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Raises halted after coming to light

(ran Beach, South editions)

In early August, three city commissioners met individually with then-interim city manager Mike Maxemow to grant more than $19,000 in raises to department heads.

They signed off on the document, granting Maxemow a pay increase of nearly $7,000 effective Aug. 5 _ less than two weeks before the new city manager arrived.

There were no witnesses. No public discussion. No open government.

Maxemow, the community services director and a city employee for nearly 30 years, told commissioners Charlie Parker (now the mayor), Len Piotti and John Wolbert that the city's non-union employees were underpaid. He showed them a survey, got their signatures and funneled the costs into the 2004-05 budget.

On Thursday, facing scrutiny and criticism, the commission held a special meeting to undo what they did in August.

They voted 4-1 to suspend the pay increases and to not seek reimbursement from the four department heads affected by the action. They also called for a more extensive pay scale survey of other cities.

Commissioners Kevin Connolly and Martha Boos were not on the commission at the time, but both said they would not have granted the raises based on the meager information available, and definitely not in private.

"This wasn't done in an open meeting," Boos said. "They just met and signed it and changed the ranges. Was this intentional? Did we do this because we wanted to change the process or did we do this because we wanted to do it?"

Connolly said he didn't feel like anything nefarious went on, but he advised commissioners to "always keep the city clerk in the loop and you'll hardly ever go wrong."

The community development director, community services director, finance director and fire chief received individual raises ranging from $1,323 to $6,824 a year. Though the raises totaled $19,286, they have cost the city only $3,450 so far, said finance director Monica Mitchell.

The three who signed the memo blamed their actions on their ignorance: Parker, Piotti and Wolbert all say they didn't know of the resolution passed in 2002 that prohibited a change to the pay scales until 2005. They viewed the memo as a continuation of earlier discussions.

Parker, an 11-year commission veteran and longtime attorney, said in hindsight, it should not have happened.

"Looking at it, I guess we did do something wrong," he said, after the meeting. "As I now know, it was just not the way to do it."

"I'm going to be looked upon as some guy who would subvert the system so everybody could get a raise," he added. "I feel what I did was justified at the time. I wanted to correct it" at the meeting Thursday.

Sunshine Law experts say everyone involved should have known better.

Karen Camechis, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said Friday "if this is something the City Commission needed to act on as a body, this should have been done in public."

"If what he (Maxemow) did was try to circumvent the public hearing process . . . that was inappropriate," she said. "What that does is cut the public out of the process. That would be a concern."

A handful of community members expressed their outrage and disappointment.

Ken Jacobsen, former mayor of Madeira Beach, said the memo "is the grossest violation of government in the sunshine I've ever seen."

"This memo is top secret," he said. "No one knew about it except the people who were directly involved and benefited from it. Even the city clerk didn't know about it."

"I'm sure it's going to come back to bite you," he added.

In a Wednesday interview, before the special meeting Thursday, Maxemow defended his actions. He said he wanted to bring the city's employees to the mid-range of what their counterparts earn in other cities.

Besides, he said, the employees would forgo their merit increases _ typically 3 percent _ for one year in lieu of the raises. (They are still eligible for 2.4 percent cost-of-living increases next month, however.)

"I felt they were justified with the survey of like communities," he said. "I brought it to the commissioners. Their statements were they thought they were justified. The only thing I regret about that is (the increases) probably should've started Oct. 1."

Why not wait for City Manager Jill Silverboard, who started Aug. 16?

"I wanted her to have a clean slate, to have it done and to put it on my watch," Maxemow said. "She had enough to do coming to the city and it was something she didn't have to worry about."

Why wasn't this done in a public workshop or meeting? After logging nearly 30 years with the city, Maxemow contends he didn't know it was necessary.

"I can't tell you why that didn't happen," he said Wednesday. "If I remember correctly, the manager can change (employee salaries)."

So why involve commissioners at all if their approval wasn't required?

"I wanted to let them know it was going to be done," he said. "I get everything in writing. . . . This is pay. This is permanent. That's just the way I usually operate."

Maxemow said despite getting the largest raise of the group, he "wouldn't have done this to benefit myself."

"I'm a people person," he said. "I try to back the employees and do what I can for them. That's just the way I am."

For Maxemow, this marks the second time something like this has happened.

In 1999, Maxemow received a $5,200 raise from the City Commission, bringing his salary to $55,000 _ a rate commensurate to what Madeira Beach commissioners were offering the prospective city manager at the time.

In 1999, as in August, Maxemow signed off on his own raise, exactly 11 days before a new city manager was due to start.

Despite this, City Hall employees and city commissioners remain loyal to Maxemow, who they've dubbed Max for short.

"Four city managers in six years? That's crazy," said Deborah Cline, the city's human resources officer. "The only constant we've had through all that is Max."

RELEVANT LAW

Section 286.011, section a, of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual states the following, in part:

"If a memorandum reflecting the views of a board member on a pending board issue is circulated among the board members with each indicating his or her approval or disaproval and, upon completion of the signatures, the memorandum has the effect of becoming the official action of the board, there is a violation of the Sunshine Law.'

Section e states: the "city manager may not act as a liaison for board members by circulating information and thoughts of individual council members.'

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