After approval, Loxahatchee Groves to reconsider manager’s contract

The council of this small town threw a curveball late last week, voting to have a workshop to “reconsider” its management contract just weeks after voting to approve a two-year extension.

The unanimous vote in favor of the workshop was called for by Loxahatchee Groves Vice Mayor Todd McLendon and came a month after the council voted 3-2 to grant the extension to Town Manager Bill Underwood and his Underwood Management Services Group. The contract as presented to the council in August set up a transition away from Underwood’s management to either a new management company or a town-run operation.

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Friday night’s vote came at the end of a marathon, two-night council meeting, the first of its kind in the town after the council voted last month to end its meetings at 10:30 p.m. and continue all unfinished business to the following night. The council also voted in August to add a second meeting per month.

Thursday night saw residents lambasting Underwood and his employees, with some residents calling for the council to cancel the contract altogether. The atmosphere at council meetings has been caustic in recent months as road conditions have deteriorated and residents face the specter of higher taxes.

“I’ve had a lot of anxiety since last night,” McLendon said Friday. “… There’s some pretty bad dynamics that happened here last night.”

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The council continues to hear negative feedback from residents at every meeting, he said. “Something’s got to change,” he said. “Something big’s got to change.”

The town has lost employees including Town Clerk Virginia Walton, who recently put in her notice, McLendon said. The clerk position, previously under Underwood’s umbrella, instead should be an employee of the town moving forward, something McLendon said would need to be rewritten in Underwood’s contract.

Loxahatchee Groves is one of two municipalities in Florida that contracts its management, according to the Florida League of Cities. The other is Westlake, which incorporated about two years ago and plans to transition away from the contract model as it grows.

While McLendon would like to see Underwood stay on with the town, he said it may be better if he is not town manager. “The dynamic’s not working,” McLendon said.

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Mayor Dave Browning agreed with McLendon’s assessment. “I’ve never seen more animosity in our community and I’ve never seen it more undeserved,” he said.

He defended Underwood as working for the council, not the residents, and said the manager has had to do some things that made him unpopular. The negativity surrounding the town manager position has existed since the town voted to incorporate in 2006, Browning said. To keep that up will pose a challenge in hiring for the position in the future.

“We are gonna be a revolving door here that will never have stability, and we’re going to be in a mess,” he said.

A date for the workshop has not been set.

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