By: Saraana Jamraj
At the end of an already tense meeting last Wednesday night, Tamarac city commissioners continued to clash. This time, it was about the city manager’s compensation and performance reward, totaling $2.4 million in five years.
At the January 8 meeting, Commissioner Mike Gelin began the discussion by praising the City Manager Michael Cernech, who has served Tamarac since 2011.
“I think we have a very good city manager, I think he’s very effective,” said Gelin, who noted that Cernech has helped him move many of his own proposals forward.
Gelin clarified that his objection to his performance award was not personal or an implication that the city manager did a poor job. He believes Cernech is a great guy who did a good job.
However, he said, he objected to the process or lack thereof, as the commissioners neglected to fill out a mandatory evaluation before deciding on the amount Cernech would be awarded.
According to the city manager’s employment agreement, signed by Cernech in 2011, pay increases would be based upon his performance evaluations by the commission every 12 months, with a January 29 deadline.
This was the subject of disagreement, however, with Mayor Gomez and the assistant attorney claiming the enforcement of such policies was not mandatory but left to be interpreted by the commission. Vice Mayor Marlon Bolton and Gelin disagreed and suggested that the city attorney’s office offered an incompetent council.
And while Gelin primarily focused on the process of compensation rather than the amount, he did suggest that excessive compensation should be questioned, especially given how much larger surrounding cities pay their city managers less than Tamarac does.
In cities like West Palm Beach with a population almost twice as large as Tamarac, the city manager earns less. In Broward County, cities like Fort Lauderdale, with nearly three times as many people as Tamarac, still have lower compensation for their city managers. Even other benefits, such as car allowances, are thousands of dollars less.
“There should be a document [the taxpayers] can reference, to know why their city manager is getting an excess of $2.4 million to manage one of the smallest cities in the state of Florida,” said Gelin.
Several other inconsistencies were pointed out, including how the compensation process is supposed to go, with how it went. For example, the commission neglected to fill out a 2018 evaluation for the city manager, and every year prior, but still approved an increase in compensation.
Gelin said that it is highly unusual that Cernech would be walking away with five fully-funded retirement plans, which is not the standard in Broward County. Cernech stated that he is only currently enrolled in two retirement plans. However, Gelin insisted it was five and said it showed the commission was not clear on the full retirement package.
Gelin also questioned why healthcare and benefit options are both covered, as opposed to just one being covered, as they overlap. And, 500 hours of vacation has been the standard for the city manager in Tamarac and surrounding cities, but when Cernech asked to increase it to 800 hours, the commission approved it.
“Three of you have sat on the dais and have said nothing. You have never challenged any merit increase,” said Gelin, referring to everyone but Bolton.
He admonished them for not advocating for taxpayers.
“You have all sat by and said nothing, have done nothing, and you cannot demonstrate the value added that merits a performance bonus,” said Gelin.
He also pointed out that the city manager tried to leave the city twice in the past 12 months, referring to the negotiations he had with Delray Beach, and interview earlier with Weston in 2019. Gelin questioned why a manager should be rewarded so heftily for his eagerness to leave the city.
Mayor Gomez and Commissioner Gelin went back and forth throughout the evening, and the city attorney was repeatedly referenced and questioned as they attempted to reach an agreement on whether or not the proper processes were being followed.
“What is your obligation to the tax-paying citizens?” Gelin asked.
“Commissioner Gelin, you are not going to put me on trial and make a game out of this,” said Gomez.
“$2.4 million is a game?” he said.
Their disputes continued throughout the night, but their positions remained relatively unchanged.
“Some of us, like me, are being accused of fiscal irresponsibility. But, some of us feel that the city manager is doing a very good job. Our city is moving forward beautifully,” said Gomez.
At the end of the night, Gomez requested that they extend the January 29 deadline for the evaluation, so they could have enough time to discuss it further at a workshop next month, and the commission voted in favor.
“I look forward to the city commission’s discussion of how to proceed with his request,” said Cernech.
When asked for an explanation for the discrepancy between his compensation and that of city managers in surrounding cities, Cernech claimed that the difference was accounted for by longevity.
“The cities you reference have had multiple city managers during my tenure in Tamarac. Coral Springs is on its third, Margate has had multiple managers, as has West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale. When I was first appointed city manager nine years ago, my salary was less than most of the managers in the county at the time,” said Cernech.
However, some, like Gelin, argue that it’s still questionable that the city manager of Tamarac should make the same amount as the city manager of Miami, a city with a billion-dollar budget.
He recognized the popularity of the question. Can one government employee, fully-funded by the taxpayers, in a small city, be reasonably paid $2.4 million in five years? According to Cernech, the answer is yes.
“I feel I earn my pay, just as all our employees do,” he said.
- Saraana Selene Jamraj is a writer, activist, and a student pursuing her master's degree in mass communications at Florida International University.
She's currently the communications manager at The Salt Box in Parkland and has lived in Coral Springs since 2004.
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