More controversy at City Hall

What transforms a simple infraction, a seemingly minor deficiency, into potentially yet another scandal to rock City Hall, and erode the confidence of citizens in their government?

As reported recently in The Sarasota News Leader, the charter of the City of Sarasota requires three officials – the city manager, city auditor and clerk, and city finance director – be bonded, and those bonds to be renewed annually. Shortly before losing his job as city manager in January, Bob Bartolotta was bonded, as was Finance Director Chris Lyons. Pam Nadalini, the auditor and clerk, was not. And she has not been bonded for the entire duration of her tenure in that position.

Shortly after Nadalini’s approval for the post, the city human resources director discovered no company would underwrite her bond, and communicated that fact to the city attorney. This deficiency was allowed to go unresolved for the next year.

Then, a Daytona Beach insurance firm specializing in public sector policies was retained by the city in 2011 to obtain bonds on all three city officials. It was successful in covering the manager and finance director. It failed to obtain a bond for Nadalini. According to an email to a city employee, a copy of which was obtained by the News Leader, a firm representative stated, “… [W]e were unsuccessful in securing terms for the city clerk/auditor position. Our marketing efforts included accessing all standard and substandard bond writers …. Underwriters are unwilling to extend surety without significant collateral for the city clerk/auditor position.”

Instead of complying with the law, as stipulated in the city charter, city employees and/or agents undertook several alternative courses of action:

1)  In 2010, the city obtained an umbrella policy that covered all city employees who work with money and finance, ostensibly to be in lieu of the required bonds (it has been reported previously by the News Leader that interim City Manager Terry Lewis also is not bonded);

2)  Later in 2010, under the innocuous heading of “housekeeping amendments,” a revision to the city charter to eliminate the requirement for bonds was approved by the Charter Review Committee and forwarded to the City Commission for action. The City Commission also approved the amendment, and it will appear on a ballot in November for consideration by the voters of the city;

3) Despite the existing charter still requiring a bond for the three officials, the city attorney — the city’s principal legal advisor —  maintains that the umbrella policy is “functionally equivalent” to the required bonds, all the while elaborating the many differences between bonds and insurance.

The Charter Review Board never was informed that the likely purpose of the “housekeeping amendment” to remove the bonding provision from the city charter was necessitated by Nadalini’s inability to comply with charter requirements. In a similar fashion, it would appear the City Commission also was kept in the dark. And, were it not for the investigative efforts of a News Leader reporter, voters would have gone to the polls to vote on that amendment in a similar state of ignorance.

Some urgent questions now need to be answered:

Why is Nadalini not able to be bonded? She has perhaps the most sensitive job in city government, particularly since her position has been expanded to include responsibility for human resources, risk management and information technology, all formerly under the purview of the city manager. Does she not owe her employers — the city’s taxpayers — the assurance that complying with charter requirements and being bonded would provide? And, failing that, should she not present adequate justification for her retaining such a position of trust without that assurance?

Why, in the face of continued inability to bond Nadalini, did city officials essentially deceive the Charter Review Committee, which was never informed of Nadalini’s bond status, in pushing through a charter amendment? And was the City Commission aware of this subterfuge?

Was the City Commission aware, when it approved the bond requirements for the three city officials on Nov. 7, 2011, that almost six weeks earlier the Daytona Beach firm had informed the city that Nadalini still could not be bonded?

Finally, would it not be wise for the City Commission immediately to remove the bond requirement charter amendment from the November ballot, and launch an investigation of this entire matter?

Transparency in government is the great bastion of democracy. When seemingly innocent mistakes or omissions are made, the efforts to thwart their correction or, worse, to conceal them from public scrutiny, place the integrity of our institutions at risk. An issue that might have been resolved by simple openness in 2010 now has evolved into a Hydra that threatens to become yet another dark chapter in our city’s recent history.

1 thought on “More controversy at City Hall”

  1. As a member of the Charter Review Committee I can say that our support for the move to insurance vs. bond relied heavily on the recommendation of City Attorney Fournier, whom we treated as our legal advisor. The quotes from the City Attorney you recorded in you previous article on the subject WITHOUT THE DETAILS REPRESENTED BY THE DOTS BELOW is pretty much what we were told: “bonds and insurance ‘are functionally equivalent.’ He said one advantage of insurance over bonds is that ‘insurance is more explicit. Bonds are more ambiguous. … With insurance, you can adjust coverage for your needs. And it’s easier to secure coverage of new employees.’” The parts he left out in his recommendation to us were not only the facts about Ms. Nadalini but, more importantly, the dots above: “‘And of course surety [bonds] do require an investigation, while insurance does not.’ There are other differences between bonds and insurance. Insurance mostly covers negligence. Bonds cover a wider range of conduct, including malfeasance and misfeasance. ‘Bond language requires faithful performance of duties,’ said Fournier.”

    If we had been given those missing facts, and even though staff reported to us that insurance is cheaper than bonding, I for one would not have supported recommending to the City Commission that they take to the voters a Charter revision replacing the bonding requirement with insurance.

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