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Madeira Beach grapples with legal Catch-22

MADEIRA BEACH — The city earned its "Mad Beach" nickname last week as angry commissioners struggled to find a legal way to recoup money it paid last month to former City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr.

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Higginbotham was effectively fired in February when the commission granted his request to terminate him. That action triggered a clause in his contract calling for a six-month severance package totaling about $54,000.

Former City Manager Jim Madden then sued the city, asking the court to void the commission's vote because, he said, it was done improperly.

At least one commissioner, Robin Vander Velde, wants the city to join in Madden's lawsuit as a "friendly party."

"We want the same outcome he wants, to try and get the money back for the city," Vander Velde said during a Tuesday workshop.

"We would be suing ourselves," Commissioner Terry Lister objected. "We can't go back and say whoops, we made a mistake and want the $54,000 back," he added. "I don't want the $54,000 back, I want Jim Madden to stop suing us."

Meanwhile, the city's liability insurance company attorney has advised the commission to re-approve the resolution terminating Higginbotham. That action would make Madden's lawsuit moot and end the litigation. It would also ratify Higginbotham's severance package.

The commission, however, doesn't want to do that.

A majority of the new commission had been highly critical of Higginbotham and other city officials and employees in the run-up to the March election.

That criticism is the primary reason Higginbotham wanted to leave his job.

The city's development director, Paula Cohen, had resigned a month earlier to take a job with Treasure Island.

In March, a bid by the commission to fire City Attorney Michael Connolly failed by one vote.

Days before that, the city's long-time clerk, Denise Schlegel, announced her resignation to become Dunedin city clerk.

Tuesday, Mayor Travis Palladeno and Commissioner Nancy Oakley called for a second outside attorney to be brought in to help resolve the commission's legal dilemma over Higginbotham's termination.

City attorney Connolly cautioned commissioners that they cannot have another attorney take over their defense against Madden's lawsuit unless they want to jeopardize their liability insurance coverage and possibly be sued by that company.

The commission also cannot have a closed meeting with any attorney who is not directly representing them in a legal action, Connolly said.

"I definitely want another opinion on what we can or should do," Vander Velde said.

"I would rather go outside. I don't agree with him (about the insurance attorney) at all," Oakley said.

"We are not going to get our money back. It will be just spending money after money," Lister said. "We have an insurance attorney. Start there."

After nearly an hour of debate, the commission agreed to schedule a closed meeting with Connolly and the insurance company's attorney to review their legal strategy and options.

As for Higginbotham, now president of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce, he is unapologetic.

When asked what would happen if the new commission rescinds the February vote, Higginbotham said he would once again be city manager.

He would have to give back the severance package, but the city would have to give him a month's back pay of about $10,000.

"I would be in charge and under the charter they would have no authority over anybody but me. Then if they didn't like my performance they could terminate me and, bingo, we would be right back to the severance package."

Madeira Beach grapples with legal Catch-22 04/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 5:35pm]
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