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Council selects city manager finalists

By Staff | May 12, 2020

Cape Coral City Council has winnowed its list of city manager candidates down to five.

From the 11 semi-finalists recommended by the city’s search firm, Colin Baenziger, council used a point ranking system with Roberto Hernandez, Robert Perry (each with six votes), Kenneth Young (five votes), and Leonard Sossamon and Anne Fritz (each with three votes) becoming the finalists.

Council members individually filled in the ranking sheets and submitted them to the City Clerk’s Office on Friday in advance of Monday’s City Council meeting.

The top-ranked candidate via the process was Gregory Horwedel, who received seven votes. A deputy county administrator for Hillsborough County, he withdrew from consideration, saying he was accepting another position.

Mayor Joe Coviello expressed frustration that Horwedel decided to drop out, laying blame at Council’s feet.

“Because of the indecisiveness we had last Monday, he decided to take another offer,” Coviello said as he read the e-mail from Horwedel, who said he watched the meeting. “We danced around the bush and weren’t sure what direction we wanted to go.”

“‘I was surprised to hear some of the comments from council on the semi-finalists. I was disappointed with the council as a whole to not indicate which two or three they wanted to advance as finalists,'” Coviello read.

From the five, council must now conduct interviews and select a candidate of choice.

Also at hand is how council intends to continue its relationship with the city’s current city manager, John Szerlag, who is set to retire in November.

Councilmember John Carioscia, who along with Marilyn Stout was a “no” vote on finalizing the candidate list and determining how to move forward, had some questions as to council’s intended succession plan.

Could Szerlag stay on to assist the new city manager or should council roll back the contract extension it approved for Szerlag and let him leave with severance so that the new manager can work on what would be his or her first budget, which will get rolling following council’s summer hiatus.

“The investigation is over and we know his retirement date and then he has to wait and see. If we find someone, do we terminate the city manager? That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Carioscia said.

Coviello didn’t believe the manager selected would need to have his or her hand held, and would probably like to have a say, perhaps the sole say, in determining the budget.

Baenziger said there is still time now. If council goes through the process now, it could be two or three months before the new manager is ready to come on board. If council chooses to wait for more candidates, it could be another 45 days to two months on top of that, with council running the risk of losing a good applicant. Baenziger also said there could be transition issues as the process would then run into November. The city would really be cutting it close with Szerlag’s announced retirement to find a candidate who then would have to work with Szerlag’s budget.

Some on council said the list of candidates was a good one and council should not miss an opportunity to make a good hire.

“My concern is losing another one of these first-rate candidates,” Councilmember Jennifer Nelson said.

As City Council office manager, Councilmember Jessica Cosden will set up meetings with the five candidates, who could be interviewed in person or via Skype. Council will discuss specifics at the board’s next workshop meeting.

The meeting then turned to old business.

After the vote, Coviello reiterated his belief that Szerlag wasn’t being truthful about what he knew, and when he knew it, regarding payroll taxes that were not remitted to the IRS on time, resulting in fines and penalties.

The issue resulted in a letter of complaint to council from Finance Director Victoria Bateman, who Szerlag had placed on paid leave while the problem was looked into.

This brought retorts from Carioscia, the lone councilman left from the elected board that had voted “yes” to hire Szerlag in 2012, and Councilmember Rick Williams as the clock struck 10 p.m.

“It’s not good that John Szerlag is being asked to leave. He’s not in it for the money. He wants to save his reputation and repair it. Me and John (Carioscia) are protective. We’ve worked with him a long time,” Williams said.