ST. PETE BEACH — A new war is erupting in this community over the abrupt move by the City Commission, led by Mayor Maria Lowe, to fire City Manager Mike Bonfield.
The participants in this war are divided along long-simmering lines involving new and old issues debated, legally fought over and in some minds still unresolved.
This week, Bonfield, as the leader of the city's government for the past 12 years, became the focus of these battles.
Over the past decade, Bonfield has been both praised and blamed for issues ranging from the multiple lawsuits over development regulations; to the then-controversial building of the City Hall, police station and recreation center; the city's deteriorating infrastructure, particularly in Pass-a-Grille; and the millions of dollars the city needs to repair its aging sewer system.
Despite the repeated calls for his departure from some residents, Bonfield received consistently high marks from the commissions he served — the most recent just months ago.
On Wednesday, one night after the commission's surprise move, residents jammed City Hall demanding to find out why.
They left angry and frustrated as Lowe refused to allow residents to speak.
Sheriff's deputies, concerned about Lowe's safety, escorted her home after the meeting.
Over the next two days, rumors flew around town about calls to the sheriff or state attorney seeking an investigation of possible Sunshine Law violations and about potential efforts to recall Lowe, Terri Finnerty and Melinda Pletcher from the commission for their votes to oust Bonfield.
None of those rumors could be substantiated and all officials have denied any impropriety.
Former Mayor Ward Friszolowski, who attended Wednesday's special meeting, reacted with frustration Friday.
He said he met with Lowe twice before the March election and she denied she was targeting Bonfield, adding that she would wait at least six months before considering firing him.
"I believed her. It was extremely disappointing to me that she did not follow through on her word. I had high hopes for her. I like to trust people and I felt my trust was betrayed," Friszolowski said. "This was not building a team, it was a firing squad."
Other residents reacted similarly.
"Something just didn't smell right," said resident Tony Cahill who said he is concerned about Sunshine Law violations.
Pletcher denied that she colluded with Lowe and Finnerty and said it was "absolutely not true" that she had sought Bonfield's dismissal for years.
Former Commissioner Harry Metz, a Lowe supporter, acknowledged he told Lowe during her campaign that Bonfield needed to be replaced.
He believes Bonfield mismanaged the city and dismisses people angry at his firing as just upset because they did not know it was going to happen.
Ingrid Jacobus, who served on the city's Historic Preservation Board with both Lowe and Pletcher, is one of those upset residents.
"I was shocked," she said. "It was not on the agenda and done at the end of the meeting. It doesn't seem professional and honest to me. The way it was done, all in lock-step. It makes one wonder."
Resident Mark Dawson also is angry that Lowe did not tell voters her intentions during the campaign.
"There was nothing to telegraph her displeasure and then, boom, this happens," he said.
"This was done poorly," said former Commissioner Al Halpern. "She has a responsibility to tell residents why she did it."
"It's just time for a new city manager," countered resident Deborah Scheckner. "We need a new perspective to bring the different factions together. Mr. Bonfield doesn't fit for our city any longer."
She blamed Bonfield for "disenfranchising" certain people in the city by not treating them fairly.
Former commissioner Linda Chaney applauded Bonfield's removal.
"All he has to show for his track record are lawsuits and divisiveness," Chaney said.
Bonfield's replacement will have to find a way to bring the city's factions to the peace table.
But first, the commission will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday to debate Bonfield's severance package. Lowe said she plans to restrict audience comments to that topic and not allow anyone to challenge the commission's action.