Aug. 19 special meeting of Sarasota City Commission to address employee complaints about racial discrimination and hostile work environment

Virtual session to begin at 6 p.m.

The city commissioners conduct a special session on June 29 via the WebEx virtual meeting technology. They are joined by City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs, City Manager Tom Barwin and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. News Leader image

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, the Sarasota city commissioners will conduct a special meeting on allegations of discrimination from three former employees, including one who has filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

As Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch described the session in an Aug. 10 email to Commissioner Liz Alpert, the meeting’s focus will be on “the multiple allegations/incidents and the City Manager’s handling of these incidents, [the] culture his administration has created that allows this behavior, and lack of communication of serious internal issues like this to the City [commissioners, who are] charged with effecting executive authority over the City Manager.”

The city manager is Tom Barwin, who has held the position since September 2012.

The session, which will begin at 6 p.m., will be conducted via virtual meeting technology provided by WebEx.

Commissioner Hagen Brody called for the special meeting after the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported last week that a former African American manager in the city’s Finance Department filed a federal discrimination complaint against the director of that department, Kelly Strickland. Lorrie Ann Simmons contends in her complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that, although she was told she was highly qualified for the position of deputy finance director, Strickland offered excuses for hiring instead a white male from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. As it turned out, Simmons noted in her complaint, that person was terminated in February of this year — after just starting work in December 2019. The reason Simmons contends that he was dismissed was that he was unable to perform the duties of deputy finance director, including keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities. As a result, Strickland then offered the position to a white female who was the senior budget analyst; that person accepted the job on May 14, Simmons added, in spite of the fact that that person “had no training in the position prior to accepting the promotion.”

Simmons resigned from her position, effective Aug. 7, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, told The Sarasota News Leader.

In response to an email Brody sent City Attorney Robert Fournier on Aug. 6, Fournier wrote, “Per your request, this is to advise that Article III, Section 9(b) of the City Charter provides that the Mayor or any two (2) members of the City Commission may call a special meeting of the City Commission.

“This section also requires that written notice be provided to the Commissioners at least twenty four (24) hours in advance of the special meeting,” Fournier noted.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie concurred with Brody about the need for the session, the Herald-Tribune reported.

Kelly Strickland. Image contributed by City of Sarasota

Subsequent to the call for that meeting, two other employees have come forward, contending that Deborah Perez, manager of the city’s auditoriums and special events, had created a hostile work environment for employees and had engaged in discrimination against Latinos.

In response to a News Leader request, Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager, reported in an Aug. 12 email that Strickland began employment with the city on Oct. 21, 2009. She was promoted from deputy director of finance to director on Sept. 1, 2016, Thornburg added. Strickland’s salary is $146,316.56.

Perez was hired on May 11, 1988, Thornburg wrote. Perez’s salary is $93,705.46.

In January 2019, the City Commission terminated the employment of long-time City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini. That action came after a commission-authorized investigation into allegations about Nadalini’s abuse of staff members. Complaints had been aired for years about hostile work conditions in Nadalini’s office.

More details of the complaints

In early July, Simmons, who listed a Ruskin address, filed her complaint against Strickland with the Tampa Field Office of the EEOC. An African American, she alleges that upon walking in for the interview for the position of deputy finance director — on Sept. 24, 2019 — David Flatt, who then held the position, told her she “was the only qualified candidate out of 35 applicants.”

Strickland joined Flatt to conduct the interview, Simmons added in the complaint.

“Without prior notification,” Simmons wrote, she learned on Sept. 30, 2019 that city staff had advertised again for someone to fill the position. When she approached Flatt about the situation, Simmons continued, he told her that he thought Strickland had explained to her why she was not offered the job.

An October 2017 photo shows members of the City of Sarasota Finance Department: (back row, from left) Laura Wittenbauer, Lorrie Simmons, Michele Keeler and Mark Stinson; (middle row, from left) Margie Holman, Lisa Shay and Kelly Betz; (front row, from left) Finance Director Kelly Strickland, Michelle Valentich, Susan Dodd and then-Deputy Finance Director David Flatt. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Simmons and Flatt met with Strickland to discuss that, Simmons continued, Strickland told Simmons, “‘[W]ell you have a lot going on, you’re a single mama, you got your 2 boys and you have a lot outside of work to take care of’ but she offered nothing performance related.”

Later, Simmons noted in the complaint, she learned from other city staff members that Strickland had joked about being a racist and had shown employees photos on her phone of “a wedding where [Confederate] flags were being flown in celebration …” Staff members who were offended reported the incident to Simmons, Simmons added, as she was the only African American and the only manager remaining in her division at that time. In turn, Simmons wrote, she alerted Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown and Human Resources Director Stacie Mason.

The city investigation into Simmons’ complaints included interviews of “numerous Finance Department employees, a City Manager employee and two retirees,” the Feb. 13 city report says. (It is included as backup agenda material for the Aug. 19 meeting. The cover names Mason and Assistant City Attorney Sarah Warren as the authors.)

Each employee interviewed was advised not only that “[t]he city takes [allegations of discrimination] very seriously,” the report notes, but also, “Any form of post-investigation retaliation will not be tolerated and if suspected should be reported immediately to the Human Resources Department.”

“There is no dispute that, about two years ago, Finance Director Strickland made a racially insensitive remark to two of her staff when it was suggested that they try-out a new restaurant, Miss Susie’s Newtown Kitchen,” the report says.

“Strickland has acknowledged making the comment during a late-night … meeting in [an employee’s office],” the report continues. “In her interview, [Strickland] called it ‘the dumbest remark of my life.’”

Strickland said during the investigative interview that she recalled making a comment similar to “‘We can’t go there; we’d be the only white people there.’”

Sarah E. Warren is an assistant city attorney. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, the report adds, some employees recalled Strickland’s having said, “in a laughing manner,” something akin to “‘Don’t you know I’m a racist?’”

During the interview, the report points out, Strickland had no memory of making that comment.

A day or so after she made the remark about Miss Susie’s, the report notes, “Strickland apologized to one of the employees who she remembered has a spouse who is black. (She did not apologize to any other staff members.)”

During the interview, Strickland said, “‘I am not a racist … (but) I was brought up that way.’ She later admitted, ‘I do feel weird when everybody around me is a different color; but I didn’t have to [make the comment about Miss Susie’s].’”

In regard to the other incident Simmons had cited, the report says staff members explained that Strickland showed people photos of a bride and groom in a truck draped with a Confederate flat. Strickland told the investigators “she had ‘no control’ over the wedding. ‘I did not support this and did not pay for it.’” Moreover, Strickland “said she didn’t think much about [the prominence of the Confederate flag in the photos],” adding that that “would not have played a part in whether she shared the photos or not.”

The report also points out, “Employees who have worked with Ms. Strickland for 10-plus years — since she came to work for the City — are adamant that she is not a racist. … They also note that the restaurant discussion occurred two years ago, and they have heard no remarks of this nature since then.”

Additionally, the report continues, one long-time co-worker told the investigative team that “everyone was surprised” by the comment about the restaurant. “This corresponds with Ms. Strickland’s own self-assessment that she too frequently speaks without thinking things through,” the report says.

As for the situation with Strickland’s declining to promote Simmons: The report notes, “By all accounts, the interview went well,” but Strickland and Deputy Finance Director Flatt determined that Simmons was not a CPA, that Simmons needed to improve in some areas of her work and that Simmons lacked budget experience.

The report adds that Strickland informed Simmons that Simmons was “‘not ready’ for the role of Deputy Director,” pointing out that CPA certification was important for the person who would hold that position.

Further, Flatt told the investigators that he “would retain tasks because they were not getting accomplished under Ms. Simmons, that she has a lot to learn for the Manager role and is not ready for the Deputy position.”

The report also points out that the person staff hired as deputy director did have CPA certification, along with experience in government finance and the understanding of “budgetary requirements.”

The report concludes, “The allegation of improper hiring process is not substantiated.”

However, it adds, “Statements that are perceived to have a racial or discriminatory intent are not acceptable in the work environment for the City of Sarasota.” The City of Sarasota’s Personnel Rules and Regulations, contained in an ordinance the City Commission approved, specifically prohibits Discrimination under Rule 2.19, the report says.

Allegations against Perez

A city webpage features the Municipal Auditorium in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In regard to complaints against Perez, manager of the city’s auditoriums and special events, Sheyla Pena wrote an email to the city commissioners on June 28, which she copied to City Manager Barwin and Deputy City Manager Brown. The subject line said, “Toxic work culture in the City of Sarasota.”

She had worked for the city since 2017, Pena noted, but she recently was laid off. She added that she “felt a moral obligation to bring to light very disturbing practices” in Perez’s department.

A second email, sent to the board members on June 29, came from Sevde Haner, who wrote that, also as a former employee, Haner felt a “final duty and responsibility” to share her experiences in the Auditoriums and Special Events Department in an effort “to protect current employees, minorities and customers.”

Among Pena’s allegations was that Perez “was not in the office much,” that Perez would “regularly take off, come late, leave early, never [tell staff] where she was going and it was understood that we better not ask either. We knew it wasn’t for meetings because that was the only time she would tell us where she was going.”

Additionally, Pena contends that Perez “was adamant” that no quinceaneras take place in the Payne Park Auditorium. Pena then noted that those events celebrate a Latina teen’s turning 15; Pena called them “a rite of passage and very common in Hispanic culture.”

Yet, Pena continued, referring to Latinos, Perez “would say ‘those people’ aren’t always truthful about the amount of people they actually invite” and that Perez “had a bad situation ONCE [emphasis in the document].”

City records would show that “Payne Park is significantly underused and very rarely rented out” for quinceaneras, Pena added. Instead, the majority of those celebrations have been held in the Municipal Auditorium, she contended, which has “a much higher rental fee.”

This is a scene from a quinceañera in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo by Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons

Further, Pena alleges that Perez retaliated against her and Haner for complaining to the Human Resources staff about hostility from one of their co-workers in Perez’s department. That co-worker ultimately resigned, Pena wrote.

Additionally, Pena described a situation related to her work at a show held at the Municipal Auditorium. Security guards there made “sexual comments” about Pena, she wrote. The guards, she noted, “were speaking in Spanish, which I am fluent in …” She added that the remarks were “too disgusting to put on paper,” but she documented all of them for the EEOC.

Pena contends that she did not want to describe the incidents in an email, as Perez had directed her to do, because Perez planned to send the email to the supervisor of the guards, who then would have all the information.

Later, when another show was underway at the auditorium with the same guard group present, Pena continued, she “felt like [she] was in danger sitting alone at the Bayfront Community Center,” where Perez had told her to work if she felt uncomfortable. Pena pointed out that Perez had let the supervisor of the guards know about the sexual harassment incident, and Perez “was nowhere to be found” while Pena was in the Bayfront Community Center.

Pena further alleged that she and Haner “completed the majority of the work produced out of the office,” but they received letters from Human Resources telling them they would be laid off because of their lack of work. “Really?” Pena wrote. “The only one who had lack of work was Debbie.”

In her June 29 email to the commissioners, Haner provided a list of actions that Haner reported witnessing during her employment with the city, which began on Jan. 2, 2019. Among those were allegations of discrimination against minorities, Perez’s reportedly calling Latino customers “liars and untrustworthy people,” Perez’s failure to discipline employees “who created [a] hostile work environment,” and Perez’s asking employees to work longer hours without compensation.