City attorney asked to report on potential amendment to strengthen Sarasota City Charter provisions to deal with misconduct of commissioners or mayor

March 2021 incident involving then-Mayor Brody spurs further Charter Review Committee discussion

Members of the Charter Review Committee sit in session on Jan. 24. Facing them are (from left) City Manager Marlon Brown, Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Lori Rivers and City Attorney Robert Fournier. City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs, who was out of town, participated via remote meeting technology. She is seen in the upper lefthand portion of the image. News Leader image

As the members of the City of Sarasota’s Charter Review Committee have worked to fine-tune the recommendations they will make to the City Commission this spring about changes regarding the position of mayor, one issue has yet to be resolved — how to handle allegations of misbehavior of the mayor.

During their Jan. 24 meeting, the committee members devoted most of their time to that topic, voting at last to ask City Attorney Robert Fournier for his assistance.

On a formal motion by Peter Fanning, seconded by Cathy Antunes, staff will look into the issue. That direction will include a review of other jurisdictions’ charters and consideration of the committee members’ comments that night. Then Fournier will present the findings to the committee during its Feb. 14 meeting.

Committee members Crystal Bailey and Dan Clermont voted against the motion. Chair Carolyn Mason and members Philip DiMaria and Wayne Ruben were absent.

In the background of the Jan. 24 discussion was an incident involving then-Mayor Hagen Brody and several city employees on March 29, 2021.

As explained in reports that employees filed with the city’s Human Resources Department, Brody was angry over a social media post related to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Kathryn King, executive assistant to the city manager, wrote that Brody had demanded to see City Manager Marlon Brown because Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, was “getting all the credit” for the clinic. Brown was tied up in a meeting at the time.

King added in her report that Brody was unhappy because a video featuring him at the clinic was not on the city’s Facebook page; instead, a video that had been posted focused on Bensel.

This is a still from a video posted on the city’s Facebook page on March 29, 2021. It shows Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, talking about the March 24, 2021  vaccination clinic held at the performing arts hall on the Sarasota bayfront. Image from the Facebook page

“He was calling Jan Thornburg names under his breath (but loud enough for me to hear) ‘fu**ing talking head,’” King wrote.

“I felt very traumatized,” King added. “This was not an ‘outburst.’ This was like a 2 hour situation that felt somewhat of a ‘hostage’ situation.”

Thornburg is the senior communications manager for the city.

A second employee report said Brody was walking around the office “SCREAMING to the point where he is red in the face and neck DEMANDING he meet with Marlon [the writer’s emphasis].”

“I have never seen anyone in the workplace act out like this, filled with so much rage,” the writer added.

Finally, the writer noted, Brown and Brody stepped into Brody’s office to talk. “I can hear the Mayor pounding his fist on his desk as he is talking to the City Manager. In the middle of all his screaming, the Mayor comes out demanding I get salary information on two City Staff members” and then returns to his office.

That writer also pointed out, “This is a hostile and toxic work environment. Mayor Brody strolls in at any time of the day to give orders and disrupts the workplace. When Mayor Brody comes into the office,” she continued, “he expects staff to drop what they are doing just for him … His continuous misbehavior and lack of [good] conduct are just too much to cope with.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch ended up asking for a board discussion of the incident during the July 6, 2021 regular commission meeting. Ultimately, the majority of the commissioners agreed not to call for an investigation into Brody’s behavior.

During the Charter Review Committee’s months of discussions about potential City of Sarasota Charter changes regarding the position of mayor, some members have voiced concern about the potential of having a mayor elected by voters for a four-year term with no clear recourse if that mayor creates a difficult work situation for employees or otherwise abuses the office.

A comparison of city charter provisions

Committee member Antunes kicked off the Jan. 24 discussion, referencing materials that City Attorney Fournier had provided about how other municipalities handle alleged misconduct on the part of their elected officials. She cited examples from the charters of the Cities of Jupiter, Margate and Wellington.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Antunes pointed out. “In fact, these cities do a hell of a lot better than we do. There’s no contest.”

This is the chart that committee member Cathy Antunes showed her colleagues. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Jupiter’s charter includes this prohibition: “Neither the [town] council nor its members shall in any manner dictate the appointment or removal of any town officers or employees whom the manager or the manager’s subordinates are empowered to appoint … Except for the purpose of inquiries or investigations under this Charter, the [town] council and its members shall deal with town officers and employees solely through the manager, and neither the [town] council nor its members shall give orders to any such officers or employees either publicly or privately.”

Referring to the Brody situation in late March 2021, Antunes told her colleagues, “Behind what happened here was a public official wanting city staff to follow his orders instead of [those of] the city manager.”

However, Clermont noted various sections of the Sarasota City Charter that, he said, already address the issue.

For example, he continued, Article IV, Section 6, expressly prohibits city commissioners from giving orders to the city manager, the city auditor and clerk, and the city attorney.

For another example, Clermont pointed out, Article IV, Section 8.2, makes it clear that city commissioners cannot interfere with administration except in situations involving formal inquiries and investigations.

This is part of Article IV, Section 8, of the Sarasota City Charter. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In early July 2021, Clermont emphasized, the city commissioners voted against pursuing an investigation into Brody’s behavior, even though they had the right to undertake such action, as provided for in the Charter.

Charter Review Committee member Dan Clermont. File image

Clermont cautioned about revising the Charter’s provisions to make it “pretty easy” to force out the mayor who has been elected by the voters. “I think that is a dangerous road to go down.”

Nonetheless, Fanning talked about the potential of strengthening the Charter provisions, including the addition of language saying the commission “shall have the power at any time to cause the investigation of a sitting mayor or commissioner …”

He noted that, during the committee’s Jan. 10 meeting, Vice Chair Eileen Normile had mentioned the use of a neutral party to conduct any investigation. Following such an investigation, Fanning added, that neutral party could present recommendations to the City Commission.

Normile, who was presiding in place of Chair Carolyn Mason on Jan. 24, agreed with Clermont that provisions already exist in the Charter for handling violations. “However,” she continued, referring to the Brody incident in March 2021, “what I disagree about is that there were violations of the Charter and nothing was done about it. … So I think there has to be an investigation possibility …”

Moreover, Normile pointed out, the issue is “a course of conduct.” Referencing allegations of Brody losing his temper and acting inappropriately with staff on multiple occasions when he was mayor, she said, “A course of conduct puts the city at risk legally, so that if employees feel harassed or at risk, they have the ability to sue.”
City Attorney Fournier affirmed that she was correct in that statement, though he added, “It has to be a course of conduct over time, a pattern.”

Clermont later said he agreed with the idea of broadening the provisions of the city Charter to make it clear that they apply to the mayor as well as the other commissioners and that an investigation would have to be conducted “if something egregious enough does happen …”

In response to a question from Jeff Jackson, Fournier said he believes the Charter does give the City Commission the authority to call for an investigation, but that is not “spelled out.” Moreover, Fournier noted, “What is there does address employees and doesn’t address explicitly elected officials.”

Clermont told his colleagues, “I’m uncomfortable about getting too far into this … We want [the elected officials] running the city,” he added, “not getting into fights over who will kick who off [the board].”

Fanning then pointed to the language in Article 4 of the Charter in regard to investigations into misconduct, which allows the City Commission to compel attendance of witnesses and production of evidence “through subpoenas issued in the name of the city and signed by the mayor, vice-mayor or acting mayor of the city.”

This is Article IV, Section 17, of the Sarasota City Charter. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Well, what happens if the mayor is the focal point?” Fanning asked. “There is no provision.”

Once more, Antunes noted the charters of the other cities she had mentioned. Their language, she said, “is remarkably consistent about violating standards of conduct [and a] code of ethics established by law for public officials.” When she asked Fanning whether he thought that language would work in the Sarasota Charter, Fanning replied, “Well, I think there’s a way to frame the language that keeps it neutral and just deals with the factual situations that come up …”

Further, Fanning said, “It doesn’t make any difference whether the mayor is there four years [as the committee has discussed] or not.” The reason for amending the Charter, he continued, is “because a current mayor apparently did something that isn’t addressed in this Charter …”

‘The end game?’

“Is the end game here to find a way to be able to remove a mayor?” Clermont asked. “I think that’s what it is.”
“Obviously,” he added, “nobody wants a mayor who’s a tyrant. Nobody wants somebody who is breaking the spirit of the Charter. … Is that our role here, to make that determination?”

Then Clermont pointed out, “The type of mayor we’re talking about here is no different than the mayor we have now, as far as their powers. … We talked about having a strong mayor. That didn’t fly here. … The mayor talk brought this up.”

Normile replied, “I would say creation of a hostile workplace, continuing bad statements about female employees, course of conduct of flying off the handle — I don’t know that a mayor or city commissioner should be held to a different standard or given free rein [more] than anyone would be if they were working for Merrill Lynch or they were working as a staff member here.”

Committee Vice Chair Eileen Normile. File image

Referring to the city manager, Normile added, “I can’t imagine that Mr. Brown would put up with someone ‘going postal’ three times a week in any of his departments. … It wreaks havoc on the way the city functions. I don’t know why our elected officials can’t be held to that same standard.”

She then pointed out, “It’s almost as though this past year was a learning experience. We had the poster child for what a mayor could have been if he was given free rein. I think it behooves us to talk about a procedure when there is misbehavior.”

As the discussion continued, Kim Githler said she liked Fanning’s idea about looking into “tightening up the language” in the Charter to deal with misconduct. She added that she also believes that any investigations of elected officials should be handled by parties outside City Hall.

Fanning suggested that if an investigation proves the validity of serious allegations, then a recall election would be an option. He also noted that although the Sarasota Charter has numerous provisions that would be applicable to the types of situations the committee members were discussing, those provisions are not in a logical order. Putting them into a more orderly sequence would be helpful, he indicated.

What she saw in the other charters she had referenced was clarity, Antunes pointed out. “We can hold officials accountable every four years,” she continued, “but the whole point of having a charter is … the power in our system is given by the citizens, and the Charter is the way that the citizens lay out the guardrails.”