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Top lieutenant forced to quit Clearwater job

After City Manager Mike Roberto fires his deputy, the City Commission tells Roberto that his job is also on the line.

City commissioners took turns publicly scolding City Manager Mike Roberto Thursday night, with some telling him he was one step from losing his job.

Hours earlier, Roberto forced the resignation of his top lieutenant, Deputy City Manager Rick Hedrick, after the Times reported that Hedrick directed an employee to alter his employment contract, and it was changed improperly.

At least one commissioner said Roberto's move saved his job.

"Your job could have been in jeopardy today," Commissioner Ed Hooper said. "But I think you have taken the minimum actions."

Commissioners said repeatedly they are frustrated with Roberto's mistakes _ several having to do with excessive spending and perks for his top staff.

"If we don't see some change immediately in attitude, communication and what's going on, action will be taken," Commissioner J.B. Johnson said, "even if I have to be the first one who brings it up."

Roberto has been criticized by commissioners and residents for spending too lavishly on consultants and employee benefits, like car allowances and a $15,000 retreat _ and then asking for a 12 percent property tax rate increase along with an extra fee for the fire department.

Johnson and Hooper said last month that if Roberto doesn't improve by his annual evaluation in October, the city might have to search for a new city manager. Thursday's meeting was the first time they publicly told Roberto his job is on the line.

"Some of these things are adding up," Mayor Brian Aungst said. "We need to be more on top of things. We need to restore the public trust."

Aungst asked Roberto to spend more time with the staff instead of with the community _ a practice Roberto has become known for in his two years here.

"That message is real clear," Roberto said. "I understand what you are saying and what the commission has told me in the past."

Roberto said he asked Hedrick to resign even though Hedrick did nothing wrong. But after months of attacks on his administration, Roberto said he had to make a change.

"He's a good employee, a fine human being and a professional," Roberto said. "But any time there is a question of public trust, you have to look at the circumstances and consider whether you should go in a different direction."

Hedrick, who left work for the last time Thursday morning, had worked for the city for two years. He will receive a severance package, Roberto said, but the two have not yet worked out the amount.

"I'm sad. I'm heartbroken," Hedrick said Thursday. "People think I have done something wrong. From this point forward, I will be suspect. I don't want to live that way."

In March, Hedrick told Paul O'Rourke, human resources administrator, to reduce the number of extra vacation days Hedrick was to receive this year from 30 to 10. The two agreed to change the contract back about two weeks ago to restore the extra 30 days.

O'Rourke altered the contract improperly by swapping one page for another _ a violation of Florida's public records law and a misdemeanor under state law _ instead of creating an amendment to the document as required.

Roberto suspended O'Rourke for five days without pay July 30. The suspension ended Friday.

The Times originally requested contracts of about 25 city employees in April. The contracts also show that several other top officials receive about as much vacation time as Hedrick _ substantially greater than their counterparts in other cities.

The 15 other employees who receive extra vacation days met in the commission chambers Thursday afternoon and decided they would give up some of their vacation time if asked by Roberto. Roberto did not ask them Thursday but vowed to look into salary and benefits packages.

The employees presented Roberto with a brief, signed letter just before the meeting, which outlined their confidence in him. They sat in the front two rows of the audience during the meeting as a show of support.

Commissioners said they were appalled to learn of the vacation packages Roberto gives his top employees. They had similar reactions when they found out Roberto spent $15,000 on a retreat for 16 top staff members and gave them car allowances, as much as $4,200 a year.

"I was aghast at some of the vacation leave," said Aungst. "Ted Turner, who runs Time Warner, doesn't even have that kind of leave."