To say that Palm Beach Gardens City Council members are happy with their city manager is an understatement.
At their most recent meeting, all five council members evaluated longtime City Manager Ron Ferris in glowing terms.
They said nothing, however, about Ferris’ contract, which according to a recent Palm Beach Post survey makes him Palm Beach County’s highest-paid city manager, at $314,487.
They don’t have to. His contract is open-ended. Unlike his past contracts, which if not extended would terminate after five years, Ferris signed a contract in 2019 that allows him to remain on the job “for an indeterminate term.”
As an at-will employee, Ferris can be fired at any time. That makes the term of the contract less important, as several city observers agreed.
It may seem at first blush like the elimination of the contract extension avoids accountability, longtime council critic Sid Dinerstein said, but, he added, if the council can remove the city manager at any time, “then, it’s probably not a big deal.”
Under state law, Ferris severance is limited to 20 weeks pay. His contract also calls for him to receive a $650 monthly car allowance, an 18 percent retirement contribution and, upon his departure unless fired for-cause, 202 days of unused personal time and 488 hours of unused “acute illness” leave. At $314,000 a year, that could be worth about $270,000.
As city manager, Ferris is responsible for everything from fixing potholes on city streets and collecting garbage to overseeing the police and fire departments and reviewing development proposals.
While the council didn’t discuss Ferris’ contract at its June 2 meeting, members indicated they would like Ferris to stay, with Councilmember Carl Woods asking “Are we keeping him for another year?” and Mayor Chelsea Reed asking “Can you stick around a little longer?”
In response, Ferris, who turns 76 in July, said he had no plans to depart.
“Every year my wife asks me, ‘Well, how many more years?’” Ferris said. “For the last 12 years I said ‘I need five more years to get this done.’ So, if you’ll have me, I need five more years to get this done — even if it takes me 20.”
‘Indeterminate term’ approved without discussion
During its June 2019 evaluation of Ferris, the council decided, at the suggestion of then-Councilmember Matthew Lane, to have the city attorney and city manager negotiate a contract extension for Ferris because his five-year deal would expire the following year.
Then-Mayor Mark Marciano and Councilmembers Carl Woods, Rochelle Litt and Lane voted 4-0 in favor. All but Lane still serve on the council. Maria Marino, now a county commissioner, had supported the idea a month earlier but was absent for the contract vote.
Instead of the contract’s terms, the discussion focused on Woods’ suggestion to give Ferris a 6 percent raise because he had never gotten more than a cost-of-living increase in his years at the city and council members wanted to assure that he would be paid more than managers in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and West Palm.
It worked. Although he is the second-longest-serving manager among the 11 large cities in The Post’s survey, behind Boca Raton’s Leif Ahnell, Ferris is the highest paid. Ahnell has served one year longer than Ferris and, according to The Post, makes $303,480.
In September, Palm Beach County gave Administrator Verdenia Baker a five-year extension, keeping her under contract through August 2027 with a 15 percent raise over her base salary of $307,468. She has been county administrator for six years and a county employee for 34.
Ferris did not respond last week to requests for comment or even to confirm the salary cited by The Post. Based on that salary, his pay has risen 23 percent since July 2019.
Longest-serving manager in city history
Ferris came to the city as interim manager in October 2000 to replace Nabar Martinez, who lasted just nine months on the job. Ferris had been dismissed earlier that year after 10 years as Lantana town manager and had started his own consulting business, Interim Management Associates. He also had filled in as interim manager of Mangonia Park.
Six months later, the Gardens council asked Ferris to shut down his consulting business and take the job full-time, boosting his pay to $128,000.
He is the longest-serving city manager in Gardens’ history, surpassing John Orr, who served 19 years before resigning in 1993.
Ferris has faced no criticism in recent years from council members, who evaluate him every June.
They credit him for building and maintaining the loyalty of an exceptional and dependable staff that provides rigorous review of development proposals and has built up city reserves while keeping the tax rate flat for seven years.
He oversaw the rebuilding of city hall and the police station while maintaining high marks with debt rating agencies. While the city initially opposed a 1-cent addition to the sales tax in 2016 to pay for construction at schools and cities, Ferris pledged the proceeds from the tax to borrow $30 million and start work immediately.
He oversees the city’s highly touted ballfields and recreation facilities.
While he often clashed with county officials, he personally negotiated with the county administrator last year to deliver a long-delayed stoplight outside the Bay Hill community on west Northlake Boulevard.
He also oversaw the city’s move, watched by other cities countywide, to replace county impact fees with mobility fees controlled by the city, prompting a lawsuit from the county. An initial ruling in March went against the city.
Ferris has his critics and responded to objections last year over what critics called a surprise decision to build an 18-hole, par-3 golf course on donated land next to the city’s Sandhill Crane course. In response, Ferris outlined public meetings over several years to make his case to the council, which granted him unanimous support.
The city’s pursuit of a major league spring training site off Central Boulevard in 2013, including a trip Ferris took to Toronto to show the Blue Jays that the city was serious, angered neighbors, driving criticism that resulted in grass-roots support for city council term limits, which passed by referendum in 2014.
Former Mayor Mike Martino said the council’s approach to the manager’s annual evaluations reveal a disturbing power shift from the council to the administration.
“Past city councils have given up some of their discretion to the administration,” Martino said. “I don’t think that’s the way it should be.”
Referring to past evaluations, he said: “They say, more or less, he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and we should be thankful that we have him. There was no meat to the conversation.”
Reed, citing employees: ‘He is the best leader’
Mayor Chelsea Reed presented her evaluation in the voice of about a dozen unidentified employees, who she said she reached out to through texts or conversations out of Ferris’ earshot.
“You want to show up for work just to make him proud.”
“Ron stresses the importance of teamwork because we are always all in this together.”
“He is a mentor more than anything.”
“We all want to do our best and be better for him. There is tremendous loyalty. Our excellence is because of him.”
“He is the best leader, a friend and father figure. He genuinely cares for our staff and our residents.”
“He raises us all up and allows us to excel.”
“I have worked in other municipalities and cannot and will not work anywhere else because of him.”
“He is a dad to us all.”
“This is the only city I know of where the needs of staff, especially during hard times, like COVID, and the recent issues with rent and inflation, where the city manager really connects with our staff to truly get an understanding of their needs and pivots accordingly to really take care of people.”
And, setting up the comment she cited as her favorite, she recalled the words of Colin Powell that the leader sets the tone for the entire team.
“Here is what this long-standing staff member said about Ron,” Reed said. “He is a visionary. He is focused. He is fearless. He is compassionate. He is skilled. If I had to boil it down though, I think the source of Ron’s leadership is love. Love for the city, love for his people, the love of public service. It is true. It is authentic. And it is what keeps him going.”
Woods: ‘I look up to Ron’
Councilmember Carl Woods, a former city police officer, spoke of how city government is like a family, pointing out that “I’ve been watching Ron since I’ve been 26-years-old ‘cause he was my city manager here when I was just a young cop.”
Woods spoke of naming city hall after Ferris while he was still working in the building and able to enjoy the honor, adding, “And we really didn’t get any pushback from the community on that because people that live here know that Ron and his staff are part of the community.”
He talked of how Ferris affected him personally.
“You know, I look up to Ron. I’m not afraid to say that. He mentors me in some ways. And I’m man enough to be a council member when it’s needed. But I lean on him a lot on some of these directions the city’s going and it’s our job to ask questions and report to the community. So I have no problem saying how much I respect him and how much the community respects you and how much your staff respects you and I think I can even be bolder than that by this community and this staff. I mean, you are a well-loved man in this city and I appreciate my time that I’ve been around you.
“If it wasn’t for Ron and staff, our job, ‘cause we’re all adult enough to do our job, our job can be easy because of how this is run. So if it wasn’t for this city and Ron our job could be completely different. So I’m thankful we’re council members in Palm Beach Gardens as opposed to some other jurisdictions.”
Tinsley: ‘Ron is always willing to listen’
City managers stay in their jobs for an average of 6.9 years and only 4.5 percent stay 20 years or more, Councilmember Marcie Tinsley said, statistics she researched before the meeting.
The main reason for longevity, she said she found, is strong support from elected officials, political stability and personal commitment to the city.
“I know for a fact, and I have witnessed it … that for decades, you’re committed to this city for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind.
“While we might not always agree on all accounts, I know Ron is always willing to listen and to me and that is a big thing. Sometimes just listening, debating an idea, is the best way to come up with an awesome compromise.”
She pointed out that Ferris had been asked to be more transparent in past years and “You absolutely did that.” She cited the 2014 decision to livestream city council meetings, his willingness to hold workshops and his overhaul of the city website to make it easier to use.
“You also started collaborating with our business owners and our developments when we had to make changes in our regulations before it actually came to the council,” she said, citing rules governing outdoor dining and valet parking.
She concluded: “While there’s always room for improvement for all of us, having someone open to ideas and growth is to me the catalyst for improvement and so far you continue to beat the odds.”
Litt: ‘You allow us to be proactive’
Forward-thinking, flexible and collaborative were the words emphasized by Vice Mayor Rochelle Litt, who has served five years with Ferris.
“You allow us to be proactive, instead of reactive. And that moves the city forward in a way that few cities can, whether it’s preparing ahead for storm water treatment … whether it’s the 10-year financial plan … whether it’s your mentorship of staff. We’re going to lose a lot of staff this year and the mentorship that you provide so that when we lose that staff there are assistants and deputies and other staff members that can step into leadership roles.”
For flexibility, she cited Ferris’ ability “to pivot and change plans” as financial resources changed or with the COVID pandemic.
And she pointed out his ability to bring diverse departments together. “That starts at the top. That’s under your leadership. I really got to see that in action over the past five years. So like Marcie says ‘Nobody agrees on everything’ but the lines of communication are always open. And I think we’ve had good lines of communication and good discussions.”
Marciano: ‘Your heart’s always in the right place’
Councilmember Mark Marciano, who also has served five years, singled out Ferris for leadership, smarts and heart.
“I think our residents need to be aware that, yes, this is government, but you’ve created a team around you that allows the government not to run like a government.
“Your heart’s always in the right place. And it’s always looking at the benefit of the city and that’s always the most important thing. I’ve never sensed any type of ulterior motive with what you do. You’re very sharp and you’re on top of all of it. Just constantly reinventing but also just remembering to evaluate processes on a regular basis.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a better run city anywhere and that’s to your credit.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.