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Beach town manager ousted; interim appointed

By Staff | Jun 3, 2016

Don Stilwell was terminated Friday as town manager of Fort Myers Beach for what Mayor Dennis Boback called “nonfeasance,” a failure to perform a duty required by law.

“I believe the town has lost faith and trust,” Boback said in his motion to fire Stilwell, adding that he witnessed “a complete breakdown in communication” at Town Hall.

Jim Steele, a retiree who served as controller for the city of Indianapolis and held other titles, will replace Stilwell on an interim basis for an undetermined amount of time. A snowbird, Steele currently serves on both the town’s Audit Committee and Local Planning Agency. Boback recently recruited him with a potential change in mind and Steele will sit in Stilwell’s seat at Monday’s council meeting.

“I am thrilled Jim Steele is willing to fill in,” Council Member Tracey Gore said to Boback. “I am glad you brought in not a problem but a solution.”

The Town Council voted 3-2 in favor of the firing, with council members Rexann Hosafros and Anita Cereceda voting to retain Stilwell.

Cereceda respects Steele’s ability and credentials, but worries about what comes next.

“We go through town managers like a bag of chips,” she said afterward. “I worry that anyone worth hiring will find the job here as risky.”

Regarding Steele, the council went 4-1 with its vote to bring him aboard. Hosafros dissented “because I’m not sure Don Stilwell isn’t still the town manager.”

She warned the council that it was getting ahead of itself by firing Stilwell “with cause,” which allows Stilwell seven days to request a hearing of appeal.

“You haven’t established cause,” she told Boback, adding that a costly lawsuit could follow.

Steele said he would work for a compensation equal to that given to Stilwell, at roughly $10,000 per month.

Stilwell, 76, was hired in January of 2014. He has been under scrutiny lately for the town’s failure to pay for the past six months any bills related to its ongoing water rehabilitation project. They were lost in the shuffle between the public works and finance departments, Stilwell’s employees told him, and totaled $3.2 million.

“That was a gut shot,” said Stilwell, who faced the council Friday and answered all questions. “I said, ‘I can’t believe it.’

“I have two good and strong department heads (Maureen Rischitelli in finance and Scott Baker in public works) and the both said ‘It wasn’t me.’ I told them to work it out. But they came back and it’s still not worked out.”

Some council members have also questioned how Stilwell allowed for the town to enter into the intense project last fall, in conjunction with Lee County’s Estero Boulevard work, without a funding mechanism. The town did receive notification on Tuesday of an approved loan of $6.8 million from the state’s revolving loan fund, and Stilwell said Friday it was always a plan but the pursuit was cumbersome.

That excuse didn’t sit well with some council members.

“We should have known before the first shovel hit the dirt,” Gore said.

Meanwhile, several people spoke in regard to Stilwell’s time in his position. Town employee Mark LaFave credited Stilwell with the acquisition last year of what is now a legitimate Town Hall a building that Stilwell called on Friday a $3 million town asset and LaFave suggested it be christened in Stilwell’s name.

“I first thought you were getting together today to congratulate Mr. Stilwell and give him a plaque,” LaFave said. “I have worked for all the town managers and he was the best.”

He said the culture of the town makes anyone in the town manager role afraid to make a decision.

“It’s a meat grinder here,” LaFave said.

Resident Joe Workman called Stilwell “the most competent I’ve ever seen” of the town managers that have come and gone in Lee County.

But resident Fran Cooke lamented what she felt was a financial crisis. “We are so much in debt,” she said.

Stilwell and Rischitelli downplayed on Friday the notion of the town being broke.

“The town is nowhere near bankrupt,” Stilwell told the council.

Rischitelli told the council that the town’s balance as of May 31 was $6.1 million.

The town has seen town managers come and go. Marsha Segal-George served the post during the town’s first 10 years between 1995 and 2005, being fired while Boback first served as mayor, in the wake of criticism of how she handled the aftermath of Hurricane Charley. Since then, the position seen a revolving door of personell, featuring plenty of turmoil.

Between 2005 and 2010, six town managers were in place: John Gucciardo, Rachel Lambert, David Sallee (twice), Scott Janke and Jack Green. Lambert and Green lasted only four and six months, respectively, and Janke was terminated after only a year when it was discovered that his wife was a pornographic actress.

Former Cape Coral city manager Terry Stewart was hired in 2010, but at the start of 2014 resigned while facing criticism by some members of the community over issues regarding elevated swimming pools.

Stilwell came to the town with some baggage of his own, having been investigated in 2009 while Lee County manager by county commissioners who questioned whether he had played an unethical role in a business dealing. In 2010, when explicit emails were discovered on Stilwell’s office computer, he resigned in the face of being ousted.

Stilwell, in a phone call seeking comment, fought for his job until the end.

“Look at the environment we’ve had here,” Stilwell said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve had two town attorneys. We’re just now establishing documentation for things. And we have a great relationship with the county. The town is only 20 years old. It’s not like we’re just sitting around here.”

The turnover in council members and administrators wreaks havoc, Cereceda said.

“This island has no one with institutional knowledge,” Cereceda said. “At Sanibel, a place roughly the same size, there’s been a mayor in place for eight years and a town manager for I believe 17 years.”

Fort Myers Beach’s term limits restrict a council member to two three-year terms before having to sit out a year. Voters in March were asked to extend the terms to four years each or eliminate term limits altogether, but rejected the notion.