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St. Pete Beach to interview, hire clerk Saturday

Despite widespread disagreement over the accountability of the city clerk, the City Commission will pick one from three finalists Saturday.

The commission will interview the candidates at a public meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at City Hall, 7701 Boca Ciega Drive. After a lunch break, the commission will return at 1 p.m. for closed one-on-one interviews with the finalists.

At 5 p.m., at another public hearing, the commission will make its choice.

The city clerk is responsible for keeping all city records and the city seal used on official documents, preparing the commission agenda and taking minutes of city meetings.

The nominees are:

+ Victoria McDonald, town clerk and administrator at Redington Beach since June 1996. McDonald also was a municipal clerk in Hillsborough Township, N.J., for eight years where she had experience negotiating with unions, promoting economic development and serving on an ethics committee for the city. She was certified as a city clerk through programs at Rutgers and Syracuse universities.

+ Deborah Sandler, a former legal secretary, executive secretary and office manager since 1990. Sandler is expecting to complete her master's degree in public administration at the University of South Florida by spring 1998, where she also received a bachelor of arts in political science. Sandler has been chairman of Oldsmar's Cultural Arts Advisory Board. She has no experience as a city clerk.

+ Sandra Sims, city clerk and personnel director in Cape Canaveral since April 1995. Sims was also city clerk in Pompano Beach, Winter Park and Clermont. She is a certified municipal clerk and has been an officer of the Florida Association of City Clerks, but she has no college degree. Sims also owned her own accounting and management business for foreign-owned companies in the Netherlands Antilles from 1986 to 1994.

St. Pete Beach's fourth city clerk will earn a $38,000-a-year salary, plus up to $2,000 in moving expenses, which the City Commission approved last week.

That's about $5,000 more than the average salary of city clerks in cities of 10,000 and under like St. Pete Beach, according to a survey by the Florida League of Cities.

But it is about $11,000 less than former City Clerk Jane Ellsworth made.

Ellsworth was fired and rehired, then she eventually resigned this year after accusing former City Manager Danny Walker of sexual harassment. She later settled a federal claim against the city for $110,000.

Whoever takes on the city clerk's position will be stepping into a controversy over the chain of command at City Hall, a debate that arose from past power struggles between the city clerk and city manager.

For the first time in city history, the city clerk will report to the city manager, although the clerk would be hired and fired by the City Commission.

Since St. Pete Beach was founded 40 years ago, both the city manager and city clerk have reported independently to the commission.

The commission approved the change with a 3-2 vote in August; Commissioners John Bailey and Saranan Lauck objected.

Three ordinances, set to be approved in November, will rewrite city rules to make the change official.

One proposed ordinance states the city manager can recommend the firing of the clerk, but only the commission can actually hire and fire the clerk. Another amends the personnel manual to reflect the change. A third gives the new clerk the power to bring grievances before the personnel review board.

Commissioners who favored the change said it would streamline the chain of command at City Hall and prevent a struggle between the city manager and city clerk.

But critics of the reorganization say it eliminates checks and balances in city government. They fear if the city manager controls the city clerk, he can order her to be less forthcoming with public information.

Local critics also object that the commission is reorganizing the office without a public referendum, possibly overstepping the intent of the City Charter.

The charter states only that it is the commission's job to appoint the city manager, clerk and attorney. But it does not explicitly state the clerk's office must be independent.

"I still maintain that the charter requires the clerk's office to be independent," Bailey said. "That was clearly the intent of the charter. If there's any question at all, I think it should go to the voters to decide."

St. Pete Beach Watchful Alert Taxpayers (SWAT), a citizens action group formed this year, is organizing a petition drive to put the question of the clerk's position on a March referendum.

SWAT needs the signatures of about 780 people, or 10 percent of the 7,800 registered voters at the time of the last general city election, to force a referendum. They plan to start going door to door for signatures in a month and turn in the petition at the end of December with 100 more signatures than are needed.

"I don't think it's going to be a tough sell," said Nina Luse, one of the petition organizers. "I've gotten quite a lot of calls from people who are anxious to sign it. I would be really surprised if this was defeated at the polls."