Town clerk Esther Coulson was fired on Tuesday, May 1, during an 8 a.m. emergency meeting of the Cutler Bay Town Council, by a 3-1 vote.
Council members Peggy Bell, Mary Ann Mixon and Sue Ellen Loyzelle voted for the dismissal and Mayor Ed MacDougall voted against firing Coulson. Vice Mayor Ernie Sochin was keeping a doctor’s appointment and was not present.
The assistant town clerk, Pam Regula, resigned.
The issue, which began earlier, has sparked controversy and differing views among members of the council and Cutler Bay residents.
“I never felt the clerk was anything but a great clerk,” MacDougall said when contacted after the vote. “I had full confidence in her abilities and never experienced any indication of poor performance.
“I had no reason to fire her and could not understand why members Bell, Loyzelle and Mixon wanted her gone. It was clear to me that the manager wanted her gone as well. He tried to get me to fire her (ask her to resign). I told him I would not, but if the three members aforementioned felt she was underperforming I would ask for a review by the council,” the mayor added.
“The manager and legal put a corrective plan together based on what they thought. I did not put it together. And it was given to the clerk. It was clearly understood that the clerk would be given 60 days — workdays — to correct what the three members and the manager wanted.
The 60 days were to be up on Apr 23. At that time the council would gather to discuss the clerk’s progress. In a surprise move on Apr. 17, at 11 p.m., after all but three people had left the monthly meeting, Councilmember Bell asked that the meeting be extended so the council could discuss the clerk’s progress.
“After being given an extension, with no discussion about how the council felt, Bell made a motion to dismiss the clerk by asking her to resign,” MacDougall said. “All the aforementioned voted yes; the Vice Mayor and I voted no. Then she made a motion to fire the assistant clerk. That motion failed.”
Councilmember Mixon responded to questions about the Apr. 17 vote.
“No one I know on the council has any personal issues with Ms. Coulson,” Mixon said. “She is a lovely woman. She was not fired; by a vote of 3 to 2 her resignation was asked for. This decision was performancebased only. Her resignation was asked for based on a list of 12 items put forth by Mayor MacDougall and given to the rest of the council on Jan. 25, 2012.
“To my understanding, this list was put together because she was falling short on her duties and making many mistakes. This list of 12 items gave the clerk 60 days to address and rectify those 12 items on the list,” Mixon continued. “The 60 days went by and there wasn’t enough improvement; so based on her not resolving those issues and in addition, making mistakes that were extremely costly to the town, to the tune of nearly $4,000, her resignation was asked for.”
Mixon said that the council had been discussing the town clerk’s abilities and/or issues with her job since June or July of last year. After the May 1 vote to fire the clerk, she made an additional statement.
“Many residents got up and spoke against our decision but they are not in our position and do not know the totality of it all,” Mixon said. “Many were under the impression that this was something three council members came up with out of the blue 60 days ago. Which [by the way] is totally not true.
“I’d be interested in how the mayor could have no problems with the clerk yet write a 12-item list of things she needed to improve upon. At the meeting this morning the mayor completely denied having anything to do with this list and that it never came from him.”
Mixon stated that the town attorney took minutes of the Jan. 25 meeting at which the list was handed out and which are public record. After which, the mayor responded again, reaffirming that he did not create the list, that it came from the town manager.
When asked what prompted her to vote to fire the clerk, Councilmember Bell’s answer was brief.
“The record speaks for itself,” Bell said, adding, “I believe it is unnecessary to disparage the clerk.”
Vice Mayor Sochin also commented on the firing.
“I was very upset because my dealings with the clerk since she’s been there have been fantastic,” Sochin said. “I never asked her for anything that she didn’t get right away. She’s been totally overwhelmed with work.”
The May 1 firing also prompted a volley of email messages from Cutler Bay residents, such as Steve Zarzecki of the Concerned Citizens of Cutler Bay, who sent this to fellow residents and members of the news media:
“At Tuesday’s special town council meeting, called by Peggy Bell to fire the town clerk, the town manager, in what seemed to be a scripted move, suggested…directed?…that the council appoint his assistant as interim clerk. Over the objection of the mayor, the council voted to do this. I see this as a blatant violation of Section 3.3 of our town charter:
“The town manager shall: (1) Be responsible for the appointing, hiring, promoting, supervising and removing of all town employees, except the town attorney and town clerk and all of their employees.
“Obviously, the manager’s assistant was hired by, is supervised by, and will be promoted by the town manager. The fox is officially and illegally in the hen house. The power grab is complete. Our Cutler Bay government is not only dysfunctional — it is out of control. The town manager must go.”
Nancy McCue commented on Zarzecki’s message and the vote.
“It is with great sadness to learn that the years of work and the dreams of so many to have a local government untarnished by political games and power plays was for naught,” McCue wrote.
Resident and pioneer Louise Lockwood commented on the firing. “
Esther Coulson was doing community service for East Ridge seniors for one hour a week and had to stop coming because three of our council members felt she was needed at Town Hall and it was only one hour a week,” Lockwood said.
“Esther Coulson was a very dedicated person who wanted to help seniors. Shame on our council members who managed to stop her from coming. I worked for 10 years to become incorporated and have decided that if I had to vote on this now, it would be a big ‘no.’”
Councilmember Loyzelle had not responded by deadline time for this issue.