Barwin attempts to assuage frustrated commissioners

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Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody and Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie are clearly frustrated that allegations of discrimination made by City Staff became known to them through the media and not in their regular briefings with City Manager Tom Barwin.

A special meeting was held last Wednesday to discuss both why Barwin did not apprise commissioners of three allegations accusing an administrator and a Department Manager of racist as well as retaliatory behavior.

Barwin responded by saying he did not always work from notes when talking to Commissioners.

“Weekly meetings are centered around the agenda, you all have proving questions. I don’t bring a lot of notes, I go from memory. I don’t do litigation, that’s under the auspices of the city attorney. I do try to brief you if I’m aware. If I miss something, it’s probably because I missed something. I should probably start working from notes,” said Barwin at the meeting.

One of the complaints by a former employee has prompted a Human Resources Investigation as well as a Federal Discrimination Complaint.

At the meeting, Barwin as well as the City Attorney made clear that the City Charter mandates that Human Resource issues, employee complaints and employee matters, are handled through the City Administration and Manager’s office and not the city commission.

Simply put, the Manager manages and the commission sets policy. What the Commission sought last Wednesday was an agreement or implementation of a policy of communication when such situations arise and how they are being handled.

Freeland Eddie said, “The frustration I have is that I shouldn’t have to hear from the media about problems in my own city. The expectation should be that we have a right to have that information from our city manager. The city attorney does have quarterly reports, but we should be made aware of these allegations when they arise. But when the email came in July, I felt like there should have been some communication from you, Mr. Barwin, so we could ask questions. Whose responsibility is it to keep us abreast of these type of issues?”

To further complicate the issue, labor issues are handled by the City’s Human Resources Department and do not necessarily receive the particular attention of the City Manager.   

Brody sought to have a regular report or method to keep the commission aware when incidents arise.

Barwin said he was busy with the pandemic.

“I try to keep you informed, I’ve had two days off since this pandemic. I will try based on this conversation; I will try to keep you informed,” said Barwin.

Mayor Jen Ahearn Koch said he neglected to tell her as well.

“Since the pandemic, Mr. Barwin and I talk almost every day. This is the first thing he’s neglected to tell me,” said Ahearn Koch.

Brody added: “I think we should be aware of these issues when they arise. We are the people’s representatives. There are some public records issues; there are some exemptions that we can follow. I think it’s important because there are some taxpayer impacts that these things fall into.”

Ahearn Koch said she was “confident that the city attorney and the city attorney’s office will inform us going forward.”

The issue arose after Lorrie Ann Simmons, a former African American manager in the City of Sarasota Finance Department, filed a Federal Discrimination complaint against the Director of the Finance Department.

Simmons in her complaint, which was filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says she was passed over twice by Finance Department Director Kelly Strickland for the Deputy Finance Director position. Simmons says that she was told she was qualified and then a white male was chosen who was subsequently dismissed. Simmons in her complaint says that after that dismissal, Strickland offered the job to a white female budget analyst who lacked training in the position.

Simmons ended up resigning from the City on Aug. 7, and in her complaint said that Strickland had made racist comments and racially insensitive remarks.

Two other employees have since complained of discrimination in other departments.

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