Miami-Dade County

When the city forced her to resign, this city manager got twice the standard severance

North Bay Village City Attorney Norman C. Powell, left, and Village Manager Marlen D. Martell during a commission meeting at the North Bay Village City Hall on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
North Bay Village City Attorney Norman C. Powell, left, and Village Manager Marlen D. Martell during a commission meeting at the North Bay Village City Hall on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. pportal@miamiherald.com

One hundred and five days. That’s how long Marlen Martell was the city manager of North Bay Village before its volatile commission voted to get rid of her during its Tuesday night meeting.

The price tag for giving Martell the boot? A single payment of $127,000 — $2,000 more than her annual salary — and a year of healthcare for her and her family, also paid for by the city.

The settlement falls far outside the normal severance package for a North Bay Village employee fired without cause — even the village’s top employee. In return, Martell waived her rights to sue the city, which has gained notoriety for a recent series of scandals, including a state investigation into the potential blackmail of a former commissioner.

But commissioners and the mayor did not say why the special settlement was necessary or why they wanted to fire Martell, who had a degree in public administration but no prior experience running a city when they hired her in March.

“Is she holding onto some goods? Does she have something on you?” Kevin Vericker, a local blogger, asked during public comment on the settlement. “That’s a whole lot of coin to get rid of somebody so quickly.”

Martell’s annual salary of $125,000 plus benefits was approved on March 28, when she was appointed city manager by the commission after the previous manager left, claiming the mayor had conspired to fire him. The contract also stated that if Martell were fired without cause, the city would owe her a standard 20-week severance package, worth approximately $49,000.

Instead, by 3-2 vote, the City Commission approved a settlement package under which Martell’s resignation would include a “global release of claims” — in other words, a waiver of her right to sue the city. In return, the city would pay her more than two and a half times the standard severance package.

Other than that, “the agreement is rather standard in form,” said the city’s labor attorney, David Miller, when he presented the settlement agreement to the commission. He later confirmed to the Miami Herald that the settlement did not include a non-disclosure agreement. “That would be illegal,” Miller said. The exact wording of the settlement was not released Tuesday night.

Martell did not attend the meeting. Instead she submitted a letter that Miller read into the record. “Remaining in this position without the full support and confidence of the current elected leadership would be counter productive to moving the village forward,” Martell wrote.

At first, some commissioners seemed shocked the city would consider such a high settlement figure. “My problem is the money,” said Vice Mayor Andreana Jackson, though she ultimately voted in favor of the settlement.

But for such a big ticket agenda item and a normally chatty commission, there was very little discussion. Commissioners listened to Miller’s explanation of their termination options, offering little insight into Martell’s performance or what led to this negotiated parting of ways.

“I believe the current situation is untenable,” was all Commissioner Laura Cattabriga said before casting the third vote to approve the settlement.

But not all on the dais agreed that Martell should be fired.

“I think she [Martell] is trying very hard. I seriously do. She is quite responsive,” Commissioner Eddie Lim told the Herald earlier in the day. He said he had no idea why Martell might be facing early dismissal. He was one of two to vote against the agreement, along with Commissioner Jose Alvarez.

“I can only guess that the environment that she’s working in has become toxic again,” Lim said, using verbiage from the January resignation of the previous city manager, Frank Rollason.

This city government under Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps is making a name for itself as one that’s quick to fire employees. In the past year, the commission voted to fire former city attorney Rod Switkes, former police chief Carlos Noriega, and several officers. When Rollason resigned, he said he saw the writing on the wall after years of bad blood between himself and the mayor.

In every case, the former employees cited personal problems with the mayor as the reason for their dismissals and resignations.

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North Bay Village City Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps reacts during a commission meeting on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

It’s unclear when Martell lost favor. Only a few months ago the mayor was singing her praises as a Herald reporter toured the new manager’s office.

But at the June commission meeting, Martell came under fire for a poorly prepared Fourth of July fireworks plan.

Then, Leon-Kreps, asked Martell to resign, according to Vericker’s blog and another source familiar with the meeting. Martell refused, saying they would have to fire her. But last week, a Herald reporter witnessed Martell cleaning out her office with the help of new city police Chief Lewis Velken, who carried a potted plant to her car.

While the commission’s vote is binding, Miller said Martell has seven days to revoke the settlement if she chooses.

After approving the settlement, the commission unanimously approved Velken as interim city manager in addition to his role as police chief, and authorized the city attorney to hire a firm to help find what several commissioners termed a new, “more professional” manager.

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