Did county commission create another dictator?

Historic City News has been following the status of County Administrator Michael Wanchick and the terms of his ever changing “honey-pot” contract with St. Johns County.

The consensus of the Board of County Commissioners is that Wanchick is doing a “great job” — this is a sentiment expressed by a number of county employees as well.

At issue is exactly how much power the County Administrator wields, and, how accountable he is to the Board of County Commissioners who employed him. The County Administrator is employed directly by the Board — county staff is employed through the county’s Human Resources Department and staff members are accountable to their department head; the department head, in turn, is accountable to the County Administrator.

Some residents, and a former County Commission Chair, feel that Wanchick was a good choice when he was hired; however, he is the highest paid employee on the county payroll and was given generous relocation incentives to move to St. Johns County from Texas.

The original contract with Wanchick was dated June 18, 2007. It was a five-year contract with an automatic two-year renewal. The administrator could only be dismissed by a supermajority vote of the Board of County Commissioners. He could voluntarily leave with 90 days notice to the Board and was entitled to a lump sum severance equal to 12 month’s salary. Wanchick earns $170,000 each year.

In addition to his salary, Wanchick received up to $20,000 in relocation expenses and $2,000 per month for temporary lodging — for up to six months. The Wanchick offer included an additional $7,500 to a deferred compensation plan and he received senior management retirement in the Florida Retirement System — totally funded by St. Johns County.

Even though Wanchick’s contract would not expire until 2012 and he would be entitled to an automatic two-year renewal, last November, it was decided by the Board, that, because the County Administrator could be vulnerable to “political changes” in the makeup of a future Board, it would not be good for Wanchick’s contract to expire in an election year.

In the November 3, 2009 meeting, the Board made a new contract with Wanchick for a five year term.

It is what happened in April of this year that has raised some eyebrows — including the eyebrows of former County Commission Chairman and current District 1 Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson. Without public notice, in the April 6th meeting, the Board voted to increase the severance entitlement of the County Administrator from one year to three years pay.

Ostensibly the current commissioners heard rumors along the campaign trail that if Ben Adams, who was the former County Administrator, and Jim Bryant, who was a former commissioner and chairman, won election to the Board in the August 24th Primary, they would move to replace Wanchick. Those rumors were not verified.

In a politically charged meeting, the Board was lead to believe this sudden and radical action was needed to protect the Administrator’s job. In reality, the Administrator’s contract, prior to the April amendment, already required four votes to remove the administrator. Stevenson told Historic City News, “Now that we have seen the full contract, I know that was the farthest thing from the truth.”

Neither Adams nor Bryant were elected, so, it would appear that the threat is moot, however, as it stands today, four members of the Board of Commissioners is required to replace the Administrator, and, if they do, Wanchick is entitled to $510,000.

According to Stevenson, “I have made several inquiries and a 3 year severance provision is way out of line.” Stevenson believes that both the County Administrator and County Attorney are well compensated and their jobs are reasonably protected by a contract. “The excessive severance provisions granted to Wanchick did not serve the public’s best interest,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson is also unhappy with the way that Commissioners Mays, Sanchez and Bryan rushed the contract amendment through without notice. “The board had little chance to ask questions because of the way this item was introduced,” Stevenson said. “By failing to grant the board even 15 minutes to review the existing contract prior to voting on these terms was extremely inconsiderate and unprofessional.” Commissioner Quinn went along with the Mays-Sanchez-Bryan trio, however, Stevenson said she could not in good conscience.

“Let me tell you, if four Commissioners elected by the people of St. Johns County want the administrator to go, he should be gone,” Stevenson said. “And, he shouldn’t take a half million dollars of the people’s treasure with him.”

Stevenson said, “I will never be able to support any vote on this administrator’s contract unless that 3 year provision is removed.” Stevenson told us that she spoke to Wanchick directly and asked if he would voluntarily forego the excessive severance package. “He says he is happy about it and feels he needs it,” Stevenson said.

“It was disappointing to hear the commission admit that a one-sided contract is OK — as long as it is for Mr. Wanchick,” Commissioner Stevenson told Historic City News. “They thought that a prior administrator was a dictator — well, they have certainly set Mr. Wanchick up to be a dictator.”

Photo credits: © 2010 Historic City News staff photographer

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