The town of Fort Myers Beach fired Town Manager Terry Stewart on Jan. 15, sending him packing with a benefit package worth just under $120,000.
Moving into the office at town hall will be Don Stilwell, the man who for 16 years headed Lee County government.
Stewart offered his resignation to Mayor Alan Mandel after a contentious Jan. 10 meeting that saw Stewart yell at a Beach resident who has made allegations over the town granting permits for elevated pools and angrily refuse when Councilman Dan Andre later wanted him to apologize.
Stewart said he’d become a lightning rod before he left his last job in Cape Coral, and Cape staffers had been negatively affected. With a council election looming and the elevated pools issue hot he said he didn’t want the same thing happening again.
With Councilman Bob Raymond out of town Mandel called an emergency meeting Jan. 15, where he asked for a motion to terminate Stewart’s contract cause without according to Section 6.02 of the town charter. The council quickly voted 4-0 to approve, leaving most of the 50 or-so in attendance scratching their heads.
Section 6.02 of the charter outlines procedure for termination without cause, granting the departing manager six months severance. Had Stewart resigned or had the council terminated with cause he would have walked away without severance.
The walk-away package started with six months salary or $60,000. State law caps severance at 20 weeks, but the agreement gave Stewart the equivalent of six weeks more. Stewart’s owed more than $52,000 for vacation and unused sick time, and the town will write a $6,300 check to the state for Stewart’s pension.
Attorney David Potter said the extra six weeks pay was for a broader claims release Stewart agreed to.
Raymond was back for the Jan. 21 council meeting, and he was not happy. He said he didn’t want to lose Stewart, but he would have never voted to give Stewart a severance package and Stewart knew it. He said the emergency meeting happened too quickly.
“By doing it real quick you got rid of the one negative vote,” Raymond said. “You all knew I would vote against it.”
Raymond was upset Stewart will receive severance, and pointed out the check Beach taxpayers will write is well above the six months salary that was cited.
“That’s taxpayer money thrown to the wind,” he said. “You don’t run away from your problems and basically Terry ran away from his responsibility.”
Mandel insisted the meeting was not rushed to take place while Raymond was away. Councilman Joe Kosinski said he hopes Raymond wasn’t implying the other council members ‘railroaded’ it through.
But Raymond said if Stewart wanted to leave he should have walked away without severance.
“You don’t pay someone to leave and give them money just because they want it,” he said. “It’s not our money to throw away, and we just threw it out the window.”
Raymond voted against the separation agreement, losing 4-1.
Stilwell was on a list of four candidates for the interim job, which council members said they expect to last six months or less. A candidate for Lee County commission in District 4, Stilwell told council members he’d withdraw.
The other candidates were former Sanibel and Bonita Springs manager Gary Price, former Beach manager Jack Green and current Beach fiscal manager Evelyn Wicks.
The deciding vote was 3 for Stilwell and 2 for Price. The council took a second vote, up or down on Stilwell, to make it unanimous.
Stilwell does come with baggage. He was fired in 2010 after 16 years at the county when an FBI probe turned up lurid images on his county-owned computer. Council members said Stilwell got high praise from county officials, however, and Mandel read from a glowing endorsement Stilwell got from the Fort Myers NewsPress when he ran unsuccessfully for county commission in 2012.
Council said Stilwell was the right man to keep projects like Estero Boulevard improvements and a major potable water project on track.
Stilwell started work Monday Jan. 27. He’ll get the same $10,000 a month Stewart was getting. He said it’s a month-by-month open-ended contract.
“I think it’s wise, because it doesn’t bind another council,” Stilwell said.
Two council members, Raymond and Jo List, are termed out in March.
“I worked with the Beach for 16 years as county manager,” said Stilwell, who lives in Fort Myers. “It’s a special place. It’s where I take people when they come to town.”
Stilwell said he believes he’ll be a good fit, and he would be interested in keeping the job full-time.
“Absolutely,” he said.