EEOC complaint filed against city auditor and clerk

In separate matter, City Commission hires Sarasota law firm to determine validity of past employee allegations against Pamela Nadalini

City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini. File photo

It took almost exactly 71 minutes on Sept. 17, but the Sarasota City Commission finally voted unanimously to approve a contract with the law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Sarasota to undertake an investigation into allegations regarding improper management practices on the part of City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini.

The motion by Mayor Liz Alpert specified that the work will not include any aspect of a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint filed last week against Nadalini by worker in the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office. That complaint centers on a discrimination charge, Stacie Mason, director of the city’s Human Resources Department, pointed out.

Mason indicated at one point that the person who filed the EEOC complaint also had lodged other complaints against Nadalini.

Additionally, at the request of Commissioner Hagen Brody, the scope of work for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick calls for the firm to engage an outside consultant with expertise on corporate organizational issues, “if necessary to deal with management structure going forward,” as Alpert phrased it.

The goal of the law firm’s work, as he sees it, Brody said, is to improve how the city serves its residents.

Mason explained that the contract will call for recommendations on processing complaints lodged against City Charter officials. She stressed that the city has procedures and policies in place for handling Human Resources issues for all employees except the Charter officials, who report “directly to the City Commission.”

Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick indicated in its proposal that it could complete the investigation within 90 days or less time, Mason told the board. Its flat fee is $30,000, but the commissioners acknowledged that their inclusion of the potential for the firm to use a consultant could increase that cost.

“If you want to give me a plus or minus,” Mason suggested prior to the vote, that would eliminate the need for her to come back to the commission after revising the contract and returning it to the firm for its acceptance.

“I would be fine with that,” Alpert replied. “Turnover alone costs the city more money than this,” Alpert told her colleagues.

Nadalini expressed concern prior to the Sept. 17 vote that if the commissioners decided to proceed with the investigation into her management practices that that remain separate from the EEOC investigation. She specifically asked whether the City Attorney’s Office would be involved in both.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

City Attorney Robert Fournier replied that he believed his office “should stay out of the [Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick probe] entirely. … I don’t anticipate playing any role whatsoever in the investigation.”

His office would, however, represent her and the city in the EEOC case, he said; that is a matter of city practice.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out that direction for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick to stay out of the EEOC investigation should be included in the scope of work. Mason said she would revise the contract, based on Alpert’s motion.

The city commissioners in July discussed pursuing an outside investigation into how Nadalini runs the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk after receiving a number of detailed complaints against her in preparation for its March evaluations of the three City Charter officials. Along with Nadalini, the city manager and the city attorney comprise those three officials.

Brody had suggested that employees who work for the three be allowed to submit comments anonymously, so the commissioners would have a broader overview of how City Manager Tom Barwin, Fournier and Nadalini conduct themselves with staff members.

Among the comments provided about Nadalini were the following:

  • “Pamela is a cruel, self-serving individual. She manages by intimidation. I’ve seen her bring employees to tears over simple matters. She has no problem with yelling at someone or over them as they try to speak. She has threatened all of her staff to keep quiet about her management style or they will face consequences.”

That person and another one noted that Nadalini often does not come into the office until close to noon.

  • A second employee wrote, “Pamela Nadalini is the city auditor and is entrusted with all our records. … [W]hy does the City allow her to share her passwords or write [them] down on paper.”
  • A third person wrote that when Nadalini is “aggravated or frustrated, her first response is anger, and she lashes out; by yelling, demanding and demeaning.”
  • Yet another person pointed out, “There is noticeable tension between the Auditor & Clerk and the City Manager’s office. This puts staff in a difficult position as a member of one department, but required to interact with the other.”
Commissioner Willie Shaw. File photo

Early in the Sept. 17 discussion, Commissioner Willie Shaw referenced a statement Mason made at the outset of her presentation about the investigation — that she has been a senior-level staff member for five years. Given that fact and her 18 years of expertise overall in human resources, he asked why the issue of complaints against Nadalini had not been brought to the board in the past for it to take action.

Employees often did not want to be identified when they voiced concerns, Mason told him, adding that she believed the evaluation feedback forms put the matter “in the forefront. … A number of trends have emerged …”

“I think there were things, Commissioner Shaw, that came up,” Mayor Alpert said, “that the Human Resources Department really tried to handle on their own without creating a problem for the city or the commission. … It just didn’t go anywhere till now,” with the filing of the EEOC complaint,” Alpert added.

“I’ve had people come to me, as well,” with concerns about Nadalini’s management style, Alpert continued. “I personally met with the city auditor and clerk a couple of years ago [for two hours] to try to internally handle this,” instead of its reaching a public forum, Alpert said. The EEOC complaint, she stressed, “triggered it going public.”

Concerns about the contract

During her Sept. 17 presentation, Mason pointed out, “It’s a difficult discussion we are having. … This could realign or reset our work culture …”

Among the reasons she settled on Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick for the investigation, she continued, are that the office is located in Sarasota, so no travel expenses would be necessary. Additionally, the three attorneys who will handle the work have a combined 50 years of experience in employment law, Mason said, so they can guide the commission on best practices.

Human Resources Director Stacie Mason addresses the board on Aug. 20. File photo

“They are dedicated to conducting an independent and impartial investigation,” Mason added.

The scope of work calls for them to interview all 12 current employees in the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk, Mason continued, and to conduct interviews of a sample of former workers in that department. (Four positions in Nadalini’s department are vacant, Mason noted, including one that would be held by a deputy clerk.)

They also plan two interviews with Nadalini, Mason said.

However, when the commissioners discussed the investigation during their Aug. 20 meeting, Nadalini informed them that she would not consent to be interviewed, “due to the way this has been handled and played in the media …”

Commissioner Freeland Eddie was the first board member to express concern that the attorneys would duplicate some of the EEOC investigation. When she asked Mason whether Mason had communicated news of that complaint to the law firm, Mason said she had not. That was because the board had not voted yet to hire Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, Mason added.

Moreover, she just received the EEOC complaint “within the last week,” Mason continued. “I was asked to meet with an employee within the clerk’s office.”

Freeland Eddie further expressed concern about the appearance of conflicts of interest, because one of the attorneys involved in the investigation will be Jennifer Compton, who serves on the board of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO). That organization will give way to a new nonprofit that the city will contract with to manage and raise funds for the proposal for The Bay master plan on 53 city-owned acres downtown. Still, the SBPO remains involved with the city until that transition has been completed, Freeland Eddie noted.

“I’m not saying that this attorney is partial in any way,” Freeland Eddie emphasized, but she felt that relationship needed to be acknowledged for the sake of transparency.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch reminded her colleagues that the August discussion focused partly on the desire to have a local firm handle the investigation. “I believe Ms. Mason has been following our direction all along on this process. … At some point, we have to trust our staff.”

In response to questions posed by Commissioner Brody, Mason explained that the Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick attorneys will gather information “about the culture, the work environment” in the city. She said she would hope they would offer recommendations on changes for the commission to consider.

“I want the truth, and I want a result that helps us have a process going forward,” Freeland Eddie told Mason.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody. File photo

Then Brody broached his desire for an outside consultant to be included in the work. “I think that there’s an organizational issue,” he said, if the complaints against Nadalini prove to be valid. Although he added that he believes personalities “may be at the heart of this,” the commission might need recommendations on potential restructuring of city departments. At any rate, he continued, “Miss Nadalini shouldn’t be having to deal with every employee in her office.”

With her 18 years of human resources experience, Mason responded, she stands ready to work with any department at any time on reorganizational issues.

Her goal with the investigation, she said, is that it be “truly … balanced, independent and impartial …”