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Body freezes new hires, promotions for city positions; Council vote necessary now due to economy

By Staff | Mar 18, 2008

Arguing Cape Coral is facing a dire financial situation that requires closer scrutiny of many city operations, the City Council approved a virtual hiring freeze after voting 6-2 to pass two measures that force a vote to fill any vacant position or promote any current employee.

Sponsoring Councilmember Tim Day said his bills are not a reflection on City Manager Terry Stewart’s administration, but added that the council needs to take a closer look at all expenditures in a crisis situation.

“My thought has always been, we control the money so we control these positions,” he said. “If our responsibility is reducing the work force and laying people off, then we are responsible for this end of it to.”

Restrictions requiring an up or down vote to fill vacant positions or approve promotions will remain in place until the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30. At that time council will have to pass a new resolution to enact a new period of restricted hiring.

Under the new law, the city manager, who normally holds authority over human resources, and the rest of staff will bring the council information to justify new hires. The measure does not dictate who is hired or promoted, as the city attorney’s office warned such a move could violate the charter.

Unlike the mayoral line-item veto power, the new council power was not approved by a charter amendment, but instead by an ordinance and subsequent resolution.

“I don’t think we need to have any charter change because this is only temporary,” said Day. “What I’m trying to do is give council another tool in the toolbox.”

But that opinion did not sway Councilmembers Dolores Bertolini and Derrick Donnell, who voted against both measures, saying they were “uncomfortable” with the proposal.

Bertolini was bothered by the lack of legal precedent to support council’s new authority, and she argued that the elected body could just as well give Stewart a directive to accomplish the ends.

“Whatever we tell him to do he best do, or else he’s gone,” she said. “We’re now becoming the hiring and firing squad and that concerns me.”

Until receiving word from the city attorney that the ordinance and resolution would not violate the charter, Mayor Eric Feichthaler was against the measures.

At Monday’s meeting, he said the council should not generally have human resources power, but the current economic and fiscal situation changed the game.

“I do think at the end of the day we have to be more accountable,” Feichthaler said. “I think on a temporary basis, this is the way forward at this point.”

Day began work on the ordinance late last fall, but held off on submitting it until state tax reform Amendment One passed in January. He originally introduced it the following month, but removed it from the agenda after deciding he also wanted to include promotions.

Stewart was mostly silent on the issue, though he did joke that the new restrictions insulate him from criticism.

“It takes me off the hook because I don’t have to make these decisions now and that’s one less thing I have to worry about if the council is upset with me or not,” he said.

Stewart did add that he preferred to work in a mode where the elected officials tell him what to do and let him accomplish it.

Bertolini said the added council power further moves the city down the path toward a strong mayor form of government.