ST. PETE BEACH — A proposed contract with City Manager Mike Bonfield may be illegal under a city ordinance, as well as an attempt to beat a new state law that goes into effect July 1.
The commission approved a contract several weeks ago, but it was never signed by Bonfield.
Now, several commissioners want to increase the length of Bonfield's severance package and they are in a hurry to do it.
A new state law that restricts severance pay for government employees to no more than 20 weeks will go into effect Friday.
Severance is an amount that may be paid to an employee who is fired for reasons other than cause.
Further complicating the issue is a city ordinance last updated in 1983 that specifically restricts a city manager's severance pay to no more than two months.
The code reads:
"Upon the adoption of a final motion of removal, the city manager shall be paid an amount equivalent to two months' salary as severance pay. This subsection shall not apply where the city manager's removal is based upon a violation of any state, county or municipal law. No severance pay shall be paid unless the city manager has been employed with the city for 12 full months."
City Attorney Mike Davis said Thursday that the code does not apply to severance pay specified in a contract.
"That has always been the interpretation, that the code only applies where there is no contract," Davis said.
Mayor Steve McFarlin said Friday he was unaware of the city code, and would have to rely on Davis' interpretation.
McFarlin is in favor of giving Bonfield a six-month severance package, but not increasing it beyond that amount.
"I would not be in favor of enhancing any employees' benefits at this time," he said.
However, a majority of the commission feels differently and appears poised to increase Bonfield's severance pay to at least nine months and possibly a full year at Tuesday's commission meeting.
That meeting is the last chance the commission will have to set Bonfield's severance pay beyond the 20-week limit approved by the state Legislature.
"If the commission acts before July 1, it will be okay," Davis said.
After July 1, the new state law will prevail.
The law applies to contracts and employment agreements that contain a severance provision negotiated and executed by "a unit of government" on or after July 1.
The new law specifically requires that "severance pay provided may not exceed an amount greater than 20 weeks of compensation" and prohibits any severance when an employee is fired for misconduct.
Bonfield's present contract was originally written in 2002 and renewed by previous commissions every two years.
That contract limits severance pay to whatever is left on the contract term, which now expires in January.
Bonfield doesn't want to wait until January to have a new contract in place.
He now wants an open-ended contract that would continue indefinitely until cancelled by either party on a 60-day notice.
He asked that it include severance equivalent to a full year's salary.
In May, the commission agreed to six months' severance, but at Commissioner Bev Garnett's urging is now reconsidering increasing that amount to at least nine months.
"We've got laws changing in July," Garnett said recently. "We just need to address this and move on."
Bonfield, who never signed the contract approved in May, now plans to wait until after Tuesday's meeting.
"We'll have to see what happens," he said.