Thursday, April 19, 2018
News Roundup

Dunedin city manager resigns amid sharply different appraisals of his performance

DUNEDIN — Two weeks after he was surprised by the Dunedin City Commission's failed motion to fire him on the spot with no explanation, City Manager Rob DiSpirito came to Thursday night's meeting prepared.

The city manager of nine years offered commissioners two proposals: place him on a six-month probation period for a chance to address their concerns or accept his immediate resignation with a comfortable severance package.

The commission voted 4-1, with Mayor Julie Ward Buljalski against, to accept his resignation — but not before about two dozen residents took turns at the microphone to scold the commission for what many said was an unfounded attack on the city manager crafted behind closed doors.

"I think there's an undercurrent in this town right now that says those of you on the commission are above the Sunshine Law, and I'm here to tell you you're not. We will hold you accountable," said resident David Thomas. "We are the citizens. We own this town. There is no clique that owns this town … and right now, ladies and gentlemen, I am disgusted in this town."

Residents criticized the motion made close to midnight on Jan. 7 by Commissioner Heather Gracy to fire DiSpirito without providing reasons why. The motion needed a supermajority and failed 3-2 with Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski and Commissioner Deborah Kynes in opposition.

It came after DiSpirito's positive evaluation and salary increase last year.

After hearing from residents who praised DiSpirito's work ethic and called the commission's actions "disgraceful," "shady" and "despicable," commissioners each read their evaluations of the city manager before voting to accept his resignation.

Vice Mayor Bruce Livingston apologized to DiSpirito, his family and the public for the way the talk of firing came up and spiraled over the past two weeks, but then delivered a scathing review.

Livingston said his relationship with DiSpirito "has eroded to the point where I doubt he and I can effectively work together."

He said DiSpirito does not provide consistent information to all commissioners, has fostered high turnover in the finance department, micromanages staff and plays favorites with the mayor.

Gracy said she knows her motion to fire DiSpirito "unleashed a tornado," but that "as time moved on, he became less of a leader and more of a keeper of the status quo."

While Livingston read his prepared remarks, many of the roughly 50 in the audience mocked him and threw insults at the commission.

Most of the complaints from Livingston, Gracy and Commissioner John Tornga focused on DiSpirito's handling of the city's long-debated parking plan; his ability to negotiate with the Toronto Blue Jays franchise, which has a spring training facility in Dunedin; and his management style. The comments clashed with glowing praise from nearly two dozen residents who spoke during the meeting about DiSpirito's passion and competence, and with the mostly positive comments from Buljalski and Kynes.

DiSpirito's exit package includes six months of severance pay equal to $76,997; health and dental coverage for six months; $4,738 in unused vacation leave; $54,187 in unused sick leave; $17,173 in retirement contributions and an agreement to work as a city consultant for 13 weeks, for up to 40 hours a week, at $195 an hour beginning immediately.

After the meeting, DiSpirito said he was in disbelief over the commissioners' complaints. He said he had received mostly positive evaluations over his nine years and the parking plan was discussed in public and followed the commission's direction.

"Ninety-five percent of what was mentioned were concerns I've never heard before," he said. "I love this community. I just thank the employees and department heads for their talent and efforts."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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