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Madeira Beach settles lawsuit over former city manager's dismissal

MADEIRA BEACH — Nearly a year after spending about $54,000 to terminate then- City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr., the City Commission spent another $6,504.92 last week to get rid of a lawsuit challenging that action.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2011 by former City Manager Jim Madden, who said the commission's decision the previous month to pay Higginbotham a severance package that included six months worth of salary was done illegally.

He maintained that because the formal resolution terminating Higginbotham's contract was not advertised, on the official agenda, or read out during the meeting, the city violated both state law and city codes.

The commission narrowly voted 3-2 last week for a substitute resolution officially terminating Higginbotham, with Mayor Travis Palladeno and Vice Mayor Robin Vander Velde opposed. Both had been highly critical of the previous commission's actions regarding Higginbotham.

"I am going to vote as if I were on the City Commission at the time," Vander Velde explained.

The commission then voted unanimously to accept the actual settlement agreement, effectively ending the lawsuit.

The agreement did not state that the former commission had erred, only that a new termination resolution would be approved, that none of the parties had any liability to one another, and that the city would pay Madden's attorney's fees and costs in exchange for the suit being permanently dismissed.

Higginbotham was appointed city manager in 2009, replacing Jill Silverboard, who resigned to become assistant city manager in Clearwater.

Madden served as the city's manager for two years until 2004, when he went on administrative leave and then resigned amid efforts to fire him. Previously, he was city manager in Pinellas Park until the commission there fired him in 1997.

When Higginbotham was terminated, at his own request, in February 2011, the commission paid him a $54,000 severance package, as called for in his contract.

At the time, Higginbotham he said he could not work with the new commission he expected to win the March 8, 2011 election.

In that election, voters picked the current mayor, Palladeno, as well as Vander Velde as a commissioner. They, along with Nancy Oakley, who was returned to office without opposition, formed a voting block that contributed to the exodus of most of the city's top administrators.

Within months, the city also lost its longtime city clerk, city attorney, finance director, community services director, community development director, human resources manager and fire chief.

After a messy search for a new city manager that lasted months and saw two candidates reject the position — and Madden himself serving as interim city manager, the commission finally appointed Shane Crawford as permanent city manager in December.

The city's government appeared to operate without much controversy until earlier this month, when Ginger Stilton, the city clerk the commission hired last summer, decided to quit amid criticism that she was not working well with Crawford.

Tuesday, Palladeno suggested the commission should consider asking voters to change the charter to have the city clerk report to the city manager rather than continue to be supervised by the commission as called for in the charter.

The commission plans to discuss the suggestion further at its Nov. 27 workshop.

Madeira Beach settles lawsuit over former city manager's dismissal 11/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 6:23pm]
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