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Cape mayor storms out of Council meeting

By Staff | Apr 25, 2017

The Cape Coral City Council and the Cape Coral Charter School Authority met Monday in an attempt to bridge differences and improve what has been, since late last year, a contentious relationship.

The joint workshop did little to heal the rift, however – Mayor Marni Sawicki angrily walked out of the meeting as a fellow council member attempted to call a point of order.

“All of you continue to do what you do – so great,” Sawicki said as she gathered up her belongings, began to leave, and then turned to toss the gavel to mayor pro tem Rick Williams.

The outburst, which included finger-pointing from the dais and name calling as she stormed out, left some stunned and one council member calling for her resignation.

The meeting was called so City Manager John Szerlag could present best practices recommendations for the city-owned charter schools. The discussion, however, quickly went off track with the mayor bringing up issues that began last August with a mostly private exchange with the previous charter schools superintendent after Sawicki raised questions concerning teacher contract renewals and other issues she said had been shared by parents.

The two initially cleared the air, but their issues escalated in November: Nelson Stephenson took his grievances to the media, accusing Sawicki of criticizing the school administration in an effort to get a particular teacher rehired. Sawicki responded in both a scathing e-mail and from the dais.

Sawicki rehashed the controversy again Monday. She said City Council should take over as the governing authority of the school system, that she has a lack of trust and comfort with its current board. City Council appoints both a liaison and the members of the school authority, which has operated independently.

Sawicki took particular issue with the Authority terminating Stephenson’s contract without cause after he turned his notice in, grilling charter school governing board vice chair Robert Zivkovic on why the Authority supported Stephenson in the midst of the controversy. As per his contract, Stephenson received four months severance pay as the separation was without cause.

As Councilmember Rana Erbrick attempted to call a point of order, joined by Leon, Sawicki began gathering her things, stopping to point to the audience where she called out former Cape council member Dolores Bertollini, referring to her as “Lolita,” a screen name used by a sometimes critical poster of the mayor’s actions on The Breeze web site.

Her parting shot, though, was for members of Council – as she left the dais, Councilmember Richard Leon said Sawicki called him a “dumb-ass” and hurled another slur at Erbrick.

Leon said if Sawicki can’t comport herself the way a mayor should, then perhaps she should let someone else do the job.

“The mayor has to remove her emotions. I guess she gets upset, but to storm off like that, she’s doing the job of the people, and if she’s not willing to sit there and do the job of the people, she has to really consider resigning,” Leon said.

“There were some issues with past circumstances that could have been avoided,” he added.

Erbrick declined to repeat the slur. She said the city was put in a tough spot Monday as a result of the outburst, one that makes the city appear rudderless.

“This is about letting the past go and looking toward the future and a leader needs to be able to do that. They need to make sure the right thing is done. She has not displayed much of that lately,” Erbrick said. “She abandoned her post last night and that looked bad. That is not an image of a leader.”

Bertolini – who had stood and asked the Council to please move along – expressed regret for the incident from her side of things, as well as Council’s, which imploded.

“I immediately chided myself for not having the spunk to just sit there and watch them disintegrate,” Bertolini said Tuesday morning. “It’s unfortunate what happened and things like that can ruin our government.”

Councilmember Marilyn Stout said the situation needs to ratchet down and, at the next meeting on Monday, she will try to calm things so Council can concentrate on city business.

“I was really surprised when she got up and walked out,” Stout said of Sawicki. “That said, the situation needs to de-escalate, it’s a distraction from the city business. I plan, if it starts at public input time, I’m going to do a point of order and say this type of denigration, criticism, should not continue and we need to move on. I believe it’s counter productive to everything we’re trying to do as council.”

Stout said this does not mean she was defending the mayor’s actions.

“I’m not defending her actions, I think she was mistaken,” Stout said. “I don’t believe she should have gotten into a verbal confrontation with Rob and she shouldn’t have walked out.”

She attributed some of the recent tension on Council to this being a municipal election year.

For her part, Sawicki said via an early morning tweet that she has taken enough abuse from her fellow board members.

“I’ve had enough of Councilman Leon’s constant bullying and Erbrick’s underhandedness…time for me to speak up! Media is no better…”

Sawicki could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning. In answer to a Breeze text, the mayor said she was in the process of boarding a plane en route to giving the keynote address at her sorority’s 75th anniversary at Central Michigan University.

This is not the first time Sawicki has had her actions at a public meeting questioned. Last May, she got into a similar row at a Fort Myers Beach Town Council workshop regarding water quality with town council member Tracey Gore. Sawicki criticized Gore’s “tone” after Gore questioned Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane on the C-43 reservoir.

Sawicki left that meeting as well.

Sawicki’s personal and mayor’s Facebook pages have, meanwhile, been deactivated.