Commissioner demands firing of Fruitland Park city manager

Commissioner Rick Ranize

For the second time in two weeks, Fruitland Park Commissioner Rick Ranize called for the removal of City Manager Gary La Venia.

Ranize expressed his displeasure with La Venia over a variety of issues during Thursday night’s commission meeting. But he made it clear that the one bothering him the most is an ongoing issue with the Florida Retirement System (FRS) that forced Police Chief Michael Fewless to at least temporarily resign and already has cost the city $33,758 in retroactive retirement contributions for part-time employees.

Ranize said he believes he was given false information about when the city first learned of the FRS problem. He said he’s still miffed that the city didn’t know it had to pay retirement for part-time employees. And he said he was “livid” when he found out the “minimal amount” – that’s how it was described during the Aug. 30 commission meeting – of retroactive retirement contributions that had to be paid by the city was actually $33,758.

City Manager Gary La Venia

Fewless was forced to leave his post with the Fruitland Park Police Department because he retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office while in the state retirement system and then took a job with another agency that pays into that same system – without waiting a designated time between the positions.

Fewless didn’t re-enter into the state retirement system when he came aboard with Fruitland Park in August 2015 but that didn’t matter, said City Attorney Anita Geraci-Carver.

“It’s the fact that this city has an FRS system,” she said two weeks ago. “It is a violation of their rules.”

Michael Fewless

At Thursday’s meeting, Ranize produced a document from Feb. 12, 2015 spelling out that both part-time and full-time employees were required to be in the FRS. He then went back and forth with La Venia about how Fewless ended up in the city’s other retirement system that he said shouldn’t have been open to him when he was hired.

Ranize also questioned City Treasurer Jeannine Racine about when the city knew about the entire FRS problem. He reminded her that commissioners were told it didn’t come to light until June, yet he produced a document from April 30 showing that money was being transferred to deal with the issue.

Racine then said that the city was first informed of the issue in April but it wasn’t told of the official findings of the FRS inquiry until June.

Treasurer Jeannine Racine

“It aggravates me dearly when I’m not given the information that I request,” Ranize said, “or when I’m given partial information or false information.”

Ranize then tackled the issue of being told the retroactive retirement contribution was a “minimal amount” affecting six people. He pointed out that $33,758 is hardly minimal and that it actually affected 18 part-time people – a fact backed up by an email Racine sent to commissioners Aug. 31.

Ranize then made it quite clear that he believes there was an effort keep the FRS issue minimized or hidden.

“I don’t know if it was hidden from the other commissioners, but I can assure you it was hidden from me,” he said. “It did not come up in a budget amendment openly and honestly. When asked how many people were involved, it was six – not 18.”

With that, Ranize put the entire issue squarely on La Venia’s shoulders.

“Two weeks ago, I requested his resignation and he laughed at me,” Ranize said. “Tonight, I’m demanding his termination. If he’s not going to be truthful with us, we don’t need him as a city manager.”

Commissioner Ray Lewis

Ranize’s request was put to a vote and failed 4-1. But Commissioner Ray Lewis, who like Ranize will leave his post in November, said he also was very upset about the $33,758 figure and might have voted differently on La Venia’s future if he wasn’t getting ready to end his tenure as a commissioner.

Commissioner Chris Bell praised La Venia, calling him one of the best city managers he’s seen during his 20-plus years on the commission. Vice Mayor John Gunter, also a longtime commissioner, offered praise for La Venia but said like anybody else, he can improve.

La Venia, who became Fruitland Park’s city manager in October 2013 after serving as township manager in Maple Shade, N.J., declined to comment on Ranize’s efforts to have him removed for the second week in a row.