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Cape Council will not renew city manager’s contract

Hernandez asks for hearing following non-renewal vote by Cape Coral City Council

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Feb 1, 2023

Rob Hernandez

Cape Coral City Council put City Manager Rob Hernandez on notice Wednesday that his contract will not be renewed at its end date.

In the special meeting called by Mayor John Gunter, the elected board voted 5-3 to not extend Hernandez’s three-year contract past its Aug. 11, 2023 rollover date.

The contract requires six-month’s notice of non-renewal by either party and no action by Council within the window would have automatically extended Hernandez’s contract by one year.

Hernandez, who was not present at the meeting due to medical-related time off, has requested a hearing.

His request, made via email, states:

“Words cannot express the depth of my disappointment in learning of council decision to terminate my employment for performance reasons from an NBC2 reporter. I think I deserved better than that.

“As provided for in the City Charter, I am requesting a public hearing be scheduled in March to discuss this decision with me present. Given my current medical condition I cannot prepare for a meeting before then.”

The City Attorney’s Office is evaluating the request, officials said.

Voting against renewal was Gunter and council members Dan Sheppard, Keith Long, Patty Cummings and Bill Steinke.

Gunter, Sheppard, Long and Cummings cited areas of performance or problem-solving they deemed problematic.

Steinke, who cast the deciding vote but did not weigh in with arguments against renewal, said what was shaping up as a 4-4 deadlock was, in essence, a no-confidence vote. The effect of that was that Hernandez was not going to stay beyond his current contract term either way.

He then cast his vote for non-renewal at the end of a meeting that featured impassioned discussion by both those opposing and those supporting contract renewal.

Sheppard and Cummings were among the most critical, saying the city manager had not been truthful to them at times with Sheppard presenting a list of what he called failures, including not keeping Council properly informed.

Sheppard said he felt particularly misled about how the city communicated with residents after Hurricane Ian and that resources he asked about, including electronic signage, was not effectively utilized.

“When information is held back, I can’t do my job. How can we succeed if we are being lied to and given improper information?” Sheppard asked.

Long, who made the motion for non-renewal, said he did not have confidence in the current path, that there are issues he believes Hernandez did not properly address.

Gunter took a similar track, saying he wants performance that hits the “exceptional” bar and, while he agrees Hernandez inherited some of the problems for which he was being criticized, he still is accountable for how he handled them as well as new challenges that arose during his tenure.

“My belief is that the city manager has been average in his performance. I’m not looking for average. I want exceptional,” Gunter said. “I’ve always tried to be exceptional I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve always tried. When I see his record, I see an average city manager. Is that what you’re looking for? If you have an average leader, you have an average organization.”

The extension of Hernandez’s contract also had support on the board with council members Jessica Cosden, Robert Welsh and Tom Hayden speaking in favor.

Hayden, who was passionate in his argument to extend, said Hernandez did well with the city’s EnerGov permitting system after the rough start and that information after Hurricane Ian did get to residents.

Steinke, who along with Cummings was elected in November, said he had not been on Council long enough to evaluate Hernandez’s performance.

He pointed out, though, that Council had done so about two months ago and found Hernandez’s performance, overall, slightly “above average.” He also pointed out that Council had subsequently approved a 6.5 percent salary increase.

Haden was sharply critical of the vote. The city is now going to have to find a new city manager at the same time it is looking to hire in the wake of the announced retirement of the city attorney, he said, adding that the council action is more post-election churn in the perennial quest for “better.”

“The history of this city is littered with this. A new council, comes in and thinks there’s a better city manager, so they go after that person, then the next council comes and the cycle repeats,” Hayden said. “It frustrates me that this man has done nothing to lose his job. He knows he won’t be here. If he doesn’t have the confidence of half the council, why should any candidate want to work in a place like that?”

Hernandez took over as the city’s top administrator on Aug. 12, 2020.

He came to the city from Fort Lauderdale where he served as deputy city manager from April 2019 until he was hired by the city from a field of five finalists, replacing former city manager John Szerlag, who retired after serving as the Cape’s city manager for eight years.

Hernandez’s resume includes tenure as city manager in Savannah, Georgia from 2016-2019, service as deputy county administrator for Broward County, deputy county manager for Fulton County, Georgia, and assistant to the county administrator for Broward County.

He holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Nova Southeastern University and a Bachelor of Public Administration degree from Florida International University. He is an International City Management Association credentialed manager and a Florida City/County Management Association member.

Hernandez declined comment.

“The City Manager is not commenting at this time,” an email from the city’s Communications Office states.