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Wednesday, January 18, 2017
3-2 vote not to fire County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK focused on trust issues
Following contentious debate, commissioners vote to retain county administrator
After nearly two and a half hours of discussion on Tuesday, St. Johns County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of renewing their contract with County Administrator Michael Wanchick, with some changes.
Commissioners Jeb Smith and Paul Waldron voted in dissent and were the only two in favor of terminating Wanchick’s contract through a motion put forth by Smith earlier in the meeting.
“I cannot approve this contract,” Smith said. “It would violate my conscience.”
Although calling the county’s day-to-day operations “great,” Waldron said it could be time for something new. He said what he learned from campaigning last year was that “people are upset and they want change,” adding the commission, via elections, sees regular changeover.
Commissioner Henry Dean said he could not support termination when his impression over his first three months on the job has been that Wanchick is “a good manager” who has been “very responsive” to him, even in the face of unexpected challenges from dealing with Hurricane Matthew.
Commissioner Jay Morris said it was Wanchick who led the county through financial hardship “when the whole damn bottom fell out” in the Great Recession and compared the prospect of another national search (the type of which brought Wanchick to the county from Richardson, Texas, in 2007) to a “crapshoot.”
The discussion among commissioners was wide ranging and brought up a number of issues related to trust that seemed to extend beyond the contract.
Wanchick’s contract will be renewed, effective immediately, for a term to expire on Jan. 1, 2020. Commissioners requested a 2.5-year renewal over a 2-year renewal to move future discussions over the contract further away from any changeovers on the board as a result of elections. Dean and Waldron, the two newcomers, had expressed concerns about passing judgment on Wanchick’s performance with less than three meetings under their belts.
There will be no added compensation as a result of the new contract, but, rather, there will be some benefits limited by statute and others limited per agreement of Wanchick and commissioners.
To conform with statutory amendments, severance will be reduced from the current 12 months’ pay to a maximum of 20 weeks’ pay. Severance also includes payment for accrued, but unused, vacation and sick leave as well as group insurance coverage for Wanchick and his family for 20 weeks. There will be no severance available to Wanchick if fired for misconduct as defined by statute.
Smith said his opposition to renewing Wanchick’s contract was three-pronged, citing concerns about overcompensation, lack of trust and integrity as well as politicization of county administration.
He cited an interoffice memorandum that said Wanchick’s total compensation package, including benefits, but excluding accrued vacation and sick leave, totaled $290,977.39. He said Wanchick’s current salary, $213,973.95, ranks 11th among Florida’s 67 county administrators but that the 10 counties ahead of St. Johns County in this regard are working with “substantially higher” populations. He also said the average salary for a county administrator nationwide is $190,326.
Commissioner Jay Morris took issue with the comparisons.
“I guess if you want an average county administrator, that’s what you’d pay,” he said. “Mike (Wanchick) makes $23,000 more than that, and, I gotta tell you, I would pay another $23,000.”
As Smith pointed out, the current contract states the administrator shall accrue vacation at a rate of 20 working days per year, “the unused portion of which may be accumulated without limit.” Smith stressed the importance of understanding the “without limit” clause, saying the county, by his understanding of the contract language, would be on the hook for nearly 1,000 hours of accrued vacation time.
He cited a Jan. 11 interoffice memorandum that said 971.694 hours of vacation time accrued by Wanchick as of Dec. 31 had a value of $99,958.16, but only as time taken. It declared only a maximum of 320 hours (worth $32,918.40) would be granted by payout in the event of separation.
Smith said he was concerned with disparities between what he saw in the memorandum and what he read in the actual contract, but also with disparities between this memorandum and a previous memorandum that also included an amended copy of the contract. He said a cover letter attached to this amended contract said revisions were for clarification and did not constitute substantive changes.
Under the General Benefits provision of Wanchick’s revised contract, a sentence has been tacked on after the “without limit” clause, and reads as follows: “The payout provisions of the County’s vacation and sick leave program shall apply to the County Administrator as they are applied to senior management, subject to the provisions of this Agreement, and provided that the County’s Administrator complies with the terms of this Agreement.”
Smith said he considered this change and others a “breach of trust.”
“It is imperative that the Board of County Commissioners be able to trust the information it is given and to trust its staff to provide such,” he said. “Staff should proceed with directions as given and not deviate.”
Wanchick said terms that are “fairly debatable” are not good things to have in a contract and said it was never his expectation to be treated differently from other senior county management. He said he would be willing to be held to a 320-hour limit that applies to other senior county staff concerning vacation and sick leave, and to have those limitations expressed in his contract.
“It should only be one sentence,” he said. “I don’t think that’s really that complicated.”
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns said it was clear to him trust has become an issue, whether the confusion is intentional or unintentional.
“We need staff to add clarity rather than add confusion,” he said. “I’ve seen other eamples of this and we need to address that.”
(It was later noted by County Attorney Patrick McCormack and Deputy County Attorney Regina Ross that commissioners had been working from the original 2009 contract even though there was a 2010 revision, which Smith said was “bothersome.” Johns said the eleventh-hour announcement was the type of minor detail that could “blow up quickly when we don’t have it up front.”)
Smith also said he has “met with Mr. Wanchick over a trust issue already,” and returned to former-Commissioner Bill McClure’s comment during public comment at the Dec. 20 meeting suggesting Wanchick’s involvement in politics. Smith said that was a “common accusation” he heard when he was campaigning in 2014.
He said that leading up to the one-cent sales tax increase discussion that was ultimately shot down by the commission, department directors had been “encouraged” to cut budgets by 10 percent. He said that as a result, people were distraught and distressed, when, meanwhile, the county experienced a 6.2 percent increase in gross taxable value.
“I believe there was a purposeful manipulation of the process,” Smith said. “That’s my opinion.”
He said that opinion was validated when he learned 42 county employees were put into a position to declare their support or lack thereof for the measure.
“After tallying the votes, the employees that were in opposition to the sales tax were told they could lose their jobs,” Smith said. “Two of those workers came to me with their concern. They were fearful of retaliation and retribution for openly declaring their conviction. I feel to this day that these folks were put into a tumultuous situation because of political play in senior level management.”
Morris, as well as former commissioners and other colleagues who spoke during public comment said they’ve never known Wanchick to get involved in local politics. Speaking in favor of Wanchick, Sheriff David Shoar called Wanchick “apolitical” during public comment. Planning and Zoning Board member Dick Williams said he’s never heard of any employees having their jobs threatened and that it seemed like something of that nature would have “come up.”
Former Commissioner Mary Kohnke put the onus on the board to direct Wanchick on the path it wants for the county.
“He’s not responsible for growth; you are,” she said. “It is your fault we have a lot of growth. It’s his problem to cope with that.”
Upon approval of a revised contract, which came after much hashing out among commissioners over details, Wanchick thanked the board for its general support.
“I appreciate and do not take lightly the extension,” he said. “I serve at the pleasure of the County Commission. I work for all five of you. It’s always been my intent to do so and I am going to re-double my efforts to work even harder.”
Wanchick on Dec. 1 sent commissioners a memo informing them of their options for moving forward and expressing his desire to continue serving as administrator. Commissioners could have allowed the contract to roll over, with or without discussion, for a new two-year term. Commissioners could also decide not to renew, terminate, or renegotiate the contract.
The current contract says the agreement “shall automatically be renewed, at the expiration of each term, for a two (2) year term unless written notice that the Agreement shall terminate is given from the County to the County Administrator at least 180 days before the expiration date.” Tuesday’s meeting was the last regularly-scheduled meeting before that deadline.
Commissioners on Dec. 20 voted 4-1 in favor of preparing a revised contract with some statutorily-required adjustments as well as other changes discussed by the board. Morris voted alone in dissent, questioning the need to wait.
Wanchick on Nov. 15 had received a 2.8 percent raise after a strong evaluation from commissioners, before Dean and Waldron joined the board. Smith had voted alone in dissent to the raise. The rate increase awarded to Wanchick was the same granted to all county employees this year. His raise was retroactive to Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.
According to the current agreement, entered into on Nov. 3, 2009, Wanchick’s annual base salary was initially $170,000. He has received raises periodically in years since. With the latest 2.8 percent increase factored in, his $5,828.08 raise brought his salary up to $213,973.95.
Wanchick on Tuesday said he has always tried to “moderate” his own salary and benefits because he does not want it to be an “inappropriate” amount. He said he has never asked nor plans to ask for any adjustments to benefits such as his $700-per-month car allowance or $7,500-per-year contributions by the county into a deferred compensation program of his choosing.