KEY LARGO -- After public backlash concerns prompted it to abandon efforts to collect back pay, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District board is now looking in part to an eight-decade-old Texas legal ruling in order to get its money.
The Key Largo Wastewater Board was expected to vote Tuesday, Sept. 17, to issue itself and former board members checks for back pay totaling up to $51,000. The outcome of the meeting was not known at press time.
District Manager Margaret Blank told the Free Press that the money is legally owed to the board members.
According to numbers provided by Blank, board member Norm Higgins is owed $10,884.51; board member Andy Tobin, $10,004.74; chairman Robby Majeska, $9,792.73; board member David Asdourian, $1,937.16; and board member Steve Gibbs, $1,452.87.
Also to be paid are former board members Susan Hammaker, who is owed $8,531.54, and Charlie Brooks, who died in March and is owed $9,334.79. Neither Blank or Ray Giglio, the sewer district's attorney, could say how Brooks' estate would be compensated.
In February, the board voted 2-2, with Majeska absent, to omit a request for back pay from a bill asking the Florida Legislature for an annual cost-of-living adjustment, even though district officials said board members should have been receiving payment increases all along.
State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, told the Free Press that the decision came after her office suggested the bill would have a better chance of passing without the retroactive payment. It was later approved and signed by Gov. Rick Scott without the back pay request.
During back pay discussions earlier this year, Asdourian said it would not look good if the board voted to give itself retroactive pay at the same time it began receiving an annual adjustment. Asdourian did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Attempts to reach Hammaker were also not successful, but she told the Free Press in February that she did not want any back pay, and if issued a check, she would donate it to charity.
Gibbs, the newest on the board and eligible for the least amount of back pay, said he doesn't know where $51,000 will come from in the budget. In February, Gibbs sided with Asdourian against dolling out retroactive pay.
"I'm leaning against it," he told the Free Press last week.
Gibbs, though, stopped short of saying he would take a stand against the pay out.
Tobin told the Free Press he planned on accepting the money, because it is legally owed to the board.
"This is pretty clear cut," he said. "There isn't any controversy."
The board's chairman also appeared to be leaning toward accepting the money.
"I don't think we have a choice," Majeska said, adding he had yet to review Giglio's six-page memo making the legal case for the back pay.
As to why the matter is being brought up seven months after the board walked away from the money, Giglio would only say that he began researching the law on his own initiative.
His memo, which was written in July, makes reference to a 1935 Texas case that says elected officials must not waive payment because it could result in political seats being filled by less qualified candidates because they are willing to work for less.
Giglio adds that the Florida Constitution, as written in 1885, requires salaries to be duly paid and that the district's original charter called for cost-of-living increases. The index originally used by the district, however, was later abandoned by the state.
According to the memo, the board members are eligible for the pay immediately, but no explanation was provided as to why the district waited until after next fiscal year's budget was approved to resurrect the back pay issue. The board approved a $23 million budget on Sept. 3 without reference to $51,000 in back pay.
Even though she says the retroactive pay is legally required, Blank explained that she was bringing the item before board for a vote this week as formality, since all expenses over $10,000 require board approval.
On the chance the board voted against issuing itself back pay, Giglio said an individual board member could sue for his pay.
"They really don't have the authority to vote no," he added.
If a Key Largo resident decided to sue the district to prevent the checks from going out, Giglio said he felt the district would be on solid ground to defend itself.