KEY LARGO — At last week’s wastewater district meeting, one commissioner’s effort to strike another’s agenda item exposed an ongoing rift within the board centering on a philosophical question: How much control should the commissioners have over the district staff?
Debate over that matter has simmered for a year, erupting on occasion during meetings of the five-commissioner board of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.
In May, the board commenced using the second of its three meetings a month to discuss drafting a policy manual, a guide covering the finer points of meeting conduct and also staff administration. This was inspired by the fact that less time has been needed in meetings to take action on items such as construction.
During the policy-manual meeting on May 10, the commissioners and staff went over such topics as “The Role of the Chairman” and “General Conduct of Meetings.”
Commissioner Steve Gibbs expressed a reluctance to talk about these items and made reference several times to the fact that such matters are spelled out in “Robert’s Rules of Order,” a guide to parliamentary procedures that the board and many other governing bodies refer to for conducting meetings.
Commissioner Norm Higgins agreed.
“You’re spending too much time. … It’s just b------t,” he said when discussion turned toward making changes to an agenda before a meeting.
After that meeting, Gibbs told the Free Press that discussing the policy manual was an unnecessary task. Though he expressed gratitude toward Commissioner Andy Tobin — “I respect the good work he’s done over the years” — he said that talking about policy was “baby steps to give Tobin more control.”
At last week’s policy manual meeting, the time came to talk about “Commissioners’ Duties and Responsibilities,” a list that Tobin had submitted to be discussed and had first circulated among the other board members and the staff last September.
The first items on the list are: “Duty to Employ the Manager,” “Duty to Supervise the Manager,” “Duty to Evaluate the Manager,” “Duty to Report Problems” and “Duty to Plan for the Succession of the Manager.”
Last summer and fall was a time of contention among the board and staff. In July Tobin accused General Manager Paul Christian of a lack of transparency regarding the salaries of two of the district’s senior staff. He said Christian short-changed former plant operations manager Dan Saus of a more generous raise while giving chief information officer Rob Bulkiewicz three raises in the same period.
In the Oct. 13 meeting Gibbs asked Tobin to step down from his duties as a commissioner, taking issue with the fact that, among other things, Tobin had paid for legal research about the duties of the board without telling the other members first.
The June 14 board meeting started earlier than usual, at 3:30 p.m., to accommodate a closed-session attorney-client meeting between General Counsel Ray Giglio and the commissioners about a summons and complaint that had been served to the district.
Tobin was not yet present at the meeting, which usually starts at 4 p.m. Commissioner Robby Majeska was absent. In the “Approval of Agenda” section just after 3:30, Gibbs moved to strike Tobin’s “Commissioners’ Duties and Responsibilities” list from that meeting and future meetings “permanently.”
Giglio said that commissioners could not make motions to bind future boards, so Gibbs changed the motion to move discussing the list until after the November election. Higgins seconded the motion, and it passed with a 2-1 vote. Chairman Dave Asdourian was the dissenter.
When Tobin arrived at the meeting, he expressed surprise that his list had been deleted from the agenda, and asked Giglio why the meeting started at 3:30 rather than 4.
“I think the agenda speaks for itself,” Giglio said.
Tobin asked Giglio if he could bring up the list again at a future meeting, and Giglio said he could.
“Steve, you’re not going to use a parliamentary trick to stop debate. We’ll see what a full board has to say,” Tobin said to Gibbs, indicating that Majeska would be back.
After the meeting, Tobin told the Free Press that the incident showed a difference in philosophy between himself and Gibbs.
“I’ve been in government affairs for 40 years,” he said. “Commissioners have to do more than show up and vote for what’s on the agenda.”
He said that he was concerned about Gibbs’ remarks in a recent local interview that the general manager is the captain of the ship and therefore “he’s God,” Tobin said.
“Time has been healing old wounds,” Tobin said, referring to the tension from last summer and fall. “But there still is an issue: What are our duties? Are we potted plants? … I like when commissioners interfere. That means they’re interested. Most people think politicians are evil and corrupt. … But in a small town people can’t get away with that stuff.”
For his part, Gibbs told the Free Press there is no reason to discuss a list of commissioner’s duties in meetings since material such as staff administration is covered in “Robert’s Rules of Order.”
When asked where that passage was in “Robert’s Rules,” he said that the topic was covered but he didn’t have the book in front of him. He said that no other Monroe County boards write rules governing themselves.
“Not only do no other elected boards make rules governing themselves because that would limit open debate, but I don’t think there’s a need for doing all this,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do in terms of maintenance. There’s tons of stuff we need to do that’s a lot more important than this.”
Gibbs, who is seeking reelection in November, denied that he does not want to discuss the nature of commissioner’s duties in general.
“To the contrary, our duties are simple: Those who are elected govern, managers manage,” he said. “Our responsibilities are to the public, the people who pay for the removal of wastewater, not for self-gain or aggrandizement. We are all five commissioners equally responsible, and I believe we are all keenly aware of that responsibility.”
Tobin said that administrating staff is not covered in “Robert’s Rules.”
“We set our own rules and policies and contracts and rates,” he said. “And we’ve done a pretty darn good job in the past 13 years of putting in a system of checks and balances, and Steve is trying to dismantle a proven system of checks and balances. There is no ‘God’ in our district.”