Turmoil, Controversy Grip Indian Rocks Beach Over A Contract, Hidden Scandal
by Leo Coughlin
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - This once tranquil Gulfside city is now in the grip of turmoil with public figures snarling at one another while in the background a scandal quietly simmers.
In the public meetings of the City Commission there is a controlled calm. Under the surface, however, a struggle is taking place.
Example 1 - An elected official, in pursuit of his duties, asks a city employee for information. What he gets is, in his opinion, insufficient. When he tells the employee that he gets a response that could well be described as disrespectful and insolent.
Example 2 - A city employee, having signed an employment agreement, wants changes in the contract. Instead of openly bringing the concern to the City Commission, what is described as an attempt to "pull the wool over the eyes of the commission" is made. The mayor wisely rules that the issue must be openly discussed at a commission meeting.
The latter of these two is what triggered an outburst of reaction last week. E-mails were flying from every direction - some explaining, some accusing, some expressing hardly veiled anger, another expressing a plea to have it all stopped.
Several thousand words flew back and forth with the e-mails and trying to describe, in detail, all of that is akin to accounting for every bullet fired during the gunfight at the OK Corral.
What was offered as a minor item at the tail end of the city attorney's report at the September 25 meeting turned out to be not that at all.
Proposed was a material alteration in the city manager's contract that was described as "minor" and a "scrivener's error," and when the question of whether the proposed change would have a "financial impact," the answer given was not correct, according to an analysis.
Steve Cottrell, the city manager, signed a contract after negotiations with Andy Salzman, the city attorney, and the City Commission approved the pact.
Instead of allowing a consensus and a quickly approving an addendum to the contract that included the material alteration at the September 25 meeting, Mayor-Commissioner Bill Ockunzzi insisted that the matter be taken up at a regular commission meeting.
Ockunzzi persisted in this stance, overruling the position of Salzman and Cottrell that the matter could be quicky disposed of then and there. A definite date for the discussion has yet to be set.
To put it in simple terms, Cottrell wants his retirement benefit to fully vest at the outset. The contract he signed calls for a different time scheme on vesting.
Presumably, at least in a legal sense, he read and understood the contract he signed.
Following that scenario came the deluge of e-mails.
Cottrell checked in with one, insisting that it was the "intent" of commissioners that he receive full vesting of his retirement benefits immediately. Several commissioners disputed that notion.
Ockunzzi, for one, posted an e-mail to city hall on September 28 in which he said, "For the record, I was not involved in any negotiation regarding the agreement. I was asked to comment on a draft and did so to Andy (Salzman) and Steve (Cottrell), together. None of my questions or concerns found their way into the contract."
In a message to the City Commission, Cottrell wrote this -
"Would any of you have agreed to a 'two' year contract with knowledge that the retirement contribution that was described and offered to you was a sham, insofar as your actual receipt of such a contribution would necessitate a five year contract?
"Or was your conscientious intent that at most I was only to receive 40% of the city's contribution to my retirement during this two year time-frame?
"If the latter is true, shame on me for agreeing to such a deceitful contract."
In spite of such protestations, the fact remains that Cottrell signed the contract and legally there is a presumption that he read, knew and understood all provisions of what he signed.
Among the swirl of messages was one from Commissioner Jose Coppen to Marty Schless, the city's financial director, requesting information.
When the requested material was sent to Coppen, it apparently did not fulfill Coppen's expectations and he characterized it as not fully meeting his needs and used the word "meager" in a message to Schless.
Schless' response on October 2 included this paragraph - "In conclusion, I find words like 'meager' to be offensive, counter productive, and ignorant. Your demeaning style of management might be productive in your experiences, however in my experience it is generally the result of a lack of understanding of the subject matter. I expect an apology."
Coppen, who said he was shocked and astounded that this kind of reply would go to an elected official, wrote in an e-mail responding to this, "I am shocked by your disrespect, rudeness and unwise words directed to me as an elected commissioner of this city. Your response when I requested certain information was meager. As an elected official, I am entitled to make that judgment weighed against what my reasonable expectations are in regard to the material I request.
"Your intemperate words characterizing my attempts to conduct city business and pursue my sworn duty as a commissioner of the City of Indian Rocks Beach are intolerable and unacceptable. It is not your place to determine whether my work is unproductive and I do not believe you are qualified to render such judgment."
That message ended with these chilling words that might have given Schless pause - ". . . in view of your conduct, I will be asking the City Commission that disciplinary action be taken against you."
In the midst of all this sturm und drang came a message from a former commissioner and person involved in city affairs, Jean Scott. She wrote -
"Bill, As Mayor can you do something about this continuous bickering that not only goes on with you at the meetings and the print, but now with the staff (I am sure this is not the first encounter). How professional is this? How can staff get their work done with all these interruptions and accusations. Please as everyone has begged the commission cut it out and do your work. I feel our city has CANCER and we don't know where to get a doctor!!!
"A large majority of the city is very SICK of it. And then there are those who love to see the CIRCUS. Thanks, Jean Scott"
While all this was going on, a very nasty situation was boiling beneath the surface, the details of which cannot now be printed because of legal aspects.
That situation may never come to light - if it does, it would be most destructive, obviously, to those in prominence.
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