parts and pieces of what you do have in place in terms of priorities,” he said. “I’ve looked at your charter, and I’ve looked at your code, to start to build that understanding of what’s important to the town.”
He said he has heard the concerns of equestrians, development and agricultural interests.
“There are obviously other concerns, such as the condition of the roads and the drainage,” Titcomb said. “You may remember, when we incorporated the town, those who worked with me and worked with the committee back then, one of the visions at that point was that eventually, the water control district and the town would merge, and they would work together to address some of those issues. I believe that has occurred, so that is a check in the positive for the town.”
Titcomb pointed out that there are still many infrastructure issues.
“I’m sure there are funding capacity issues for those infrastructural needs, and then there are competing interests as to what is the most important priority,” he said.
Maniglia said roads are the main issue right now, and Titcomb agreed.
“What I gather from looking at the minutes and the information that comes out of the media… there is a deep list of needs in terms of improving the roads and improving the drainage,” Titcomb said. “In addition, there are other sources you can partner with for low-cost funding and grants.”
Maniglia asked Titcomb if he has been successful in raising funding for roads, and he said he resurrected Ocean Ridge’s road paving program and has gained funding and grants for other municipalities, adding that he has worked at the local, state and federal level to get funding.
Maniglia said residents have told her that they are concerned about Titcomb’s financial skills, but he replied that the communities where he worked had issue-free audits and that he has been through successful inspector general audits.
DeMarois commented that Titcomb had worked for quite a few municipalities over the years.
Titcomb said in Boynton Beach, where he lives, he was an elected commissioner, and he left office due to term limits. After that, he was executive director of the League of Cities for 13 years, and ran an advertising business, before deciding to pursue a management job. His first position with the Village of North Palm Beach did not last long, about seven months, but he felt it was going well, from his perspective. “The council decided it wasn’t working out,” Titcomb said.
Then, the mayor of the Town of Lake Park asked him to serve as interim manager, replacing the town’s longtime manager.
“They asked me to stay, but I turned them down,” Titcomb said. “I left the town with a standing ovation and a proclamation.”
He then went to CareerSource of Palm Beach County as chairman of the board of directors before being contacted by the Town of Melbourne Beach, where he spent two years as manager.
“It was a 140-mile commute,” Titcomb said. “I wanted to come back to Palm Beach County. I decided to give notice.”
He was then hired by the Town of Ocean Ridge, where he is now.
DeMarois cited news stories about his separation from North Palm Beach regarding low staff morale and a severance pay agreement. Titcomb said that with his separation agreement, he signed a non-disclosure statement, and he was restrained from commenting on the cause.
“If you talk to any of my employees, I hold people accountable, and when I find ill goings on, when certain employees don’t like me, it’s because they are on the wrong side of my saber,” Titcomb said.
DeMarois cited a news story where a councilman had said that his budgets are hard to understand.
“I’ve been doing budgets for more than 40 years,” Titcomb said. “Sometimes you address different practices. There are no problems in the town where I’m working.”
Mayor Dave Browning pointed out that council members are elected sometimes with no knowledge about government. “It’s not surprising that a council member would say it’s hard to understand the budget,” he said.
DeMarois also brought up Loxahatchee Groves’ current issue with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office that needs to be resolved, possibly to the point of creating its own police force. Titcomb pointed out that Ocean Ridge has its own police force and that the police chief, as well as the director of planning and zoning, had chosen to attend the meeting that evening in his support, although they were disappointed that he plans to leave Ocean Ridge.
DeMarois pointed out other issues in Loxahatchee Groves, including roads, canals, garbage issues, a shortage of money and the possibility that three council positions could potentially change in the election next month.
“We’re in a crisis situation,” DeMarois said.
Titcomb said he was offering to step in fully aware of all those issues. He said that most towns have a five-year plan that changes when priorities change.
“All that is in the context of what you can afford, and cross-checking and making sure you are accomplishing your priorities,” Titcomb said. “There are longstanding issues and big-ticket items that have to be leveraged. That’s an ongoing document process, election after election, that is cross-checked.”
Vice Mayor Todd McLendon said he had no problem with the proposed contract with Titcomb other than the automobile allowance.
“It has 30 days severance,” he said. “I think it’s worth the risk to do a direct hire.”
Titcomb said he was interested in Loxahatchee Groves from a historical perspective and added that he is an expert at bringing people together.
Browning said many residents question that there was no public hearing during the hiring process, but one of the council’s responsibilities is to hire a manager.
“People say they are not involved [in the process], but that is our job,” Browning said.
Maniglia said she had organized a roundtable of residents, some with different perspectives than hers, to discuss the proposed contract, and one individual had favored a one-year term rather than two years.
Kane said people told her they preferred the two-year term because of an assurance of a longer tenure.
Browning said he would not want to see Titcomb leave at the end of a year if his service was going well.
Maniglia added that people at her roundtable had suggested a base salary of $110,000 rather than $125,000, but Titcomb said that is not negotiable, pointing out that $125,000 was less than what the town’s Finance Advisory & Audit Committee had recommended.
Maniglia also asked about an approximately $5,000 a year allowance to attend various professional meetings, including League of Cities meetings, suggesting that Titcomb should spend his time in the town addressing the many issues rather than attending professional meetings.
Titcomb said professional meetings are where he would meet with people who could have sway in getting funding for the town.
“Managers mingling with elected officials is an excellent forum,” he said, adding that the list of organizations looks much longer than it really is, pointing out that many of the meetings are monthly, and the town already has funding in place for the manager to attend them.
DeMarois said residents had told him they felt rather than pay $5,000 to attend meetings, they’d rather see rock on road.
Titcomb said the road situation did not get there overnight, adding that the meeting cost should be budgetary rather than contractual.
Kane said she felt the meetings are the potential links for additional funding and other resources.
“If you hide yourself in a hole, you don’t make these connections,” she said. “I’d hate to not spend $5,000 at the expense of losing $5 million in matching funds.”
Kane had questions about the car allowance and preferred to reduce the $600 allowance to $500. McLendon reiterated that he would prefer paying a mileage allowance based on IRS regulations.
McLendon made the initial motion to appoint Titcomb. The council approved Titcomb’s contract 4-1, with DeMarois opposed, but had to reconsider the contract with mileage rather than a flat car allowance, after McLendon and DeMarois voted against Underwood’s separation agreement, which required four votes, forcing the council to reconsider Titcomb’s contract, which was amended to give mileage reimbursement, rather than a flat $500 a month.
Titcomb will start his new position within 60 days.