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Clearwater officials lose extra vacation

Commissioners tell City Manager Mike Roberto that his job is in jeopardy after another controversy hits City Hall.

City Manager Mike Roberto stripped 17 top administrators of extra vacation days Friday, a day after city commissioners said they were appalled to find out the employees were receiving up to 30 extra days this year.

In all, some city employees were getting as many as 53 days off _ more than 10 weeks _ when combined with the 10 regular vacation days and 13 holidays all Clearwater employees receive. All city employees also receive 10 sick days.

"It's out of line," Mayor Brian Aungst said. "Nobody gets that kind of vacation time. It's not in the realm of reality."

Roberto said he will make a decision this week on how many days off each employee will receive this year after reviewing the benefit in other area cities. They likely will get the 10 days each year all city employees get, then accrue days based on longevity. "It will be reduced substantially," Roberto said.

Commissioners didn't tell Roberto to reduce the vacation packages, but all agreed they were excessive.

"Forty days," Commissioner Bob Clark said. "I don't think I have taken 40 days off this decade."

Commissioners told Roberto last week that his job was in jeopardy after another controversy rocked City Hall _ leaving one top administrator out of a job, another suspended and the city manager trying again to explain perks given to employees.

Roberto spent time last week meeting with his top staff about the importance of public records laws and communication, working on a severance package for Deputy City Manager Rick Hedrick and investigating why and how Hedrick's employment contract was improperly altered twice.

In March, Hedrick told human resource administrator Paul O'Rourke 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. Both changes were done improperly according to state law.

The changes in the contract were reported in the Times last week. Roberto suspended O'Rourke, who changed the contract, for five days without pay. Roberto then forced Hedrick to resign Thursday.

In a commission meeting Thursday night after the resignation, Roberto vowed, once again, that he would change _ taking a much more hands-on approach, slowing redevelopment plans and providing commissioners with more information. "I am in complete and total agreement with them," he said.

Hedrick's contract calls for a severance package of five months' worth of his $95,000 salary in cash, about $39,600, his unused vacation, holiday and sick time and $5,500 to help him find a new job. The city also will pay his health insurance for five months.

Commissioner J.B. Johnson said he was shocked with the severance package for an employee who worked here only two years. "I'm surprised," he said. "I'm dumbfounded."

As of March, the city gives managers one or two months' worth of their salaries as severance and, in some cases, another two months if they agree not to sue the city, O'Rourke said. But many employees, he said, still have four months or more written into their contracts.

Hedrick, who left work Thursday, said Friday that he had not heard from the city. Roberto said he will talk to Hedrick about severance this week.

Friday, at least three commissioners were wondering if Hedrick should have been fired.

"It's not cause for termination," Commissioner Ed Hart said. "There had to be something else."

Johnson said he was sorry Hedrick had left, and that perhaps he should have been suspended, like O'Rourke. "They're both in the same category," he said. "I don't know why he was fired."

Roberto said Hedrick did nothing wrong, but after months of attacks on his administration _ most of the time about excessive spending _ he had to make a change. Roberto said Friday he will not replace Hedrick until at least five months have passed _ the duration of the severance package.

O'Rourke's suspension ended Friday, but whether he will come back to work appears to be up in the air.

Roberto said he spent the week conducting a thorough investigation into the contract change and plans to talk to O'Rourke again.

Last year, Roberto talked to his top staff members about possibly increasing the percentage of their salaries the city contributes to their tax-deferred savings plan. But commissioners, who must approve an increase, were not supportive.

They said the 6 percent contribution was more than adequate, even though O'Rourke said other cities offer higher percentages.

Some of the employee perks, such as a lavish $15,000 retreat and bonuses of up to $4,800 annually in the form of car allowances, came after commissioners rejected the increase in the retirement contribution.

Roberto and O'Rourke said that the two had nothing to do with each other and that they were just trying to make Clearwater's salary and benefits packages competitive so it would be easier to attract job candidates.

"What we were trying to do is put together a competitive package to make them competitive in the marketplace," Roberto said. "We finally got to the point that we had competitive packages."

The city started offering extra vacation in the last year, but Roberto said the days were always expected to be a one-time benefit. Employees did not have to use all the days in one year, he said, but rather could carry them into future years.

A Times review shows the time off given to Clearwater officials far exceeds the time given to officials in comparable jobs elsewhere, such as in St. Petersburg and Lakeland, even for those with more than 20 years of service.

The employees who receive extra vacation days decided to give the days up if Roberto asked them to. Roberto made the decision Friday morning to cut back on the vacation, even though the city may not be as competitive.

But commissioners aren't sure the city has to offer as much as it does.

Roberto "has been under the impression Clearwater is a sleepy town and we cannot attract good people," Hart said. "We are an attractive place for people to be."