MADEIRA BEACH — Mayor Maggie Black has threatened City Clerk Clara VanBlargan with being fired unless she resigns first.
Black gave no reason for terminating the clerk beyond that she felt she “was not a good fit” for the city.
“It became obvious that, while our city clerk is a hard worker and a nice person, she is not a good fit for our city,” Black wrote in an email Tuesday when asked for a comment.
Black added, “It was a difficult decision, but … on the advice of our attorney she was given the opportunity to come to an amicable resolution. I’m sorry that her employment with the city must end, but I wish her all the best.”
The previous week, Black had hand-delivered a letter to VanBlargan issuing a “formal request” that the clerk schedule a special commission meeting for June 5 that had only one agenda item: “Termination of Madeira Beach’s City Clerk Clara VanBlargan without cause.”
That meeting was never held. After being informing that VanBlargan planned to hire an attorney, Black emailed the clerk and city manager to cancel the meeting so VanBlargan could “explore her opportunities”.
Black also “reserved the right to put it back on the agenda for future consideration”.
VanBlargan who was hired nearly two years ago, is one of the city’s four charter officers (city manager, city attorney, city clerk, and city treasurer/finance director) and can only be hired or fired by the City Commission.
“I was totally blindsided,” VanBlargan said. “I work hard and try to do a good job. I was never told I was doing anything wrong. I am going to fight this. I bought a house and I love my job.”
VanBlargan said Black refused to say what if anything she had done wrong and, in fact, had told her that though she did a “good job” but “it would be in my best interest to resign, otherwise I would be terminated without cause.”
VanBlargan said she repeatedly asked Black what she meant be not being a “good fit” but Black refused to answer.
The Times also asked Black on Tuesday to define what she meant by a “good fit” and received no reply.
There were several instances last month when it appeared a commissioner was unhappy about late or incomplete agenda packets that VanBlargan was responsible for disseminating to the commission.
After the May 14 commission meeting began, VanBlargan distributed materials at the request of Commissioner Doug Andrews that prompted an extended and emotional debate about immediately terminating City Manager Jonathan Evans, <URL destination="https://www.tampabay.com/pinellas/unhappy-madeira-beach-commission-starts-city-manager-search-20190515/">who will be leaving in July to return to his prior post in Riviera Beach.</CHARACTER>
Two weeks later, Commissioner Deby Weinstein publicly complained about several items being removed from the May 28 workshop meeting agenda. The final agenda had been approved by the city manager.
According to VanBlargan, Weinstein told her on May 31 that she was “unhappy” that she had not been told about Andrews’ materials before the meeting.
She said Weinstein suggested VanBlargan had a “close” relationship with Andrews and that VanBlargan “should have known” the contents of the materials.
VanBlargan denied any special relationships with the commissioner and stressed that she must treat all commissioners equally and respond to their requests.
Despite several attempts, Weinstein did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment.
Just three days later after Weinstein’s conversation with VanBlargan, Black requested the special commission meeting to terminate VanBlargan.
According to the city charter, the mayor has the right to call special meetings but is only one out of five votes on official actions and has no authority to fire anyone on her own.
A review of the last month’s commission meetings showed no public discussion by the commission of dissatisfaction with VanBlargan’s performance and according to the Florida Sunshine Law, commissioners are prohibited from talking about city business with each other privately.
Florida is a right to work state and any employee can be fired without reason at any time unless organization policies or contractual arrangements provide otherwise.
VanBlargan has no work contract and no clear legal provisions for contesting a termination. She also has no guaranteed severance.
She earns $78,000 annually and is a certified master city clerk with the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.
VanBlargan was last evaluated by the commission a year ago. At the time, Evans called her “an exceptional city clerk” who exceeded expectations.
“Clara is a valuable employee and very professional and a great asset to the city,” Evans wrote in a memo to the commission.
Most of the commission seemed to agree.
Black gave her an “exceeds standards” overall review, the highest category possible.
Two other commissioners agreed, giving her similar high overall ratings.
Commissioner Nancy Hodges said “Clara has done a super job.”
Commissioner John Douthirt said VanBlargan had “done an excellent job” and “a true asset to the city,” adding that she was “the best city clerk this city has seen.”
Weinstein, however, gave VanBlargan an average “meets standards” overall rating, explaining that at the time she had only been on the commission for two months and was not familiar with the clerk’s work performance.
The commissioner did praise VanBlargan for a “positive attitude and loyalty” that was “a credit to her character.”
Then-Commissioner Nancy Oakley, who has since resigned after the Florida Commission on Ethics found her guilty of committing sex harassment against former City Manager Shane Crawford, gave the clerk a mixed rating.