“How Did We Get Here, And What Can We Do?

A forum sponsored by this news site asks Mount Dora citizens to become aware and act accordingly.

Alarmed at the speed at which city government is changing for reasons that remain bewilderingly unclear, more than a hundred Mount Dora citizens got together to figure out how to intercede on their city’s behalf.

Things have been happening fast. Council elections the previous November brought in a mayor and new council members who seemed bent on change, aggressively challenging how the city does business. Fellow council members, citizens and the press were all left bewildered at just what mandate was in play and leaving a number of city employees wondering if their jobs were in jeopardy.

At a January 19 city council meeting, City Manager Pastue shocked the room when he read a 3-page letter saying he was planning to resign on February 2 rather than continue to fight a council “…that does not want a strong City Manager or do not trust my judgment.” He also complained that his attempts to aggressively plan for and address serious issues before the city (as laid out in his widely distributed “SWOT” memo – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) were being thwarted by a council too focused on “insignificant’ and “backward-looking” items. Mayor Girone read a brief statement accepting Pastue’s resignation—rather ahead of schedule—but some members of council put the brakes on, demanding that they meet again in a week to mull over the situation before deciding whether to begin the work of looking for a replacement.

With just two weeks before actions could be taken to remove most of the city’s senior staff, some members of the community decided there was no more time left to allow an inexperienced but bold new council find footing on its own.

Mount Dora Citizen editor Mel DeMarco had reported Pastue’s announcement that night with a copy of his letter, and the next day posted a video of the meeting to the site’s YouTube channel. The immediate reaction through the site’s social media channel, her cell phone and email account led DeMarco to send a text out to “ten or twelve” fellow residents, asking if they were interested in gathering to discuss what they were hearing and to ask if pressure that fellow citizens might apply would slow the process down to help everyone discover more fully what was in play.

The Chamber of Commerce granted meeting space, and the door opened at 6 p.m. Thursday night (January 21) to what she thought would be “ten, maybe twenty” residents. More than 100 neighbors packed into the room for what turned into a community forum designed to inform residents on the current situation and find ways to get involved. Copies of the city’s charter, recent news articles, a brief agenda, sample letters to council, Pastue’s letter and the mayor’s response were available for those in attendance.  “If you want to contact your council, we want you to be armed with the correct information,” said DeMarco

Turnout exceeded all expectations for a meeting so hastily assembled
Turnout exceeded all expectations for a meeting so hastily assembled

DeMarco introduced herself as the editor of the local online newspaper and said her role in the meeting was not to influence but inform and facilitate. She was also clear that the meeting belonged to the residents. “It’s your job to make a difference in this town.”

The first citizen to speak asked the question on everyone’s mind. “What I want to know is how we got here, and what are the issues that are causing this?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” she replied. “I’m not sure anyone really knows. But I do know we are here. The city manager, assistant city manager and city attorney are on the cusp of being terminated from the city of Mount Dora. There has been tension between the new city council and the new city manager. That’s not a secret. What we also know is that there is a discussion of what people’s roles are in local government.”

“We felt this meeting was necessary because there are a number of things we’re concerned about, and we have heard from you and know you are also concerned. I had phone calls and emails and texts from 7:00 a.m. the day after council, until I unplugged and turned my phone off at 11:00 that night. People definitely have concerns. Like how council decided to change its minutes format from narrative to action minutes — you don’t get any history or their discussions or deliberations with those. Like the amount of backward focus on agenda items when there are so many pressing items to address moving forward. Like the apparent attempt to defy the city charter and change the type of government we work under.”

Residents passed the microphone to voice their concerns. Why was such significant action being taken against such important city executives, especially since competence does not seem to be the issue? How can such a drastic change in city power be effected without a change to the city’s charter, which defines Mount Dora’s government  as council-manager?

How much will it cost the city to replace these three executives—not only recruitment costs but also the cost of losing so many years of senior executive experience? And what is the ultimate cost to the city’s reputation? How long will it be before the city can again attract top talent? Will this happen when the next council is elected, too?

(Note: While the city spent $30,000 last year in their hiring of Mr. Pastue, there is a provision in the contract to provide further applicants to the city at no additional charge by the consulting firm.)

Residents reviewed Mr. Pastue’s and Mr. Girone’s statements at council
Residents reviewed Mr. Pastue’s and Mr. Girone’s statements at council

How many dominoes will fall from this major action—how many other department heads removed, how many employees? How many are already planning to leave, in search of more embracing work environments?

One resident wondered what the end game of these moves could be, and suggested it was is to find city managers who are compliant, city attorneys who won’t raise questions, and remove all interface between the experienced deputy city manager and the city’s staff.

Another asked how Mount Dora could hope to manage the crucial development tasks on the immediate horizon with such internal chaos brought to full boil.

Many in the room had recall election on their mind. However, DeMarco said that recall was not the primary issue at hand.

“Recall is a legal process and a very involved one. Actions have to be taken carefully because there are legal consequences for both parties. Furthermore, recall elections take months to develop, and within the next couple of weeks decisions will be made that affect this city’s management.” She also said that if  number of residents were interested in pursuing the recall process, the Citizen would pay for an hour of attorney time to review the process, educate them about the realities of such a move and bring everyone up to speed on the work required.

DeMarco was adamant that residents be energized now if they were unhappy with the turn of events, saying they need to let council know they are watching and they are concerned. She stressed communicating with the City’s elected officials.  Council meets again in a public meeting in the community center at 7:30 p.m. on January 26. (We would recommend arriving early if you would plan to attend.)

“If you don’t want this action to happen,” she said, “you need to write city council, you need to call them, you need to get on their websites. You need to write city hall and write to the city manager. If you if you don’t speak up now, this will happen.  It may happen any way. But if you sit here, it will happen. So it is your decision.”

Contact numbers were exchanged and there was talk of a petition. One suggested that those going to council should wear black to show their solidarity. Another suggested orange ribbons, similar to the green ribbons worn last year by those with concerns about trees downtown.

One long-term resident who spoke toward the end tried to answer the first question.

“How did we get here? I’ll tell you how. For years, traditionally, this town has been a one-issue community. A big issue comes before council, everyone shows up to make their point and then goes home. That needs to stop. The resignation of Mr. Pastue and possibly Mr. Reggentin is just a symptom of what we’re going to be dealing with whether they’re here or not. You may not want to talk about recall, but that may be what we all need to be working for together.”

DeMarco then asked how many in the room would like to meet separately in the issue. Many of the hands went up.

Questions were asked, some of which could be answered, some of which residents were referred to their council members. The meeting adjourned after an hour, and residents filed out in what seemed like one animated conversation. Many gathered outside for a while after, exchanging ideas.

Will they speak out, is there still time, and what is to come? The night was warm, the one wedged between cold fronts. Downtown was busy with visitors enjoying Someplace Special, eating at food trucks on Fourth Avenue and taking pictures of each other. Walking home, downtown faded into dark neighborhoods of residents about their own nightly business, each home separate, perhaps answerable to none.

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Upcoming Public Meeting Schedule:

– January 26, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. in the Community Building.
– February 2, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. in the Mount Dora City Hall or next door at the Community Building (TBD)

To contact your council and staff:

Email to all Council Members: citycouncil-allemails@ci.mount-dora.fl.us
Council Member Tillet – 352-272-1888
Mayor Girone – 352-357-1991
Council Member Slaby – 352-729-2114
Council Member Rich – 352-348-2404
Council Member Rolfson- 352-552-4200
Council Member Rowlett – 352-989-1009
Council Member Crail – 352-729-0952
City Manager Vince Pastue – 352-735-7126
City Attorney Cliff Shepard: CShepard@ShepardFirm.com
Deputy City Manager Mark Reggentin – reggentinm@cityofmountdora.com
Email to City Manager: pastuev@cityofmountdora.com

David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)