Islamorada Village manager counters detractors' criticisms

Islamorada Village Manager Maria Aguilar and Village Attorney Roget Bryan listen to council members speak during an April 28 Village Council meeting at Founders Park.
Islamorada Village Manager Maria Aguilar and Village Attorney Roget Bryan listen to council members speak during an April 28 Village Council meeting at Founders Park.

Embattled Village Manager Maria Aguilar hit back at her detractors on the Islamorada Village Council after they made clear last week they intend to demote her after two years leading city staff.

The five-member panel went over Maria Aguilar's annual evaluation last Thursday night during its regular meeting at Founders Park, and all but one council member, Dennis Ward, signaled she should no longer be chief of staff.

Ward defended Aguilar and accused his colleagues of "forcing her out of her position."

Ward praised Aguilar in his evaluation, stating that she "consistently makes decisions based on ethics in government. This is difficult to do given the village's past history. There is still an undercurrent, supported by Village Council members, that wants to return to the 'good ole boy' way of doing things."

After the evaluations were submitted, Aguilar responded in writing to several of the council members' criticisms.

For instance, Councilwoman Deb Gillis wrote Aguilar "needs to research the history behind the item so that she understands prior councils' wishes and how they relate to the current council."

Aguilar responded in hand writing that the "council has expectation that historical knowledge be gleaned through osmosis."

She also took exception to Gillis stating: "As a first-time Village Manager, she is improving." "Not correct," Aguilar wrote. "I am not a first-time manager or first-time leader or first-time supervisor."

Aguilar was hired as the village's finance director in 2011. She also served as deputy manager and was picked by council members to be manager after Ed Koconis resigned in March 2014. She was previously manager of a small Indian River County town called Orchid and was a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army.

Councilman Mike Forster wrote in his evaluation that Aguilar and her staff "do not follow the will and policy direction of council." Forster went on to write, "My belief is that the staff goes by their own personal feelings and not that of the elected policy makers."

He also said Aguilar and her staff react with "contempt" when "our constituents call, e-mail and contact us before they contact staff."

"It's just not an acceptable practice by our administration," Forster wrote.

Aguilar responded in writing that "I will counter lies, false and inaccurate information immediately."

Aguilar makes $142,800 a year. She said at last week's meeting that she is amenable to returning to finance director but wants to be careful how the wording goes because if she resigns without assuming "an alternate position," she could lose both her job and severance package.

"What I cannot risk is accepting the finance job and then being terminated by the new manager after losing the protection and severance provision of my current contract," Aguilar said in an e-mail.

Demoting Aguilar while at the same time retaining her would also negatively impact the current finance director, Ariana Lawson, who would likely become Aguilar's assistant if the four council members have their way.

Aguilar also said at the meeting she was confused why council members would consider making her deputy manager if they don't have faith in her ability to lead the staff.

"If I'm not performing satisfactory as village manager, why would you want me to be deputy manager," she asked the council members.

Forster responded, "Because you would be under someone else, you would be supervised."

The council is expected to make its final decision on Aguilar's future with the village at its May 12 meeting. Vice Mayor Jim Mooney in the meantime will act as the liaison between the council and Aguilar as she decides whether or not she wants to stay.