ST. PETE BEACH — City commissioners backed away Tuesday from a plan to give City Manager Mike Bonfield a larger severance package.
After receiving a flood of e-mails and phone calls from residents upset about the idea, Commissioner Bev Garnett pulled reconsideration of Bonfield's contract from Tuesday's commission agenda.
Instead, Bonfield has now signed a contract, originally offered a month ago, that provides for six months of pay if the commission were to fire him for any reason other than official cause.
Garnett had wanted to increase Bonfield's severance package to at least nine months.
"It became a political firestorm," she said.
Some residents were confused, she said, and wrongly believed that Bonfield had not signed the original contract because he was hoping to negotiate a better package. However, Bonfield had left on vacation at 6 a.m. the day after the commission approved his contract and had no chance to sign it.
By the time he returned, Garnett said she had changed her mind and wanted to offer him a bigger severance package. Bonfield had originally asked for a year's salary if he were dismissed from his job.
"In defense of Mr. Bonfield, there has been a lot of bad publicity going on out there that he is not deserving of," Garnett said.
She said it was "not fair" that she and the commission were "chastised" by residents for doing their jobs.
Commissioner Marvin Shavlan asked whether any commissioners had known before about a new state law restricting severance pay.
Before the meeting, Shavlan said he was sure that no one knew, or "there would have been no interest in discussing it or placing it on our upcoming agenda."
Only Commissioner Jim Parent said he knew about the new law.
"I didn't know what was in it," Garnett said. "I knew a change was coming, but not what was in the law."
However, Bonfield said the commission had talked about the new law months ago when first discussing the need to update his contract.
"I don't think that was a surprise," City Attorney Mike Davis agreed.
The law, which went into effect Friday, restricts new municipal employee contracts to no more than 20 weeks of severance pay.
Since Bonfield signed his contract earlier in the week, he will get an extra month's severance pay for a total of six months.