Packed House Protests; New Mayor Struggles With Public Comment

In a public meeting Wednesday night, April 30, St. Pete Beach’s new mayor, Maria Lowe, attempted to maintain decorum despite protestors and a call for her to resign.

The commission met and heard public comment in relation to the severance package jointly agreed upon by the outgoing city manager, Mike Bonfield, and the city’s attorney, Mike Davis.

Lowe attempted to limit public comment to only items relating to the terms of Bonfield’s termination agreement, with limited success (please see “Overheard at the St. Pete Beach Special Commission Meeting”).

Mayor Lowe’s attempt at decorum did not last through her initial comments.

“The gentleman in the rear who thought it was appropriate to push me, as we were coming in, I would ask that you not do that again,” she said.

At that, the people in the audience started arguing with one another, although the commission itself remained quiet. Commissioner Greg Premer, over the objection of the mayor, silenced the audience and asked for decorum. He also said he felt the one minute limit was not appropriate; this was in agreement with comments the District One Commissioner Terri Finnerty made to the Gabber in March about not limiting audience comment at all.

After a terse exchange, Premer and Lowe agreed to allow people to speak for two minutes. Lowe then asked Premer to respect her position as presiding officer and, after more comments in the audience, Premer asked Lowe to refer to him as “Commissioner Premer.”

With that, the mayor opened public comment.

While the bulk of people speaking agreed the commission should pay Bonfield in accordance with the proposed agreement, Lowe found herself repeatedly asking the speakers to refrain from commenting on Bonfield’s performance or the March elections.

After allowing several opportunities for anyone outside the packed room to enter and speak, the mayor closed public comment and the commission voted unanimously to approve the severance package.

The St. Pete Beach Commission voted to pay city manager Mike Bonfield over $100,000 to satisfy his contract. In exchange, Bonfield waived his right to a public hearing about his dismissal and agrees not to sue the city.

Bonfield’s severance package breaks down as follows:

20 weeks of his salary ($48,064.80), $17,580.84 in accrued time off and sick leave, and $7,209.72 towards his retirement. In addition, the city will pay him an additional $29,477 in a lump sum payment that would compensate Bonfield for six weeks’ severance pay and accrued sick leave not covered by his contract, but covered by the city’s personnel manual.

The commission adopted a preliminary motion to fire Bonfield on April 22; Bonfield is no longer acting as city manager but his agreement to leave the city will not be final until May 13.

The city’s administrative services director, Elaine Edmunds, will serve as the interim city manager. The commission agreed to pay Edmunds 15 percent more than her regular salary and increase her retirement contributions by 3 percent.

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