Commissioners will have to approve contract as an upcoming agenda item, with public comments to be allowed
Almost at the very end of the Sarasota city commissioners’ regular meeting on July 16, they discussed ongoing concerns about complaints that have been lodged against City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini’s management style.
The discussion ended with a motion by Mayor Liz Alpert, directing the city’s Human Resources Department to investigate the potential of hiring an outside, independent expert to review the allegations by employees and make recommendations to the board on the best steps going forward.
The commissioners asked Stacie Mason, manager of the Human Resources Department, to provide them with an update at their next regular meeting — set for Aug. 20 — on the progress of that effort.
After about 40 minutes of discussion at the very end of their Aug. 20 meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Human Resources Department to proceed within the scope of work Mason had suggested that night.
At the request of Commissioner Willie Shaw, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie also included in her motion direction for the department to contact the Florida League of Cities to determine whether it could be of any assistance. Finally, the motion called for the Human Resources Department not to spend more than $35,000, which was the maximum estimate Mason had received from the three firms she had talked with about a possible investigation.
Mason told the commissioners she would try to have a contract ready for them to review and approve at their first meeting in September. If that ultimately was not feasible, she continued, she would place the item on the Sept. 17 agenda.
A Sarasota News Leader review of the Sept. 4 agenda did not find an item mentioning the contract.
For years, commissioners have talked about complaints they have heard from employees regarding Nadalini. When the board this year prepared to evaluate her and the city’s other two City Charter officials — City Manager Tom Barwin and City Attorney Robert Fournier — they allowed employees to comment anonymously on the individuals. During a March 19 discussion of the evaluations, Mayor Alpert pointed out that 22 people had complained about Nadalini’s behavior. She did not believe all of them were lying, Alpert added, “so I think we really haveto take a look at that.”
Just before the commissioners took their vote on Aug. 20, Nadalini told them, “I will not be interviewed regarding this process due to the way much of this has been handled and played in the media, so I can make sure that I am definitely covered.”
However, she added, she would encourage city employees to participate in the investigation.
At the outset of the Aug. 20 discussion, City Attorney Fournier explained that Human Resources Director Mason would have to come back to the commission — after putting the item on an agenda — to seek a vote on the firm she chooses to undertake the investigation into Nadalini.
He reiterated that statement later, explaining that while no hearing would be necessary, the public still would have the right to comment on the hiring of an outside consultant.
“That’s not what you told me,” Mayor Alpert responded.
She had been “led to believe” that Fournier simply could provide the board an update during his routine remarks on a future agenda, Alpert said, and then the commissioners would act on the hiring proposal without the need for public comment.
“Then we miscommunicated,” Fournier told Alpert. “I’ll take the blame for that.”
The three alternatives
Mason explained to the commissioners on Aug. 20 that she had researched two law firms with attorneys who specialize in labor law, along with a professional consultant in Sarasota who has expertise in human resources issues.
Based on her discussions, Mason continued, the scope of work would include the following:
- Interviews with about 20 current employees of the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk and perhaps 10 former employees in that department.
- Reviews of personnel records and “exit” interviews conducted with staff leaving that department that had mentioned allegations against Nadalini.
- A review of policies and procedures regarding allegations against city Charter officials in the context of city business, along with recommendations on changes in those processes.
- Completion of a formal report on the findings and recommendations.
- Delivery of that report to the City Commission, as well as any follow-up information sought by the commission.
The firm hired to undertake the investigation would have to comply with the state’s Sunshine Law in regard to public records, Mason explained. Representatives of all three firms with which she had had discussions said they readily would comply with the state law, she added.
The two law firms she contacted, she said, were Jackson Lewis in Tampa, which estimated the total of its expenses between $25,000 and $30,000; and Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Sarasota, which indicated its maximum expenses would total $35,000.
Patricia Mathews, the human resources consultant in Sarasota, said she would charge a flat fee of $11,250, Mason added.
When Commissioner Shaw asked whether the board members would be able to talk with any of the people with whom Mason had discussed the process, she told him, “I asked for samples of work.” However, she continued, in each case, she was told that none of the work was available for review, because all such documents were confidential.
“Then how do I know what they’ve done?” Shaw replied.
She had reviewed the biographical information and background of individuals with the firms, Mason told him.
Commissioner Freeland Eddie, who is an attorney, pointed out that lawyers are able to use a specific type of form to provide examples of their work product without betraying any confidences.
Freeland Eddie also told Mason, “I’m really concerned that this information wasn’t presented to us in writing. We’re all doing ‘chicken scratch’ here, trying to write down what you’ve said, and you’re asking us to give you direction on a pretty important decision. … So, procedurally, I’m just really disappointed.”
Moreover, Freeland Eddie asked, “What legal basis do we have to require past employees to cooperate with anything that’s done?”
“We don’t,” Mason responded, “but they may want to participate.”
“How do you get a balanced sample when you don’t get everybody?” Freeland Eddie asked, referring to people no longer employed by the city.
Freeland Eddie added that she had concerns from a legal standpoint about any former employees being interviewed during the investigation.
“I don’t think past employees is going to help,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said. Whichever firm is hired, he continued, should interview only current employees and assess “what’s going on over there [in the Auditor and Clerk’s Office].”
“I think that talking to former employees is important and should be done,” Mayor Alpert said.
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested that the best option would be to let Mason decide whom to hire.
Commissioner Shaw then voiced his recollection that, during the July 16 discussion, the board members agreed that Human Resources staff would focus on “some sensitivity training.” Disciplinary action was not his intent, he added.
Further, Shaw said, he did not want Mason taking on the responsibility for “what I’m held accountable for. I want to see who it is and what they’re going to be bringing to the City of Sarasota,” he added of the investigative team members.
Freeland Eddie and Shaw then both referenced their understanding that the city has no policies for dealing with allegations against Charter officials, such as those that have been lodged against Nadalini.
Freeland Eddie reminded Mason that the July 16 discussion called for a focus on complaints against the Charter officials in general. “It’s critical, because this body was looking for policy and procedures going forward.”
Nadalini is just one of the three city Charter officials, Freeland Eddie pointed out.
Mason confirmed that the city has policies that deal only with routine employment issues; nothing specifically relates to the Charter officials.
“We’re not trying to have a law firm come in and build a case against us,” Commissioner Brody said. What the board needs, he said, is to learn whether any of the allegations against Nadalini are valid.
When Freeland Eddie asked how the expense of the investigation would be handled, Mason replied that the Human Resources Department has funds to cover the cost.
As debate continued over how to proceed, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues that it was 22 minutes past midnight. Again, she suggested they let Mason decide which firm to hire “and move forward.”
Brody agreed with that.
Finally, Freeland Eddie made her motion, and Brody seconded it. Then it passed 5-0.