In a 3-2 vote at the Tuesday, April 22, commission meeting, St. Pete Beach Commissioners Melinda Pletcher (District Four) and Terri Finnerty (District One), and Mayor Maria Lowe voted to fire City Manager Mike Bonfield.
“You can certainly ask why,” Mayor Lowe told the Gabber Wednesday morning when asked about her reason for making the motion, “but I’m afraid I can’t answer that right now. I think it’s best not to discuss anything other than what had occurred in the meeting.”
The motion was not an agenda item, and seemed to come as a surprise to other Commissioners, though it was noted that there was a higher-than-usual turnout for the meeting.
When asked about why it appeared some people had advance notice of the motion, the mayor said, “I don’t know; it was not a conversation had by me. I have a very small circle of advisors that I speak to about decisions, but none of them determined what the decision will be.”
When the Gabber asked if Lowe had spoken to any of the commissioners about this issue before the meeting, she replied, “Absolutely not.”
District Three Commissioner Greg Premer, who voted against firing Bonfield, said he was “baffled” by the turn of events.
“The first time I heard about it was when she made the motion,” he said, adding, “There was no reason stated . There was no cause for dismissal. Zero… Nobody knows anything; it’s unprecedented. A coup d’état occurred last night. Nobody knows the reason. We all expect some answers.”
Former Mayor Steve McFarlin, who lost his mayoral campaign for re-election to Lowe this past March, also expressed confusion.
“I’ve tried to stay supportive of our new leadership, but I can’t understand why someone could come up with that much reason or cause without knowing the organization,” McFarlin said. “I’ve been supportive of Mr. Bonfield, I think he did a good job. I think to make a decision this drastic that changes the whole operation is just totally premature of anything.”
During the course of the four-hour meeting, and prior to the motion to fire Bonfield, the commission voted to remove District Two Commissioner Jim Parent from his position as city liaison for the Barrier Islands Government Council (BIGC) and chose not to select him for the vice mayorship. The twice-unopposed, three-term commissioner – who also voted against firing Bonfield – resigned at the end of the meeting. It was not clear at press time what motivated the resignation.
Mayor Lowe expressed regret about Parent’s resignation, saying, “I really consider him an invaluable asset for the commission.” She indicated, however, that Parent would not reconsider his decision, and asked that the Gabber share this message with St. Pete Beach:
“There was a comment made by Mr. Premer about the uncertainty of any changes,” she said. “If there’s anything I want to communicate to every to citizen is that our city is a phenomenal city…There’s no reason to fear change.”
Mayor Lowe clarified that she does not want to change the city charter from a city manager form of government to a mayoral one, and added that the commission chose to ask Administrative Services Director Elaine Edmunds to step in as the interim city manager. Should Edmunds not accept, the commission chose Public Services Director Steve Hallock as a backup.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 23, Edmunds said no one had asked her to step in, but would accept if asked. Commissioners Melinda Pletcher and Terri Finnerty, former Commissioner Jim Parent, and City Manager Bonfield did not return calls to the Gabber by press time.
Bonfield started with St. Pete Beach in January 2002. Prior to that he served as city manager of Madeira Beach and worked for 17 years in various capacities in his hometown of Gulfport, Florida. His final position in Gulfport was Director of Community Service.
According to Mayor Lowe, this was a “preliminary motion for removal” and Bonfield will have 15 days to request a public hearing. His contract gives him six months’ severance.
St. Pete Beach Commission held a special meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, to decide how to proceed. The commission will meet again on Wednesday, April 30, to take action.