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Meet the cast, crew of reality 'Mad Beach'

A small township along the azure shores of the Gulf of Mexico is listing, and it's not clear if its new political leadership will be able to right the ship.

As residents from neighboring communities watch in amusement and amazement, the situation at Madeira Beach City Hall is starting to look like a bad episode of reality television. Think Survivor meets Madeira Shore.

Since a new mayor and City Commission voting bloc took over in March, they have pushed an agenda of spending less on city administration, more on infrastructure and programs that affect residents.

Their denials notwithstanding, they also seem intent on micromanaging the city's day-to-day operations in apparent violation of the city charter — and that has turned City Hall into a revolving door.

Even more odd: upon taking office in March, Commissioner Robin Vander Velde initially refused to fill out federal employment forms that require her Social Security number. She has refused to accept her pay from the city and declined to explain why.

For those new to the show, here's what has taken place since December:

• First, planning and zoning director Paula Cohen departed. Two months later, City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. followed suit when he saw what he considered trouble on the horizon.

• Next to go: the city clerk, the finance director and then the director of community services. Of all those key positions, only the city clerk's job has been filled.

• The search for a city manager turned into a comedy routine. At one point, some commissioners incorrectly filled out a rating sheet on a list of candidates. Twice, the commission tentatively settled on a candidate, but both times the candidates withdrew during contract negotiations.

• Human resources director Deborah Cline filed a complaint alleging that three of the elected officials were creating a hostile work environment for her. The acting city manager later dismissed the complaint as "baseless."

• Even the lawn maintenance guy quit. Is there no peace in the city's gardens?

It's worth noting that many of the departed officials have landed jobs in bigger cities in the county.

Higginbotham, the former city manager, is now president and executive director of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce.

Cohen, the former community development director, is a senior planner at Treasure Island.

Former City Clerk Denise Schlegel holds the same position in Dunedin.

Former finance director Monica Mitchell is now assistant finance director for Clearwater.

Former community services director Mike Maxemo, whose 36 years in Madeira Beach included three stints as interim city manager, has been named operations manager for St. Pete Beach.

After all this, the morale of the surviving city staff has to be sagging.

In August, James "Scott" Sundermeier pulled out of contract negotiations for the city manager job after the commission rejected the salary he proposed and countered with more restrictive benefits.

There is "a significant knowledge and expectation gap with respect to the needs of the organization," said Sundermeier, a former public works director and interim city manager in Coconut Creek. He also said the new city manager would be faced with "essentially rebuilding the professional infrastructure" of the city as well as "rebuilding employee morale."

Mayor Travis Palladeno recently said he felt like he was playing city manager, but some residents on a community blog, madbeachinsider.wordpress.com, say he has been "playing mayor" as well.

Some question whether the elected officials are violating the city charter, which specifies that commissioners are to set policy but requires the city manager to implement it. The city manager is supposed to be the filter between the commission and city employees. But that hasn't always been the case since this group took charge in March.

While the local blog has generated a lot of vitriol against city leaders, the noise in the virtual world has yet to cross over to this realm. If taxpayers are dismayed about what has transpired in recent months, they're not saying so at city meetings. To date, there has been little public indication that the commission is bucking the voters' will.

The deafening silence could be the calm before the storm.

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8874.

Meet the cast, crew of reality 'Mad Beach' 09/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 6:06pm]

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