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Clearwater manager leaves with $166,000

Commissioners approve a severance package for City Manager Mike Roberto, ending his three-year tenure.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


CLEARWATER -- As city commissioners prepared to accept his forced resignation Thursday night, City Manager Mike Roberto sat in his office a few yards away, watching the ordeal on television and blowing soap bubbles.

"Enough," he said, when a reporter came into the scene. "I'm not that important."

Thus ended Roberto's stormy three-year tenure as Clearwater's dynamic but controversial top administrator.

After less than five minutes of discussion, city commissioners unanimously approved a severance package worth about $166,000. The package was roughly four times what he was entitled to under his contract, but slightly less than Roberto requested.

"It saddens me," said Mayor Brian Aungst after the vote. "But we need to move forward. It's a new era here in the city."

Commissioners appointed Assistant City Manager Bill Horne to be interim city manager while they launch a national search for a successor.

Roberto, 44, won't be forgotten. He will be remembered for an ambitious, if unfinished, redevelopment plan, dubbed "One City. One Future." He nurtured projects like the beautification of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and the lovely but accident-prone Clearwater Beach roundabout.

The bubble burst with controversies over free spending on consultants, lavish personnel benefits and questions about his credibility. The mistakes came back to haunt his administration when voters sank a $300-million downtown redevelopment plan in a referendum last week.

As his term ended, Roberto reclined in a chair in his office, his wife, Debbie, sitting at his desk with her feet propped up. Local development attorney Tim Johnson, a friend, also joined them, dressed casually and wearing sneakers.

Johnson advised Roberto down to the end, warning the city manager not to go out to the dais while commissioners debated his severance deal. That would have given the army of television cameras too dramatic a scene, he said.

Roberto said he would spend the next two weeks on vacation in a cabin in Minnesota where, he noted, the high temperature is expected to be 76 degrees.

"I might teach him how to clean his house," his wife joked.

Roberto said he isn't sure what he will do now. His office is full of bumper stickers, signs and plaques about the joys and trials of leadership. One reads: "If you ain't lead dog, the scenery never changes."

"I'm going to spend some time with my daughter and find out what it's like to have a family again," Roberto said.

Once the vote was taken, Roberto did quick interviews with television crews who surrounded him on the way out. Then he left.

Back in the commission chambers, Roberto was reduced to an afterthought for the bulk of the four-hour City Commission meeting. Even the name plate where Roberto usually sits had been removed.

Commissioners spent hours discussing the minutiae of city government, spending much more time on issues such as regulating portable storage units than they did on the departure of their top administrator.

The severance package that was approved so quickly entitles Roberto to nine months of severance pay worth $82,500.

In addition, the commission authorized nine months of pension pay ($12,375); nine months of family and personal insurance coverage (about $9,000); job hunting services ($14,000); payment for 101 days of vacation time ($42,519); and membership in a professional city manager association ($949). He also will keep a laptop computer, Palm Pilot, fax machine and cellular phone, city property worth $5,000.

The package was scaled down after Roberto spent Tuesday and Wednesday negotiating with the commission. He originally wanted a year of severance pay and benefits.

Some residents didn't like it.

"Three years. We either like his performance and we're going to keep him on, or we don't like him and we let him go," said David Campbell. "It's contradictory to say we don't want you anymore and then hand him a golden parachute in terms that nobody has the nerve to ask for."

But only Commissioner Ed Hart voiced any protests to the severance deal Thursday. Hart complained that Aungst had effectively caused Roberto to resign in a talk Sunday.

Aungst defended his actions.

"What I did discussing with (Roberto) is something that I as a mayor had every right to do, and I'd do it again," Aungst said. "We had a good conversation, and handled things in as humane and compassionate way as possible."

Roberto provided commissioners with a resignation letter Thursday afternoon. It said that his tenure would end Aug. 4. But his last day of work will be either today or Monday, officials said.

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