Strong mayor or strong-arm mayor? That is the question.
City officials conducted a rare review of their responsibilities at a Feb. 26 special meeting on the heels of a lawsuit filed by ELRA Inc., the corporate entity for Ed Chiles’ BeachHouse Restaurant, against Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon. The suit alleges the mayor has overstepped his authority, and threatened staff with their jobs if they fail to present evidence favoring his opinion to nullify a joint development agreement between ELRA and the city.
The agreement is for construction of a parking lot and dune at the restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., across from city hall.
The agreement for the parking lot is being challenged in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 by former planning and zoning board member Jo Ann Meilner and Tjet Martin, Shearon’s longtime partner.
Shearon also was a plaintiff in the lawsuit until winning the November 2013 municipal election, at which time he withdrew his name from the complaint and pledged he would refrain from further involvement.
The lawsuit alleges whistleblowers have come forward and warns Shearon that any attempt to find out who is talking would be met with further legal action.
One of ELRA’s arguments is that Shearon is acting like a “strong mayor,” a legitimate form of municipal government where a voting mayor wields the bulk of power.
Determining Bradenton Beach’s definition of government was part of the Feb. 26 meeting.
Because ELRA’s attorney, Robert Lincoln, was present at the meeting, requesting commissioners review certain criteria, Commissioner Ed Straight was prompted to ask what others were likely thinking.
“Does this meeting have anything to do with the lawsuit?” he asked.
“The timing is ironic,” said city attorney Ricinda Perry, whose email communications with Shearon were included by Lincoln as a point of concern.
In a Feb. 1 email that is lawsuit-related, Shearon expressed disappointment that Perry had not followed his instructions regarding an undisclosed legal matter.
Shearon said her role in the city under the prior administration is no longer the same.
“As you have learned … prior administration and staff have made poor decisions that have to be corrected,” Shearon wrote. “As mayor, I make the final decisions unless overruled by the commission.”
Shearon continued, “I want you to move forward with the city as long as you respect my decisions.”
Shearon went on to say that he encourages Perry to re-evaluate how things were done in the past and “work with me in the future.”
While Perry said the timing of the meeting could be construed as “ironic,” it had been on her radar before the lawsuit against Shearon was filed.
“The city needs organization and that has been the mayor’s objective,” said Perry. “To a degree, the suit does point to some concerns being brought to you today.”
Perry began to break down the roles of city officials, explaining that Shearon is the executive branch and the commission is the legislative branch over five department heads and remaining city staff.
Perry said the charter has the city somewhere between strong and weak mayor governments.
There needs to be a more definitive authority role for determining the power structure, she said.
She asked who is responsible for the performance of the department heads, who is analyzing the problems and who do they report to, as examples.
“Who provides staff reports, deadlines and manages priorities?” she asked.
Perry said the current “in-between government” of Bradenton Beach makes it possible “to push the mayor into a liability corner,” and dual roles could present legal challenges.
The goal, she said, is to relieve the mayor of some responsibility to avoid those types of problems, “and just let him be mayor.”
The discussion turned to department heads and who would act as an authority to each department.
The suggestion was to have commissioners rotate responsibility for an individual department, but Shearon said that would create too many bosses.
He said it would be counterproductive to his “team concept.”
Commissioner Jack Clarke expanded on his suggestion, saying it was his intention commissioners would be “conduits to the mayor,” not supervisors.
A consensus was given to the city attorney to draft a resolution that implements the suggested system.
Officials preferred a resolution because it would be easier to change should a future administration wish to manage the city differently.
In other matters, the commission was divided on spending to update city electronics and software.
A request was made to purchase 11 computers to put departments on the same system and update 10-year-old, expiring software. The estimated cost is $25,000.
Commissioner Jan Vosburgh, who has repeatedly expressed concern at the rate the city is spending unbudgeted funds, again protested.
“I’m very nervous about how much the city is spending,” she said. “We can only spend what we have.”
Clarke agreed, but offered an alternative plan to only replace what was deemed to be an emergency and address the remainder in the next budget.
Shearon said the city can no longer bandage its problems. When technical support ends for the city’s software April 1, “the building department will be dead in the water. We are using a software company that went broke years ago. This is an emergency.”
Shearon said he is fiscally conservative, “but staff has to have the tools to get the job done.”
Vosburgh disagreed. “If this was my business, I wouldn’t be putting myself into this big of a hole,” she said.
After discussing taking the funds from the city’s $1 million reserves, commissioners voted 3-2 to spend up to $25,000 for new equipment. Vosburgh and Clarke voted against the proposal.
Another $10,000 was approved for an electronic data storage system. Clarke and Vosburgh dissented again, but the matter passed 3-2.