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Council to evaluate Szerlag’s performance Monday

By Staff | Oct 16, 2013

City Manager John Szerlag is expected to learn Monday what the Cape Coral City Council thinks about the job he is doing.

The elected board is scheduled to evaluate his performance.

If public statements are any indication, it won’t be a unanimous atta boy – one City Council member last week called for his resignation or firing, although others already are giving their votes of confidence while saving their official words for next week.

Szerlag’s evaluation was introduced to council two weeks ago, but was tabled because Szerlag and two members of the council were at the bond validation hearing for the fire service assessment.

Because of Columbus Day, there was no meeting this past Monday.

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz has made no secret of what his intentions are.

Following the bond validation hearing on Wednesday, Chulakes-Leetz said he would ask that Szerlag resign from his post by the end of the year.

That night, at a political forum for the Southwest Homeowners Association, Chulakes-Leetz slightly altered his stance, saying that Szerlag should be fired.

And when Szerlag has his evaluation done during Monday’s City Council meeting, it is a call that could be brought up again.

Chulakes-Leetz said his comments weren’t spoken in the heat of the moment.

“Since Day 1, he’s provided nothing at all. He’s brought no efficiencies, just spend and spend more,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “People are very unhappy with him and want him to move on. Ask them.”

Councilmember Rana Erbrick said “them fighting words” are only natural during an election year.

Chulakes-Leetz is up for re-election.

She said she does not expect Szerlag to resign and pointed out it would take an unhappy council majority to fire the manager – something that has not been expressed from the dais to date.

“Any councilmember has a right to an opinion, and Mr. Leetz has stated he has not been pleased. But he’s one of eight, and it takes five votes to do anything, and I don’t see, based on what we talk about at meetings, the same discontent Mr. Leetz has.”

Szerlag’s budget plan this year has had its share of controversies. The plan, now council approved, called for “financial diversification,” which included a new public service tax on electric bills, the fire service assessment that is being reviewed by a judge at the city’s request, and a small reduction in the property tax rate.

Szerlag also supported administratively the council-approved revival of the utilities expansion project in Southwest 6&7, which got going this month.

Chulakes-Leetz opposed those initiatives as did Mayor John Sullivan, who declined comment on Szerlag’s performance.

Councilmember Kevin McGrail said these projects were needed to secure the future for the city, and that Szerlag has given it a dose of reality.

“He’s made us recognize that we can’t continue to ignore capital improvements. You can only go along not spending money for so long before it catches up with you,” McGrail said.

McGrail also is up for re-election.

The Chulakes-Leetz/Szerlag dustup began before Szerlag took office. During the interview process for the city manager’s position on March 23, 2012, Chulakes-Leetz asked Szerlag a scenario-based question on what he would tell citizens during a hypothetical 35-second message following a natural disaster.

Szerlag’s joking response was, “I’m sorry, I was playing golf in Michigan at the time.”

Chulakes-Leetz said he failed that test, but voted for Szerlag anyway. He was, however, the lone dissenter of his contract, citing the perks he received, such as a limited-time payment on his mortgage on his home in Michigan.

Their working relationship has been professional; Chulakes-Leetz said Szerlag is a nice guy on a personal level. Chulakes-Leetz added he doesn’t entirely pin the blame on Szerlag, saying that as manager, he is expected to take the direction of the City Council.

“He has to do what the council tells him and they haven’t told him to do anything more than tax and spend,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “He can get a better perspective from the people I talk to.”

As far as the manager’s evaluation Monday, McGrail said he would reserve his comments until then, saying only that he doesn’t believe the council will vote him out.

“Clearly, he is doing the job we hired him to do, to set the city on a path to financial sustainability,” McGrail said. “Our bond rating is a sea change from what it was in 2009 (AA stable) when we were one grade over junk bond.”

Erbrick said Szerlag has smoothed the chaos that had permeated City Council before his arrival.

“He’s worked to straighten things out. Mr. Szerlag came in with a lot put on his plate and all things considered, he’s doing a good job,” Erbrick said.

As of Tuesday, city spokesperson Connie Barron said she had not seen any evaluation reports turned in by any council members.

Szerlag declined comment.