In a Packed Building, Divided House Is Unresolved (Video Included)

Supporters of Mr. Pastue showed up in force in the Community Center. Those more in support of council were less visible—but just as vocal

Voting 4-3 against a motion to try to heal the relationship with its city manager, the city faces difficult questions of what’s next

 

On Jan. 26, council met in a special meeting to further discuss the potential resignation of the City Manager, Vincent Pastue, and the letter he had read at the end of the previous meeting. In just a week, public concern welled over both sides of the issue, resulting in a standing-room-only crowd of residents in the Mount Dora Community Building, many there wearing black and sporting orange ribbons in support of Mr. Pastue – or of at least supporting a compromise to be worked out between the council and the City Manager. However, public comment was just as loud and forceful against Mr. Pastue, and in the end council did not approve a motion to call a time-out and allow some time for relations between council and city manager to heal. No decision had been made to accept Mr. Pastue’s resignation, either, so what comes next is not clear.

Mayor Girone opened with a statement reiterating what he called the facts of the situation. He said that the city did not fire the attorney, but instead had passed a motion to review the position, the first time in a decade that had been done so. Also, he said, council did not ask for anyone’s resignation and that the deputy city manager’s position is not being threatened.

Girone also attempted to clarify the present situation with Mr. Pastue with a look at the city’s charter.  “The charter and the city’s organization chart show us, the city council, works for the citizens,” he read from a written statement. “It also shows us the city manager works for the council, and not the reverse. Our form of government defined in the charter is the COUNCIL – Manager form of government with all powers of the City vested in the elected City Council. According to the Florida League of Cities training & manuals prepared for elected officials, that form of government is defined as a council hiring a professional administrator for implementation of policies.”

Girone reiterated that he had met with Mr. Pastue on numerous occasions, asking him not to resign, and each time Pastue had declined.

 “Our city has been someplace special for over a hundred years. We have weathered storms and disagreements, and celebrated successes. We have caring citizens, dedicated employees, enthusiastic visitors. We will continue to be someplace special and WILL NOT BE distracted by the noise of those who do not wish our city well.”

He thanked all the citizens for coming out to express their thoughts.

City Manager Pastue (second from right) addresses council and community about concerns leading to his resignation letter.
City Manager Pastue (second from right) addresses council and community about concerns leading to his resignation letter.

Then it was Mr. Pastue’s chance to respond. He said he had declined requests from Girone to rescind his resignation because he didn’t see much chance for improving the situation.  “What is striking,” he said, “is the apparent lack of trust and confidence in my ability as a manager. There are outside influences other than those in the manager’s office and the city attorney that affect council decisions. It is hard for me to develop a cohesive council-city manager relationship when that environment exists.”

However, after the January 19 meeting (in which council decided to meet again to discuss the memo), he said he felt more encouraged about seeing what could be done

Pastue said he was aware of campaign statements that threatened the employment status of Mr. Reggentin, and knew that changes would be coming with the new council on board. He said he had hoped that they would work out an amicable working relationship but that had proved difficult. It was only when rumors began spreading around City Hall that big changes were coming and employees were coming to Human Resources concerned for their jobs that he decided to prepare the memo.

He then addressed rumors. “First of all, I do not wish to leave the city,” he said. “However I felt I could only stay if the city honored the employment contract I was offered when I was hired.”  That contract, he said, called for what is known as a strong city manager, one tasked with running the city organization.

He also said there was a rumor that his wife’s failure to relocate to Mount Dora was evidence of his lack of commitment to the job. He detailed personal hardships that had struck his wife and her family soon after he had taken the job, and explained that that has slowed her transition here to Mount Dora.

Mr. Pastue said he was concerned that council has been too focused on minor items of business –for instance, haggling who manages the agenda—at the expense of “big ticket” items like the Wekiva Parkway, Innovation District, internal restructuring and downtown parking and the Lake-Wekiva Trail.

If it is council’s decision that he should stay in his job, Pastue said, there should be an employment agreement that would protect the deputy city manager from later attempts to remove him from office. Furthermore, there needs to be a better definition of responsibilities between Mount Dora’s city manager and its council. “Do you want a city manager who looks ahead, or one who is an administrator who takes direction?”

City Council, l-r: Mark Crail, Marie Rich, Ed Rowlett, Nick Girone, Mark Slaby and Cal Rolfson. (Not pictured: Laurie Tillett)
City Council, l-r: Mark Crail, Marie Rich, Ed Rowlett, Nick Girone, Mark Slaby and Cal Rolfson. (Not pictured: Laurie Tillett)

Speaking after Mr. Pastue, Fourth District representative Mark Crail said that the good news is that Mount Dora is the best place in Florida to live. “The bad news,” he continued, “Is that we (council) have has had such a rough start that we may lose Pastue.”

He said the solution could be likened to marriage counseling, where a couple is asked a series of questions, moving forward only if the answer is yes:

“First, do you want to stay together, or has the relationship been so badly damaged that the only way you can see to move forward is to split up? If the answer is yes, move on – if not, we’re done here.”

“Second, Even though you think your behavior has been mostly justified and maybe has been caused by some simple misunderstanding or miscommunications, would you concede that at least some of the problems in this relationship are your fault? If yes, we can move on – if nothing was your fault, we’re done here.”

“And third, okay, there is plenty of blame to go around, but what if we were to agree on a plan to address the things you can’t stand about me and the things you do that drive me crazy? Could we agree to stay together while we work to define who does what in our relationship and try to learn how to stop doing those things that honk the other person off?  In the mean time, we won’t make any rash decisions and we’ll work on the things we both agree need to be done around here?”

“There are some things that we all agree on, “ he said,  “and there are other things that will just have to wait until we can heal our relationship. But I think we can do that, because we all love Mount Dora.”

Mr. Rolfson was firmly for Mr. Crail’s suggestion. “Mr. Pastue has been on this job for just seven months and has urged us to meet soon to evaluate his SWOT analysis. Should we slam the door in the face of that opportunity?” He then made a motion that council refuse Mr. Pastue’s resignation.

Marie Rich (at-large) seconded the motion, and thanked Mr. Pastue for his mentoring of her as she came up to speed as a council member.

Laurie Tillett (First District) took the opposite tack, saying how shocked she was to hear Mr Pastue’s announcement in the previous council meeting, because none of his points had been touched on in their previous meetings. Furthermore, she felt Pastue had created a difficult relationship, not only for council but across the city. “The storm it has created is troubling.”

Ed Rowlett (Third District) suggested that council stick to facts. “The decision is Mr. Pastue’s.”

Mark Slaby (at-large) said he, too, was taken aback by the memo, adding  that Mount Dora could well do without anyone who works for the city. “To suggest that some people are bigger than Mount Dora is insulting.” Addressing charter concerns which he called “false argument,” he asserted that the city did not have a strong manager government, it was a mayor-council government. (Note: In reality, the charter says that Mount Dora operates on a council-manager basis.) And about the Pastue’s memo, he said, “Bells are difficult to unring, and some bridges are difficult to un-burn … I am concerned that we are letting the hired manager run the city.”

There was also discussion of the status of Deputy City Manager Mark Reggentin. Mr. Pastue has asked that Mr. Reggentin’s employment status would be protected by his resignation. Council members said that Reggentin’s employment was not at issue and that since he works for the city manager, they couldn’t do anything about his position, anyway. Several members spoke strongly about Mr. Reggentin’s accomplishments here and in planning the commercial district of Lake Mary 20 years ago.

They also touched on the RFQ for the city attorney, saying it was good business practice to do so periodically, and that no effort was underway to release Mr. Shepard. (Mr. Slaby had motioned to fire Shepard immediately at the December 1 meeting, but, failing to get support from other members of council, motioned for the RFQ.)

Lining up for public comment
Lining up for public comment

Girone then opened the meeting up for public comment – or “venting”, as he called it. The conversation that ensued was as much about Mr. Pastue’s standing as it was the behavior of the new council; and it revealed the deep political divisions that beset Mount Dora.

First up was resident Suzy Waddell. “I’m sure that Mr. Pastue is a great and qualified city manager, and that Mount Dora was very lucky to attract him. The problem is, and as his letter testifies, he is not happy to work for us. I know that Mount Dora is never going to change, so he is never going to be happy in his job … Council should graciously accept his resignation. Second: As full-time, home-owning, registered voters of this town, we expect city council to oversee the running of this town … The one thing we don’t want them to do is to blindly rubber-stamp things as previous councils have done.”

Countering was Carroll Jaskulski, who questioned the voting margins that gave the new council its mandate. “A win is a win is a win for sure, but it’s not mandate. You are rather the beneficiaries of a dispassionate electorate.”

Jim Yatsuk called on his experience as mayor in urging council to slow down on their decision. “I found out that to make change you need a goal and vision that the city needs to know,” he said. “It takes a long time to learn governance. If you rush things you make mistakes, and those can take a long time to fix.”

One resident said she was disappointed in the high-school behavior of those wearing orange ribbons, and again thanked council for not being “a rubber-stamp council” like their predecessors. She reminded them too, that because of the present city manager’s employment contract, search for a new one would not cost anything more.

One speaker said he wasn’t a resident but and had worked for years with Mark Reggentin and his team to develop Loch Leven Landing. “I have a lot more respect for these people than others,” he said. “You need professionals.”

Monique Richison addresses council
Monique Richison addresses council

One resident talked about the impressive commercial development of Lake Mary that was largely Mr. Reggentin’s accomplishment, whom he called “the key architect.” One wondered why talk of Reggentin was part of this night’s agenda at all. Another pointed out campaign statements that directly pointed the finger at Reggentin.

Both sides argued election results, how large the majorities were for the new council members, how small the turnout was overall. Everyone faulted the apathy of the community.

Some comments pointed at both council and city manager were personal and vindictive and Mayor Girone on several occasions had to ask the audience to remain civil and respectful.

Loyalty to positions was fierce and articulate. “Many people in this room might be wearing orange & black in protest, but they do not represent me, nor can they claim to represent the majority of Mount Dora residents,” said Kate Johnson. “The voting residents overwhelmingly elected this current council, and we are not heartbroken over the City Manager’s threatened resignation. I encourage this council to not be disheartened or intimidated by the angry comments expressed here tonight by the vocal minority, organized by special interests.”

“All these black shirts and orange ribbons are not representative of an angry mob,” countered Rozann Abato. “Last year people put green ribbons on trees because they were concerned about the city’s oak trees. This year, people are wearing orange ribbons because they’re concerned about what’s happening on council. We know you (new members) were elected. Our whole purpose is to encourage everyone to work together. Mr. Crail is right. Everyone has made mistakes. Mr. Pastue may have made a mistake reading that memo to last week’s council, but as you can see it has motivated the community to work together and come here to express its concern.”

Supporters of compromise and working with the city manager - Henri and Ella Paets
Supporters of compromise and working with the city manager – Henri and Ella Paets

Perhaps the most poignant comment of the night—yet ultimately the most frustrating—came from resident Merry Haddon.

“I appreciate your comments at the beginning, Mr. Girone, explaining the charter and your concerns — that was helpful,” she began. “I also appreciate Mr Pastue for being so vulnerable about his home life as part of his explanation; in front of a huge group, that’s really hard to do.  And I so appreciate what Mr. Crail started out with, talking about the relationship between council and the city manager. “

“This is an incredibly divided community, and I feel that you all could be a model for all the people here who are so divided. If you can come together and work together and act as role models, maybe the citizens can come together too and stop the name calling. Everybody is so tied to their ‘rightness.’ By us all getting so right, we have become so divided. I ask that you all follow the lead Mr. Crail started by trying to find a way for this community to heal.”

Public comment ended, Girone called for a 10-minut e break and the room gave out a happy, collective groan. Groups milled and talked. Neighbors from opposing sides said hi and talked about all the non-political things neighbors can talk about – kids and dogs and football—even politics outside the city limits.

City manager Pastue and Mayor Girone chat during a break
City manager Pastue and Mayor Girone chat during a break

When council resumed, Mr. Rolfson made a motion to develop an agenda for the next meeting where, at the February 2 meeting, Mr. Pastue might be able to discuss some of the analysis presented in his SWOT memo. He said it would provide the opportunity to council to step back and think.

Marie Rich seconded the motion and council discussion ensued. Mr. Slaby said he couldn’t support the motion because there were so many “ghost issues” involved, like the type of government Mount Dora works according to its charter.  Ms. Tillett thought council should empower the mayor to sit down with Pastue on his own to define these issues. Mr. Girone said he thought Pastue’s letter had said everything already and thought it had done damage to the community. Ms. Rich wondered what it would take to keep Mr. Pastue. Mr. Crail expressed regret that a cooling-off time doesn’t look like it was in the works.

Council voted on the motion and it was defeated, with Rowlett, Girone, Slaby and Tillett casting the dissenting votes.

Council was adjourned about three hours after the meeting started, and the divided groups dispersed into pairs and threes and fours walking slowly out back into a night that began raining heavily before dawn.

What’s next isn’t clear. With no motion to prevent Mr. Pastue from resigning, council may continue their discussion of Mr. Pastue at next regular council meeting on February 2, but without strong support coming from council, Mr. Pastue may have heard all he needed to. Discussion then may center around Mr. Pastue’s contract termination agreement and breaking ground on work to find his replacement.

The divisions in the community may just become sharper if those angered at the loss of Mr. Pastue decide to pursue a recall election.  And judging from the intensity of the comments of those in support of council—angered at what they say are “special interests” meddling in city and council affairs—it’s certain they will wade back in to fight with renewed vigor if such a challenge is mounted. That specter concerns many, presenting another ugly issue about which the community would certainly battle.

What was clear as the meeting broke up is that Mount Dora has a very long row now to hoe. Without a cross-community, intra-government attempt to work at healing divisions, no one will have much incentive in going about the business of the City Beautiful except to even scores and dig the divide deeper. And ultimately, the voter despair and apathy that such disharmony engenders will deepen.

On January 27, Mr. Pastue, said that he would like the opportunity to answer Mr. Crail’s three pointed questions at the February 2 council meeting, and he will be bringing his separation agreement forward for the council – further discussion about the city manager’s position is definitely on the horizon.

Some bridges indeed may be difficult to un-burn.

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David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)