PLANT CITY — City Commissioner Billy Keel suggested at a recent budget workshop that the city consider a number of budget cuts, including the elimination of Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel’s position.
He denies any political motives in targeting McDaniel, who spearheaded the internal investigation earlier this year that led to the firing of Keel’s friend, Steve Singletary, as police chief. Keel is under investigation for allegedly trying to convince a key witness to not cooperate with the probe.
The idea of eliminating McDaniel’s position didn’t gain support of the other four city commissioners and Keel said he doesn’t plan to pursue it any further. Veteran Commissioner Mike Sparkman believes Keel’s request was motivated by revenge over Singletary’s firing.
“It’s vindictiveness,” Sparkman said. “The assistant city manager had a job to do (in the Singletary probe) and he did it well.”
Keel denied any ulterior motive, saying that the city is facing a $2.6 million budget shortfall and a number of painful cuts need to be considered.
“We ought to look at every department,” he said. “It has nothing to do with any individual.”
Keel said that Sparkman and McDaniel are friends, and that Sparkman may have his own motives in protecting McDaniel’s job. He said it’s “silly” to think he’s carrying out a grudge against McDaniel.
Keel said he thinks McDaniel, a retired Plant City police chief, is an outstanding employee but he is paid nearly $107,000 per year, plus a $10,400 car lease and other perks, so his position deserves scrutiny.
Keel said governments in general have been hiring retired employees for key positions and while they are very qualified they also typically have higher salaries.
“It had nothing to do with any one person. We have great people in place,” he said.
Keel said he questioned McDaniel’s position because the city didn’t have an assistant city manager for several years until McDaniel was hired in 2012.
Interim City Manager David Sollenberger said the city has grown in recent years due to annexation and other factors and he depends on McDaniel to share the workload. Sollenberger said his job would be overwhelming if he didn’t have an assistant city manager to shoulder some of the burden.
Keel also asked for scrutiny of other positions, including the recent hiring of former police Sgt. Tray Towles as city code enforcement supervisor. Towles’ salary, $66,518, is more than $22,000 higher than the person he replaced, Dennis Sweeney, who resigned to take a position with Hillsborough County.
Several commissioners said they wanted to stay out of personnel decisions, because it’s Sollenberger’s responsibility to hire and fire virtually all city employees.
Sparkman feels that Keel, a commissioner since 2012, was meddling in how Sollenberger runs the city. “He’s young and new and doesn’t quite understand his role,” said Sparkman.
Singletary was fired in January after a city investigation concluded that he had sex with Melissa Hardwick when he should have been on duty. Singletary admitted the affair, but said he met with her on his own time.
Hardwick has sworn under oath that Keel tried through a mutual friend to persuade her to remain silent if questioned by city investigators about the relationship. McDaniel questioned Hardwick at length about the affair and about Keel’s possible influence, according to video recordings of her interviews.
City commissioners in February asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state Commission on Ethics to determine if Keel misused his position. The commissioners asked for the probes at the request of Keel, who said he wanted to be be cleared of any impropriety by outside agencies.
FDLE officials recently announced they didn’t think charges were warranted. The ethics commission has yet to issue a ruling.