ISLAMORADA -- Amid gushing praise, the Village Council decided last Thursday to make Maria Aguilar the long-term village manager.
"I, for one, have been overwhelmed and impressed," Mayor Ted Blackburn said in reference to the work Aguilar has done since becoming Islamorada's interim manager upon the unexpected departure of Ed Koconis on Feb. 6. "She's done a spectacular job keeping things together, making things grow."
Aguilar, who has been the village's finance director since the summer of 2011, wasn't even asked by the council to speak on her own behalf at the March 13 meeting. She had previously let council members know she was interested in staying on as manager. The vote was 4-0. Vice Mayor Deb Gillis did not attend the meeting due to the death earlier in the week of her husband, Larry.
"I think Maria has got the qualifications necessary," Councilman Ken Philipson said. "She understands some of our problems and our needs."
Phiipson's colleagues tapped him to negotiate a contract with Aguilar. At the meeting he proposed keeping her on at her present salary of $125,000, plus providing her with a $5,000 signing bonus after 90 days. Aguilar received a $27,000 raise upon becoming interim manager last month.
Aguilar has already told the council that she doesn't want her benefits package to differ from rank-and-file village staff. Previous village managers have received a variety of extra perks, including additional retirement, car allowances and, in some cases, housing allowances.
In an interview Friday, Aguilar said she hasn't agreed to the $125,000 salary. Koconis was making $144,000 at the time of his departure, but in addition to being manager he was also the village's planning director. Aguilar plans to hire a replacement to take over the finance department.
Also on the Koconis front last week, the council decided to pay the ex-manager a severance of $176,000 -- the largest figure of the four alternatives Aguilar had put forth. Originally, in a quick calculation that she made during the meeting in which Koconis and the council parted ways, Aguilar estimated that Koconis' contract would call for a $107,000 payout. The determination was based upon the assumption that he would receive a payout for just 50 percent of the value of his unused sick time. Koconis' final contract, however, included language calling for him to be paid for all of his remaining sick leave.
Still, the council was left to determine last Thursday the meaning of an "or" clause in Koconis' contract. Koconis, the clause said, was entitled upon his departure "to receive payment of all accrued and unused sick or annual leave calculated at the village manager's rate of pay in effect upon the date of termination."
If the council had determined that clause gave the village the option of paying Koconis for only his unused vacation time, he could have been paid a severance as low as $88,000.
However, Koconis' cause was aided by Michael Reckwerdt, the mayor when Koconis signed his final contract, and by another council member at the time, Don Achenberg. Both turned out to last week's meeting to tell the council that the intent of the contract was to pay Koconis for both his unused sick and vacation time.
Achenberg even treated the council to a grammar lesson on how "or," a coordinating conjunction, could be read in this case like an "and."
The lectures about intent helped tip the council toward the higher payout.
"I'm going to go with the intent of the former mayor who wrote the contract," Councilman Mike Forster said.
In another item last week, the council unanimously approved the historical designation application of Tom Vellanti II, a self-proclaimed history buff who owns the Treasure Village Montessori School building. Art McKee, remembered as the father of modern treasure diving, developed the building in 1953 as a museum housing his treasure collection. Treasure Village is the first village-designated historical building. Under local law, the designation can only be made in cooperation with the property owner.
In addition, at the March 13 meeting, the council gave final passage to an ordinance increasing from 6,692 square feet to 15,000 square feet the amount of commercial space the town can allocate for development annually. The move should reduce the frequency of backlogs among property owners seeking to build new retail space or to expand existing space.
Finally, Blackburn led a council discussion on beefing up the village's code enforcement. The council tasked Village Attorney Roget Bryan with developing recommendations on how to improve enforcement of local ordinances.