Is Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon captain of a sinking ship?
That was the analogy given by Vice Mayor Janie Robertson during a March 6 city commission meeting centered around a discussion on how much power the charter allows for the mayor.
In late February, city attorney Ricinda Perry launched a discussion on setting policies surrounding the city’s power structure. She said the discussion was coincidental to a lawsuit filed against the mayor about a month ago for abuse of power.
The suit alleges Shearon threatened employees with their jobs if they failed to provide evidence to sway the commission to deny a joint development agreement with The BeachHouse restaurant to build a dune and parking lot across from city hall.
Shearon was one of three people who sued the city to have the agreement nullified, but withdrew from the lawsuit after winning the November municipal election.
Shearon said because of the lawsuit alleging his abuse of power, he could not continue in the current manner to operate the city until the commission acted on policies that would delegate his authority to deal with department heads, staff and contractors.
Perry was directed two weeks prior to draft a policy that would better define the city’s mayoral system, which she previously said is somewhere between a strong and weak form of governance.
During the March 6 meeting, she expressed frustration over the lack of input from some elected officials and virtually all the department heads into her queries.
“Unfortunately I don’t have anything to provide a draft policy for the commission,” said Perry. “What I’m getting is different directions.”
Perry said some officials feel the mayor should be granted broader authority and some do not.
“So there is a split on how much authority can be written and incorporated into the charter,” said Perry. “With respect to the department heads, I have no feedback. They feel their job descriptions are clear and don’t have anything to contribute.”
Perry said the problem is that some department heads have taken on too much responsibility and, “that’s what the mayor is trying to sort out. It’s a who’s on first and what’s on second situation.”
Shearon said he was hoping for more feedback, although he expressed his own opinion of his role as mayor.
“The way I see it is that the commission owns the yacht and the mayor is the captain,” he said. “The commission says where the boat is going and it’s up to the captain to determine how to get there.”
Shearon encouraged the commission to be involved with department heads, “But there has to be one captain to direct the ship. Right now, it’s taking on water and I’m trying to run a ship with one arm tied behind my back.”
Shearon said he wasn’t making a power grab, rather trying to establish policy that clearly gives him the authority he feels he already has under the charter, “to be the executive head and run this city in the way I was elected to do. Do you want me to run the ship or do you want to direct me on how to run the ship?”
Commissioner Ed Straight reminded the mayor that everyone on the dais was elected to perform a duty. He said there are things the commission should not give up, and that includes the termination and hiring of department heads. He also said the mayor should not be so intricately involved to the point he finds himself in a voting situation that he had a hand in creating.
Commissioner Jack Clarke said no one was doubting the competence of Shearon, “however, there are two branches of government here.”
Robertson supported giving the mayor more responsibility, saying it was a good idea to have one person responsible and accountable.
“If you don’t have that one person being accountable, what happens is people start pointing fingers,” she said.
She said emergencies should be handled by the commission, but that the mayor should be freed up to handle the day-to-day administrative duties of the city without having to wait on the commission.
Commissioner Jan Vosburgh disagreed. She said she has always taken problems from constituents straight to department heads.
“I don’t feel like everything needs to go through the mayor,” she said. “I think that’s unproductive.”
Vosburgh agreed with Straight that the mayor should not have the sole responsibility to hire and fire department heads, staff or contractors.
“The way I read the charter is we do not have a strong-mayor charter,” she said.
Perry pushed for direction from commissioners and asked if she should continue to draft the new policy. If so, she said she would need a commissioner to act as a liaison to the process and suggested also drafting an opposing policy to satisfy commissioners.
Shearon said it was fine to move forward with drafting two policies for commission review, but also that he saw the writing on the wall.
“I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but I’ll just wait for someone to come up with some direction for me,” he said. “Right now, I don’t have any. I can’t be comfortable making day-to-day decisions in this situation.”
Shearon then asked for temporary power until a policy was reviewed, but did not get a response from the commission.
Robertson did say she believes the mayor is the one person that can “put the cork back into the sinking boat. We are a sinking boat right now,” referring to what most of the commission expects will be bad results from an ongoing audit.
Clarke volunteered to be the liaison to Perry’s attempt at drafting a policy and the commission provided a consensus to move forward.
Shearon wasn’t pleased by meeting’s end.
“I’m still in the same place I was three weeks ago and now I’m facing a lawsuit,” he said. “I’m over it. I don’t have clear directions, so my plans to move the city in a direction is a case of, I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.”
Shearon said he was not threatening the commission, “but until I have some direction, I have to refocus the way I’m doing things. I can’t work any other way.”