During July 6 meeting, Sarasota city commissioners to discuss possibility of investigation into mayor’s March 29 tirade at City Hall

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch asked for the agenda item

City Hall is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. File photo

The last item of new business on the Sarasota City Commission’s July 6 agenda regards a potential investigation of Mayor Hagen Brody as a result of a March 29 incident that prompted three female employees to file reports with the city’s Human Resources Department.City

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch called for the item to be placed on the July 6 agenda. Under “Explanation,” the agenda request form says, “Constituents are asking for, by emails, by presenting at the City Commission meetings, and in letters to the editor, to discuss an investigation of actions and behavior of Mayor Brody. A few emails from constituents are attached. Additional material attached include current City of Sarasota Personnel Rules and Regulations as a framework of internal processes applicable to City employees.”

The longest report filed with the Human Resources Department after the March 29 incident was dated April 6, as shown in copies obtained through public records requests. It explained that between 8 and 8:30 a.m., Brody called his administrative assistant to request a meeting with City Manager Marlon Brown. However, Brown was unavailable because of meetings he was conducting, the report continued. After the writer let Brody know that Brown could not speak with Brody then but “would be more than happy to dedicate his lunch hour to a discussion with the Mayor,” the writer added that Brody was not satisfied.

“Mayor Hagen Brody proceeded to say, ‘I don’t give a sh*t, I want to meet with his a**.’”

The writer then noted that she and a co-worker let Brown know Brody’s response. Yet, the writer added, she did not call Brody back, “in fear that he might yell at me or my coworker.”

About an hour later, she continued, when six or eight individuals were in the office — staff and members of the public — “the Mayor stormed in demanding to know where Marlon Brown was. We told the Mayor he was in his office,” the writer pointed out, so Brody “barged in” while Brown was on a Zoom call, conducting city business. “The Mayor screams that he needs to meet with Marlon before 12 noon and City Manager Brown replies letting him know that won’t be possible because there are appointments on his calendar, one being a meeting with another Commissioner.”

At that point, the writer continued, 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].”

The writer added that she was unable to concentrate on her work, so she stopped. She also noted that she “feared that the Mayor might react violently towards City Manager Brown or City Staff.”

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

Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Later, she 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.

Finally, the writer 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.”

Based on the second report filed with the Human Resources Department, the person who wrote the above account was Alexya Alvarenga, administrative assistant to the city commissioners.

The second writer was Kathryn G. King, executive assistant to the city manager. She explained that Brody was angry because Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, was “getting all the credit” for the COVID-19 vaccine clinic held on March 24 at the Van Wezel. King added 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.

(In the video, Bensel talks of having worked with Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s epidemiologist, Dr. Manuel Gordillo, about “starting the clinic.” Yet, Bensel also said, “The mayor of Sarasota, Hagen Brody, jumped in this with two feet and really pushed this along.”)

In her statement to Human Resources, King wrote of Brody, “He was yelling that the only reason [Bensel] was there was to get the shot, and the whole event should be credited to him.”

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

King then explained that the employees whose salaries Brody was seeking were those of Bensel and Jan Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager.

“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.”

King also pointed out that she consulted Thornburg “by email and over the phone several times” and that City Manager Brown did the same, King thought. King added that Thornburg called the situation a misunderstanding. Thornburg “remained calm and tried to accommodate the mayor’s demands,” King noted.

Another still from the video posted on the city’s Facebook page on March 29 shows Mayor Hagen Brody helping direct traffic at the vaccination clinic on March 24. Image from the city’s Facebook page

The third person to submit a statement to Human Resources has been identified to the News Leader as Stevie Freeman-Montes, whose position on city staff has changed a number of times over the past couple of years. She originally was the sustainability manager. Most recently, she has been named manager of governmental relations.

Freeman-Montes wrote of Brody’s behavior on March 29, “This incident frightened me as I questioned whether the Mayor was in control of his emotions and actions. My heart raced during the incident as I planned what I may need to do if things escalated. Following this incident, I had sleepless nights and knew that I would resign my position here at the City if this behavior continued.”

The May 18 City Commission discussion

In the wake of news media accounts of the incident, Commissioner Liz Alpert brought up the issue at the end of the regular City Commission meeting on May 18.

“It gives me no great pleasure to say what I’m about to say,” Alpert began, “but I feel it’s important for the community and for our staff” that the board members discuss the March 29 situation.

Commissioner Liz Alpert offers her remarks during the board’s meeting on May 18 as Mayor Hagen Brody listens. News Leader image

Referencing the three city employees who filed reports with Human Resources, Alpert said, “It would be egregious for this commission to ignore [the incident] because silence is condoning it. It’s our responsibility as individual commissioners and as a commission to monitor and model appropriate behavior. The city manager has no authority over the mayor,” Alpert continued, “or any of the commissioners. We are the only ones who can assure our employees and the public that we will not tolerate this type of behavior for any one of us.”

Alpert also pointed out, “Those on the staff and those on the commission prior to last fall’s election know that this is not the first time the mayor has exhibited this type of behavior in City Hall. This is just the first time that it rose to such a level that our employees felt compelled to file statements with HR.”

During the discussion, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch suggested the potential of a formal investigation, but she added that she did not know what that would entail — or whether that type of process ever had been pursued in the past.

From what she was told, Ahearn-Koch continued, “It was several hours of unprofessional behavior, profanity, opening doors, slamming doors, making demands … Anyone in city staff would have been fired if they had behaved like that.”

Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie told his colleagues that he had talked with the three affected female employees and told them that if anyone on staff had a problem at any time, they could speak with him about it. He also said that he had advised those employees to never let an incident like the one on March 29 happen again.

Battie called upon Brody to apologize, but he added, “I’m not going to browbeat an individual over a mistake. … We’ve all made them. No one here is perfect.”

Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo, who noted that he was in his office at the time the March incident occurred, said of Brody’s actions, “It didn’t sound like an outburst.” Nonetheless, Arroyo acknowledged, “It was louder than usual.”

Mayor Hagen Brody addresses Commissioner Liz Alpert on May 18. News Leader image

After his colleagues concluded their comments, Brody said that he had apologized to the three employees. “I definitely could have handled myself better,” he added.

While he said he did not believe the employees exaggerated in their reports to Human Resources, he contended that the March 29 incident “wasn’t like a two-hour hostage situation.”

He also said, “I plan to do better in the future. I’m learning.”

Although Brody made no public apology that night, both the Sarasota Herald-Tribuneand the Sarasota Observer reported that he did so the next day, May 19.

In a text to a Herald-Tribune reporter, Brody wrote, “I’ve given this a lot of thought and after reflecting on the conversation last night, I would like to clearly and publicly apologize to our staff and community for my behavior March 29th. I will do better.”

Continuing concerns

Emails included in the agenda packet for the July 6 City Commission meeting make it clear that the March 29 incident remains a point of concern for members of the public.

One Arlington Park resident wrote in an email to Stacie Mason, director of the city’s Human Resources Department, “I am asking that the city launch an investigation into [Brody’s] actions as Hagen has taken many liberties in his ceremonial mayor position. He has created a toxic work environment which could create a significant liability for the city.”

In another email — this one to the city manager — two Harbor Acres residents wrote, “Every employee is entitled to a safe working environment where they can feel valued. As residents of the City, this is our expectation.”

One of those writers reminded Brown that she had contacted him in the past “about what I perceive as demeaning behavior by Mr. Brody at Commission meetings … primarily directed at women.”

A female resident of North Shore Drive sent an email to Commissioners Alpert and Ahearn-Koch on June 2, asking that they support a third-party investigation “into the behavior of Hagen Brody. There are [too] many stories to ignore.”

The July 6 City Commission meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at City Hall, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

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