Three city employees demoted after ethics investigation related to Public Art Committee vote

City of Sarasota also making procedural changes to prevent future conflict-of-interest situations

Mark Lyons. Photo via Twitter from the City of Sarasota

Three City of Sarasota employees have been demoted and will have to undergo ethics training in the wake of an investigation into the proceedings of the April 12 Public Art Committee meeting, the City of Sarasota announced this week.

Mark Lyons has been demoted from general parking manager to manager; Clifford Smith has been demoted from senior planner to planner; and David Smith has been demoted from general manager of the Neighborhood and Development Services Department to chief planner, a city news release said.

In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, wrote in a May 9 email that Lyons’ salary of $90,820 will be reduced about 10%; Clifford Smith’s salary of $76,248 will be reduced 7%, and David Smith’s salary of $104,107 will be reduced 7%.

Lyons has been a city employee since July 25, 2011, the news release noted. David Smith joined the staff on Dec. 20, 1999, and Clifford Smith has been employed since Dec. 27, 2006, the news release said.

All three individuals were placed on paid leave while an internal investigation reviewed their conduct in regard to the Public Art Committee’s selection of an artist to provide works in the State Street parking garage.

That investigation determined that Lyons — who has oversight of the garage as part of his Parking Division responsibilities —
“failed to properly disclose his familial relationship with an artist who ultimately was selected by the Public Art Committee (PAC) to be considered for final approval by the City Commission,” the release says. “David Smith and Dr. Clifford Smith, staff liaisons to the PAC, were aware Mr. Lyons’ son-in-law was a finalist and failed to disclose that information to the PAC or upper management,” the release adds.

Part of the discipline meted out to Lyons prohibits him from participating in procurement processes for minimum of 180 days.

The three employees were given 10 business days to appeal the disciplinary action, the city news release notes.

An appeal by any of the three employees would be considered by City Manager Tom Barwin and/or Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, the release says.

The PAC discussion

Artist Michael Parker provided this example of his artwork proposed for the State Street garage. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the April 12 PAC meeting, the committee members became deadlocked over two finalists for the State Street garage commission, one of whom is Lyons’ son-in-law. Lyons addressed the PAC about the project and the competing proposals, but he never disclosed his familial relationship with one of the artists, the news release adds. Clifford Smith and David Smith, who attended the meeting as staff liaisons, “also failed to timely disclose that information to the PAC,” the release says. “Ultimately, the PAC recommended Mr. Lyons’ son-in-law for the project.”

After seeing presentations from five artists during a meeting that lasted more than four hours, and then discussing their views, the four PAC members present seemed unable to get beyond their 2-2 tie focused on the work of artists Mark Krucke and Michael Parker. Krucke is Lyons’ son-in-law.

David Smith suggested they could continue the discussion until their next meeting, which was set for the following week. He also pointed out that two of the committee members were absent that day, so they could look at the video of the April 12 session before that next meeting.

Mark Krucke provided this example of how he would add artwork to the garage. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Has this happened before?” Chair Norman Schimmel asked Smith, referring to the tie.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Smith responded.

Then Lyons addressed the members, saying, “I love both of the proposals” on which the board was deadlocked. However, Lyons continued, “One of the concerns from a facility management standpoint is that Mr. Parker’s presentation requires much more space to present. … I see, just logistically, challenges …”

For example, Lyons noted, Parker wanted to cover walls with his artwork, but vehicles would block the publics’ view of much of that work.

When discussion again ensued, committee member Benjamin Grijaiva announced, “I’m willing to change [my vote], after hearing what was just said.”

Schimmel asked for clarification about Grijaiva’s decision.

“It’s unrealistic,” Grijaiva said of selecting Parker’s work, referring to the difficulties Lyons had mentioned.

Committee member Joanne McCobb countered that she trusts that if artists say they can do something, they will be able to do it.

However, committee member Leslie Butterfield referenced earlier discussion about difficulties in trying to maintain Parker’s work in such a setting.

McCobb suggested that Parker could be asked to do less work, to ease some of the worries.

Michael Parker provided this as another example of how he would incorporate art into the garage setting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Lyons again addressed the committee, going into more detail about the logistical problems he had mentioned earlier. Among those comments, he said, “A sprayed paint system in a garage is a terrible idea.”

The investigative report notes, “What was surprising to some City staff members who witnessed [Lyons’] later remarks was that Lyons appeared to directly criticize the artist who was vying against his son-in-law.”

The report adds that “Lyons insisted that he was ‘not trying to persuade committee members to vote a certain way,’” but, instead, reminding them to stay focused on the design criteria for the competition.

Finally, the members agreed to vote again, and the decision was that the committee would recommend the City Commission choose Krucke for the project.

City administrators will consider how to proceed with the PAC’s recommendation and will provide options to the City Commission during the June 5 meeting, the news release explains.

Recommendations in the report

In its conclusion, the city report called for several steps in an effort to ensure a situation such as the one on April 12 does not occur again. For example, it says all future “Calls to Artists [should] include a question regarding any family connections to PAC members or City staff. The City may also wish to consult with the Purchasing General Manager regarding use of a disclosure form similar to those used in City [Requests for Proposals].”

Clifford Smith. Image from LinkedIn

The news release points out that the investigation “determined a conflict of interest disclosure form is included with all City of Sarasota procurement processes except for public art, which has been considered a separate and unique process [emphasis is in the release]. Disclosure forms now will become part of the Call to Artist process.”

The release also notes, “When hired, City of Sarasota employees sign a conflict of interest statement and are expected to disclose any conflicts immediately. To ensure employees are properly trained in the vital area of ethics, all employees will be required to undergo biennial ethics and conflict of interest training.”

The report further suggests city staff “explore the possibility of having an attorney assigned to [the PAC]” and that the staff should consider adding another board member to the six-person PAC, or reducing the membership to five people, to avoid tie votes in the future.

The Human Resources Department and the Office of the City Attorney conducted the internal investigation, the news release adds.

Staff comments

David Smith. Image from the City of Sarasota

“This situation is disappointing and should have been avoided,” said Assistant City Manager John Lege in the release. Lege is Lyons’ supervisor.

“It was poor communications and judgment that resulted in violations of City policies and the public trust,” Lege added in the release. “We want the community and our employees to know we take ethics and conflict of interest very seriously.”

“All employees have a responsibility to inform their supervisor or upper management about any possible conflict of interest,” said Tim Litchet, director of the Neighborhood & Development Department, who is the supervisor of David Smith and Clifford Smith, the release notes. “Fortunately,” Litchet continued in the release, “employees who became aware of this situation were concerned and alerted management and we were able to address the matter immediately.”