Clewiston again asks finance chief to step to helm

CLEWISTON — The City of Clewiston once again found itself in crisis mode last week with the sudden resignation of Interim City Manager Wendell Johnson on April 1. It was no April Fool’s joke, unfortunately.

Commissioners were forced to put the matter atop their regular agenda that Monday night because, as Mayor Mali Gardner pointed out during the short workshop prior to the meeting, the city must have someone in charge to make decisions since it is in the midst of work on several major projects simultaneously. She tried to shape a consensus during that session to have City Attorney Gary Brandenburg take the role until they get a new person on board (a search is under way, with decisions scheduled as early as next month), saying the staff directors had been making progress on projects again with Mr. Johnson at the helm but were all too burdened to take over manager duties now in addition to their current ones.

But he responded, “I’m not interested in being manager. I’m not driving over here from Stuart any more than I already do.”

Ms. Gardner pressed him, saying she thought it would be a workable solution, since “in May we’re supposed to be choosing a new city manager.” The city lost longtime City Manager Al Perry when he left around Thanksgiving last year, and Finance Director Shari Howell stepped in for a time until commissioners asked Mr. Johnson, a former Clewiston manager, to come back in December and help them out.

Ms. Gardner announced at the beginning, “Interim City Manager Wendell Johnson has resigned effective today, April 1, due to family medical concerns; he had already cut back his hours to three days per week from five, but he has informed me that he will not be able to continue.”

They debated over whether they should seek outside help to supplement the stressed staff directors, an idea that got shot down because that would require extra time to bring an outsider up to speed. Then commissioners ended up being forced once again to rely on Director Howell to fill the void temporarily because, with City Commissioner Julio Rodriguez absent and the remaining four disagreeing, several motions failed.

The first was to make her interim manager again; Mayor Gardner voted against it, expressing reluctance “knowing what I know about the load that she has had in the past month,” and her opposition convinced Commissioner Melanie McGahee to switch from a “yes” vote to a “no.”

Then she proposed that Mr. Brandenburg be made interim manager with Ms. Howell as the point of contact for the city. Mayor Gardner handed the gavel to Vice Mayor Michael Atkinson so she could second that motion, but he and Commissioner Kristine Petersen still voted no.

Mr. Brandenburg then withdrew from consideration, saying, “This might make your decision easier.”

Another person’s name was then suggested, who was in the audience, but he declined; then Mr. Atkinson moved that Public Works Director Sean Sheffler be named. Ms. Petersen seconded, but that motion, too, failed 2-2.

Ms. McGahee then moved to make Ms. Howell simply the point of contact and that the commissioners reconsider the matter at their next meeting, a motion Ms. Petersen seconded and which passed 4-0. Minutes later after approval of the consent agenda, though, Mr. Brandenburg insisted that the commission had to name an acting manager. So Ms. McGahee amended her motion to tap Ms. Howell, and the rest reluctantly agreed.

“I’m not going to say that it isn’t stressful. It’s very, very, very stressful,” Ms. Howell declared, saying that she knew some things would fall through the cracks. “I have no desire to be a city manager … (but) for a short-term solution I would not have an issue with that.”

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