TARPON SPRINGS — By 2:30 a.m., city commissioners no longer seemed sure what they had voted on.
Did they fire the city manager?
Or did they decide to look for her replacement — even though she's still on the job, with no plan to leave?
In a night of contradictions, confusion and drama, commissioners voted 3-to-2 for the second option — to begin a search to replace City Manager Ellen Posivach.
But after a rambling, three-hour discussion, it was clear that city officials didn't all understand what had just happened.
Posivach, 56, thanked commissioners and residents for "nine of the best years of my career."
Moments later, Commissioner Robin Saenger turned to Posivach and asked for something to be put on an upcoming agenda.
"I won't be here," Posivach said.
Mayor Beverley Billiris requested the motion be clarified.
Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who made the motion, said Posivach was still the city manager, but a search would be conducted to replace her.
With composure, Posivach picked up her pen and began jotting notes.
Wednesday's morning vote came during a meeting that started at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
First, commissioners worked their way through a full slate of routine business: consideration of various purchases and proclamations on National Arbor Day, Building Safety Week and Older Americans Month.
Then, late, they turned their attention to the topic that has commanded more and more of their time in recent weeks.
Posivach, the city manager since 1998, drew the ire of commissioners last month when she asked to substitute two days of time worked for two days she wanted to take off to go on a trip.
Commissioners said they were shocked to learn later her trip was to Goodyear, Ariz., where she was a finalist for a city manager position.
Posivach, whose annual salary is $122,910, later withdrew that request and took the time off as vacation. Then she withdrew from consideration from the Goodyear job and told commissioners she wanted to stay in Tarpon Springs.
Two weeks ago, commissioners adopted new guidelines to clarify their expectations about how she was to schedule days off.
But at that same meeting, the discussion took a surprising turn.
Posivach said three lawyers had contacted her about comments made about her at the meeting she missed in March to go to Arizona. The lawyers, she said, mentioned the possibility of filing a slander suit.
"I took it as a threat," Commissioner Chris Alahouzos said. "I don't think that was very positive."
Issues about Posivach came up again Tuesday night, prompted by questions Dalacos raised in March about the extent of her employee benefits, which he believed to be inconsistent with her contract with the city.
At the start of Tuesday night's discussion, Posivach apologized to commissioners and residents for any confusion caused by her request for time off.
She thanked the board for the guidelines they had provided and said she hoped the matter had been resolved.
"We have got to move forward beyond this negative issue. We have so many things on our plate that are facing us that are huge," Posivach said, citing budgetary concerns and pending major projects.
Billiris acknowledged a "disconnect" between Posivach and commissioners, which other commissioners later said also extended to staff and residents. Billiris suggested hiring a facilitator to help resolve any differences.
At first, three commissioners — Alahouzos, Saenger and new Commissioner Susan Slattery — seemed to agree that mediation was a good idea.
And Posivach said she welcomed the opportunity to settle outstanding issues through an outside facilitator.
Posivach agreed there was a disconnect, but said it included discord among board members that often left her with conflicting instructions.
She said she had been getting pulled in different directions by commissioners.
As the night went on, however, Alahouzos and Slattery said they did not agree to mediation.
Impassioned residents on both sides stayed until after midnight to weigh in.
Some called for Posivach's termination. Others asked the board to put the matter aside and consider her contributions to the city.
Tod Eckhouse said he believed commissioners were on the right track in considering a facilitator and credited Posivach for helping to assemble an experienced and capable staff.
Former Mayor Frank DiDonato implied commissioners had blown the comp time issue out of proportion.
"If the wagon wheel is broken, you fix the wheel," he said. "You don't get rid of the wagon."
But Chris Hrabovsky said it had been "greedy" for Posivach to request comp time considering her salary.
And former Mayor Anita Protos criticized Posivach for her comments about lawyers calling her.
"I take that as a slap in the face, because we pay your salary," she said.
Several commissioners said they thought Posivach was competent, even skilled, in her job. But they cited concerns over what they described as her lack of "interpersonal skills."
Posivach possesses great "technical ability," Alahouzos said, "but she needs to be improved in her people skills."
Dalacos made the motion to begin a search. Alahouzos seconded the motion, which carried 3-2 with Slattery's assent.
Billiris and Saenger dissented.
Both said Posivach should be given a chance to try to correct problems raised by commissioners.
"After nine years of service, I think you deserve that," Saenger said.
On Wednesday, Slattery said she based her decision on her concerns that the city could be left without a city manager at a critical time if Posivach sought another job elsewhere.
But Slattery, elected barely a month ago, said residents have "bombarded" her with complaints about Posivach since her campaign.
"They have lost their trust in Ellen," she said.
Dalacos said he doesn't expect Posivach to be around City Hall long.
"I don't think that's really an option," he said. "I feel that at this point, I don't see how Ellen can effectively lead and manage, knowing her time is limited."
But Posivach said Wednesday afternoon she intends to stay on as a search is conducted.
"I will do whatever I can to make the best transition for this community and everyone here," she said.
Posivach said she loves Tarpon Springs, especially the people.
"We'll just see where this goes," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at
email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.