After three years and much controversy, Mike Roberto asks city commissioners to consider a severance package.
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Mike Roberto, the visionary but often criticized city manager of Clearwater, confirmed Tuesday that he is considering resigning, and he has quietly asked city commissioners if they would approve a severance package.
Three of the five city commissioners said the package, which would pay Roberto a year's salary of $110,000, sounds reasonable. And three commissioners said it is time for Roberto to leave, after a roller-coaster three years at the helm.
The resignation talk follows a Sunday evening meeting between Mayor Brian Aungst and Roberto in which, Aungst said, he told the city manager it would be best to resign.
However, as the two men sat on the off-white floral furniture in the living room of the mayor's Countryside home, Aungst stopped short of demanding Roberto's resignation. "I wanted it to be his decision, and he came to that decision," Aungst said Tuesday afternoon.
The resignation debate also comes on the heels of the dramatic defeat of a downtown redevelopment plan in a city referendum last week. Many plan opponents said they lacked confidence that city government could oversee the $300-million project to add movie theaters, apartments and shops downtown.
Nevertheless, in three conversations with the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, Roberto downplayed plans to leave.
"I have not worked out anything yet," Roberto said, regarding the proposed sev-erance deal, "and until that point, I'm going to stay the city manager. . . . I still think it's a little premature.
"I'm not trying to be evasive," the 44-year-old administrator added. "It's just my life."
Aungst said the City Commission probably will discuss Roberto's proposed severance package at its usual Thursday evening meeting. Other commissioners said they got the impression from Roberto that he was prepared to resign and that they could be asked to discuss his severance deal Thursday.
Roberto's tenure has been marked by his big dreams for Clearwater's future as well as bitter public criticism of how he tried to make those plans reality.
Roberto arrived with a goal to push Clearwater from being a sleepy town of sprawling, disconnected subdivisions into a more unified, thriving city. He looked at nothing as sacred. Among his bolder proposals: create a working relationship with the Church of Scientology and knock down the city's convention center downtown to build a multiplex movie theater.
Under his sweeping plan for Clearwater, "One City. One Future," Roberto aggressively pursued beautification projects such as planting palm trees and flowers along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, the city's major east-west corridor.
He had the city's entire code of land regulations rewritten to be more flexible to developers. Under him, the city has put together incentive packages to promote construction of towering new condominiums on Clearwater Beach and to attract the headquarters of IMRglobal Corp. downtown.
Less flashy initiatives have included forming a new neighborhood services division to address the needs of subdivisions.
"I've tried my darnedest to move the community forward, and I think our list of accomplishments would stack up to just about anywhere I know," Roberto said.
But the flip side of the vision has been criticism of such things as free spending on consultants and lavish benefits packages for city administrators that included up to 53 days of vacation. Roberto drew the mayor's ire for pursuing a plan to change the name of Clearwater Beach to "Clearwater's Beach," in order to remind tourists they were still in the city. Longtime residents scoffed.
But nothing Roberto did drew more ridicule than the Clearwater Beach roundabout.
Plans to build the $10-million project, a tropically landscaped traffic circle at the beach's entranceway, were approved only 11 days after being made public. The roundabout was then built at a breakneck pace last year despite opposition.
The public never has been won over. Since the roundabout opened last December, police have logged 329 fender-benders there, more than one a day. Residents have derided the roundabout at public forums as a confusing mess, a badly planned waste of taxpayers' dollars. Fixes suggested to redesign the circle could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"We moved too fast on certain things, and we have never completed some projects," Commissioner J.B. Johnson said Tuesday. "And the one project that's been completed -- that's the roundabout -- has proven to be a problem. . . . I think if (resignation is) what he wants, I think it's the proper thing to do."
Another commissioner said he was irritated Tuesday that Roberto appeared to be negotiating a lucrative departure deal outside the sunshine of a public meeting.
"It's seemingly being done behind closed doors," said city Commissioner Ed Hart. "It's typical of the kinds of back-room types of games that are played around here. . . . If we're going to accept a resignation, we need to work it out in public."
The proposed severance package, which Roberto either faxed or hand-delivered to each commission member Tuesday, asks for a year's salary, $18,200 in other benefits and a year's health insurance coverage. He also asks to keep a city handheld computer and fax machine. But under his current contract, a voluntary resignation entitles him to zero dollars in severance pay.
As rumors of Roberto's possible resignation began circulating Tuesday, they both delighted and disappointed people.
"It's a sad day for Clearwater," said Alan Bomstein, a contractor who is steeped in local politics. "He was hired and brought in to do things that this city, that no one was able to embark upon and do in the last 10 to 15 years. . . . More has happened in his two years than in the previous 18."
But others said the controversies have weakened Roberto's effectiveness.
"I think the (downtown) referendum was the last vote by the public that ... there hasn't been enough scrutiny of the actions taken by Mike," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, a former city commissioner.
"Change is often difficult, but if you're going to make change, you have to do it in a very deliberative manner with the full trust of the community," Seel said. "He has made just enough mistakes that led people to question ... not his motives but his methodology."