In Fruitland Park, an interim city manager who worked a grand total of six weeks resigned recently, saying that he and Mayor Chris Bell had different "philosophies as to the appropriate role, responsibilities and authority of a city manager …"
Uh, yeah. Not a big surprise. This could be taken care of without fuss — but it would involve the mayor changing his attitude.
For years, Bell, who didn't respond to requests for an interview, has been the power behind the city manager. Everything is fine — provided it's going his way.
For example, he got along just dandy with former City Manager Ralph Bowers, who resigned in February after a two-year sexual relationship with a city employee. The State Attorney's Office investigated Bowers' actions and determined there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
But earlier this week, the woman filed a federal lawsuit, charging Fruitland Park and Bowers, 73, with sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment, violation of civil rights, negligent hiring and negligent retention, among other claims.
Former City Council member Jim Richardson flatly told Bell and the other three other city commissioners in a public meeting nine months earlier that Bowers was behaving inappropriately with a city employee, leaving Fruitland Park open not only to criticism but legal liability.
As mayor, Bell should immediately have initiated an independent investigation, but he failed to do so. Instead, the police chief just poked around, asked a few questions and let it drop. That's what happens when buddy-buddy relationships trump responsible behavior by elected officials.
Now, the small city is stuck in two potentially expensive lawsuits — one with the woman and the other with Richardson, who filed a class-action suit after city commissioners voted thoughtlessly to just slap a "fee" for police and fire service onto the utility bills of customers. They claim that paying it is voluntary.
Richardson's suit says the fees are illegal and unconstitutional. Even the city attorney warned commissioners that the fees could be challenged.
Of course, the city has liability insurance through the Florida League of Cities, so Fruitland Park won't end up having to tax residents if they lose the suits. And lose they most assuredly will.
Lawyers for the league aren't fools, and chances seem high that they'll settle the fee lawsuit quickly by taking it off the utility bills and refunding the $500,000 that residents have "donated" so far.
The suit lodged by the woman employee promises to be more troublesome. City commissioners knew something was awry and ignored it. That makes the situation more egregious.
The hillbilly governance in Fruitland Park has to stop. This is America, not some third-world tribe where commissioners get to rule by force of personality and who owns the sharpest spear.
Fruitland Park needs to figure out how it wants to operate. At the moment, it is a commission-city manager form of government. Commissioners set policy and step back to allow the city manager to run the day-to-day workings.
"That's not how I found it to operate," said Steve Cottrell, the interim city manager who just resigned.
Cottrell said he agreed with Bell not to "throw stones" after leaving, but he did say that the city actually operates as a "strong mayor" form of government. That's one in which the mayor takes an active role in daily decisions.
If the residents prefer that method, they should change the city charter. But they should not allow any single person to improperly usurp powers of government.
Fruitland Park officials are now trying to hire a new city manager. If nothing changes, any manager who possesses a glimmer of integrity inevitably could clash with the mayor.
This is a chance for a fresh start in Fruitland Park. Commissioners must insist on hiring an independent manager — one who isn't a shill for the mayor — and they must back him or her.
Otherwise, the lawsuits will continue to pile up.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.