Brody alleges political motivation in constituents’ call for the action
Over a period of approximately two-and-half hours on the night of July 19, the Sarasota city commissioners and members of the public put the spotlight on a March 29 City Hall incident when Mayor Hagen Brody — as one employee described it — was “on a rant” and cursing over the course of about two hours.
As documented in statements that three female employees gave to the city’s Human Resources Department, Brody was angry over the posting of a video to the city’s Facebook page. He had demanded repeatedly to speak with City Manager Marlon Brown, though Brown was tied up with other appointments.
The video included comments from Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, instead of focusing on Brody himself, at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at the Van Wezel.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who requested that the discussion item be placed on the July 19 agenda, offered several motions that she called critical to instilling decorum among elected city officials and holding them accountable for their actions. The only one that passed — on a unanimous vote — requires that commissioners have a reading of the city’s Pledge of Public Conduct at the start of each of their regular meetings.
Her second motion sought her colleagues’ support for direction to the Human Relations Department to research and recommend a set of rules, expectations and responsibilities that would hold the commissioners accountable for their actions and set out procedures for handling violations. “This is research,” Ahearn-Koch emphasized.
At first, that one died for lack of a second.
“It doesn’t do any good,” Commissioner Alpert said of the proposal. “There’s nothing we can do with [such rules],” Alpert added, referring to the City Charter’s provisions for board action.
Ahearn-Koch repeated part of the motion to assert the value of the research.
“Just make your motions and get on with this,” Brody told her.
When she replied that she wanted to offer comments on it, he replied, “There is no motion.”
After City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs noted that the motion had died for lack of a second, Brody continued, “We want to move on. … We have so much better things to be doing. I get it: You want to drag this out. … How many times are we going to do this?”
“I think this is an important discussion,” Alpert interjected. “And I think it’s not useful to be attacking fellow commissioners because they want to address it. That … absolutely plays into what’s happening here. … But the best way to clear it up,” Alpert told Brody, “is not to show the public that behavior’s going to continue, because, again, you’re attacking another person.”
Finally, Alpert finally won Brody’s agreement to let Ahearn-Koch propose the motion once more, and Alpert seconded it for discussion purposes. It later failed 1-4, with only Ahearn-Koch voting “Yes.”
The third motion called for direction to staff to research the hiring of a firm with no connections to the city or the commissioners to undertake an investigation of Brody’s March 29 actions.
Alpert seconded it. As she had earlier, Alpert asked Brody to apologize both to Bensel and to Jan Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager, who had posted on the city’s Facebook page the video that allegedly was the focus of Brody’s anger on March 29.
That motion also failed 1-4.
Finally, Alpert herself made a motion calling for the commissioners to continue discussions during workshops about how they should work together. Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo seconded it. That motion passed unanimously.
Brody told Alpert that he had “no problem” with the workshop idea. Nonetheless, he emphasized, “I’m not talking about this again,” referring to the March 29 incident. “I’m not,” he repeated.”
Whatever damage had been done, he added, “I’ve done it on my own.”
“If you think that the community wants us dwelling on a dispute I had with the city manager … five months ago, you are sadly mistaken,” Brody continued. “We need to focus on the business of our city,” not “fairy tales,” he added.
“I will respectfully disagree with you,” Ahearn-Koch said as she addressed Brody. “The constituents asked for this [discussion].”
Furthermore, Ahearn-Koch said, “My math tell me it was about three-and-a-half months ago,” instead of five.
Alpert noted that text messages and the three female employees’ statements to the Human Resources Department were proof of what happened on March 29.
In fact, Ahearn-Koch pointed out, Alpert first raised the issue of Brody’s comment during the May 18 City Commission meeting.
“And the emails have continued and continued [to come in from the public].”
The issue was very important to her then, Alpert said on July 19. “I wanted to see a sincere apology to the employees and the community from Mayor Brody and an acknowledgement that his behavior was inappropriate and that it will not happen again.”
Alpert added, “I think the even bigger issue is the denigration of Jan Thornburg’s and Mary Bensel’s reputations.”
As comments were exchanged, both Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie and Vice Mayor Arroyo indicated disinclination to investigate the March 29 incident.
“I’m not here to sort of, you know, go at anybody,” Battie said. “Should he have done what he did?” Battie added of Brody. “No.”
Battie said that when he spoke with the affected employees on March 29, after the incident, he told them, “‘Don’t you ever, ever, ever let an individual talk to you like that again. Ever.’”
“They’ve moved on from it,” he added.
“I was there when this incident occurred,” Arroyo said, noting that he also had spoken with the three employees. After Ahearn-Koch put the item on the agenda, Arroyo added, he asked the employees if they wanted the commission to pursue an investigation. “It was unanimous,” he continued: They did not want that to happen. “All the parties have addressed [the situation] with each other.”
Ahearn-Koch stressed that, without a process in place to deal with situations like the one on March 29, the only recourse is the formal recall of a city commissioner, as provided for in the City Charter. “Talk about ripping a community apart,” she added.
Questions of legal liability and political motives
At one point during the July 19 discussion, Brody asked City Attorney Robert Fournier whether the commission needed to take action on the basis of the three witnesses’ statements, to protect the city against the potential of legal liability — with Ahearn-Koch having raised the latter issue.
“Companies get sued all the time,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out, for allowing a “toxic or hostile work environment” to remain in place.
Based on his understanding, Fournier told Brody, the board’s focus was on a solitary incident. What could spur legal jeopardy for the city, Fournier continued, would be conduct that was “severe, pervasive and persistent. … If it was repeated again and again and again, probably it would form the basis of a claim.”
He added that he believed City Manager Brown had handled the situation appropriately, in terms of shielding “the alleged victims,” and that the Human Resources Department had taken proper action.
“I get it,” Brody said. “It’s not me like sobbing in apology. I apologized … for what I did … But I’m not apologizing for stuff that other people that attack me politically make up and put out in their various avenues.”
“There’s no question about what happened,” he continued.
Brody asserted several times during the discussion that he and the city manager “have a great relationship.”
However, Brody said, people had taken the opportunity “to expand on [the incident] fictitiously.”
Then Brody pointed out that he and Ahearn-Koch are up for re-election in 2022. “And some of you have not been Brody supporters,” he said, looking out at audience members in the Commission Chambers at City Hall.
One speaker that night who concurred with Ahearn-Koch’s call for an investigation was former Mayor Mollie Cardamone.
“Ms. Cardamone slammed the door in my face when I was knocking on doors in my race [in 2017],” Brody said. “How polite was that.”
“The people hold me accountable,” he continued. “They didn’t elect me to make friends and to play nice. They elected me to change things here at City Hall, and that is exactly what we have done, and some people are uncomfortable with the change that’s happened here … and they lost a lot of power in the process. I will continue to fight for the people of this community, not the special interests; Jen, not your little supporters.”
“I don’t appreciate talking down about our citizens like that, calling them ‘little’ … and my group,” Ahearn-Koch responded. “I did not ask a single person here to come down and speak, not a single one of them did I ask to come and speak. I did not ask for any of their emails. … So I would appreciate respect when you talk about our constituents.”
Explaining her concerns
The discussion was the final item of new business on July 19.
Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “It was neither an easy nor spontaneous decision to add an investigation of a city official to the City Commission agenda.”
“Many former mayors and commissioners, including the city’s first female mayor, Rita Rohr, have reached out and spoken directly to this commission … to demand an investigation,” she added.
Moreover, Ahearn-Koch said, “It’s important to acknowledge that a big part of our job is to be the voice of our constituents, not just those who voted for us …”
Members of the community want an outside investigation of Brody’s actions on March 29, she continued. If a city manager or a city staff member exhibits the type of behavior Brody did on March 29, she added, the city has procedures in place to deal with such a situation. “For the city commissioners,” Ahearn-Koch said, “we have little in place. … We have a code of conduct,” but it “has been silenced.”
“It used to be read aloud at City Commission meetings,” she pointed out, referring to board sessions prior to Brody’s winning his colleagues’ vote last November to serve as mayor.
Ahearn-Koch also asked that the commissioners to put in place a process “to hold elected officials accountable,” just as staff is.
As for her call for an investigation: She said that if the board members did not take a step “that results in a solution, based on facts, our constituents, our staff, are right to think we tacitly condone [Brody’s actions].”
Additionally, she reminded her colleagues that, several years ago, the commissioners hired an investigative team to research allegations about then-City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini’s abusive treatment of staff. Although she never named Nadalini, Ahearn-Koch noted that Nadalini is a woman and a “person of color.”
How could the commission have pursued an investigation in that situation, Ahearn-Koch stressed, but refuse to take the same steps in regard to “a white male elected official who is reported to have done similar behavior?”
(The investigation into Nadalini confirmed the allegations against her; the commission ultimately fired her, as it was able to do under City Charter provisions.)
A mix of public views
When Brody called on the speakers who wished to address the commissioners, 10 people came forward and one spoke via Zoom. Their remarks reflected a mix of views.
The very first person, Kelly Franklin, referenced copies of city emails she had read, which, she stressed, showed Brody’s abuse of female employees. In one case, Franklin noted, Brody called a city worker “a stupid old lady from the office.”
Franklin also talked of his attack on Senior Communications Manager Thornburg “with a series of libelous texts and slanderous statements,” as well as the fact that Brody had asked for Van Wezel Executive Director Bensel’s salary. Additionally, Franklin said, Brody demanded “that both women be fired in order to hire dedicated [public relations] professionals for each commissioner’s campaign needs.”
Franklin also raised the issue of potential legal liability for the city as a result of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines written to prevent discrimination of people in a workplace on the basis of age and gender.
She further contended that Brody’s irritation at work being pursued by then-Chief Transportation Planner Colleen McGue had resulted in McGue’s leaving city employment.
According to the National Law Review, Franklin added, the only way an employer can escape liability “for a hostile work environment” is if it can prove that it tried to address the situation.
Another speaker, Ronald Kashden, told the commissioners, “I’d like to think that [Human Resources] was called” on behalf of the employees affected by the March 29 incident. “But that was not the case,” he said. “HR got involved to help mitigate the financial exposure that such behavior created. … In short, HR was protecting the firm; it was not protecting the employees.”
Among those on the other side of the issue, Maryellin Kirkwood — who noted that she has served two terms on the city’s Human Relations Board — told the commissioners, “The mayor, as far as I’m concerned, is merely the first target of an unseemly, unfair and discriminatory gender-biased stereotype campaign, and I think it’s really led by a few ‘Old Guard’ community activists and a few others.”
Kirkwood added, “Let the mayor do his job and stop this nonsense.”
Jose Fernandez called the criticism of Brody “another example of the ‘woke’ mob running amok and attempting to impose their philosophy of using a manufactured outrage … Mayor Brody lost his temper with City Manager Brown and used inappropriate language. He subsequently apologized [to Brown and then to the public].”