BY KENT E. SMITH
In a torrent of criticism, a member of the Brooksville City Council blasted numerous city officials this week for allegedly serving themselves, not the taxpayers.
A vocal past critic of how the city is being run, councilwoman Betty Erhard explained her allegations with the Hernando Sun in a follow-up interview after her complaints about colleagues and staff at the council meeting on Aug. 16. Erhard stated Brooksville has been mismanaged for nearly two decades by those in charge including conflicts of interest, incompetence, waste, nepotism, sexism, abuse of power, and other improprieties.
Her main targets included Mayor Pat Brayton, councilman David Bailey, Human Resources Director Kimberly Price and Public Works Director Paul Booth. Besides the mayor, she laid most of the blame at the feet of former City Manager Mark Kutney, who she declared sat in his office for three years hiring inadequate staffers that remain on the payroll; Kutney was fired before an angry crowd in a 3-2 vote June 21.
“There’s a whole lot of cover-up going on,” Erhard said, adding there are “good old boys in the room” at city hall. “He (Brayton) abuses his authority and power to make changes.”
At the meeting, Erhard leveled harsh criticism toward Human Resources Director Kimberly Price when Price presented the council with a proposed salary range to use when members hire a permanent city manager. Ron Snowberger has been the acting city manager since Kutney was terminated.
Erhard said Price’s title when she was hired last October was human resources administrator, but she didn’t understand why in recent months that inexplicably changed to HR director. She also questioned Price’s ability to help hire a city manager when she had never done so before.
“Where and when did you become director?” Erhard said later. “Now we’re relying on her to do a pay study?”
Price’s personnel file shows she earned a master’s degree in Human Services summa cum laude from Walden University and has worked in the human resources field for a number of firms and agencies since 2003.
The file also contains paperwork that referred to her post as administrator, as Erhard stated. However, a copy of the Employee Identification Badge Request completed Oct. 21, 2020, just 12 days after she was hired reads “HR DIRECTOR” with Price’s signature at the bottom.
On July 7, Price also presented the council with a pay study on all city employees that recommended hiking compensation for 64 of the city’s 101 workers. Erhard indicated Price recommended the council give her a raise from $32.69 an hour to $37.72, which would be a conflict of interest. She said she wasn’t sure if Price is receiving more money now.
“She controlled the pay study. She should have recused herself,” Erhard added.
In a separate complaint, Erhard said she discovered Price asked her former boss, Pasco County Human Resources Director Barbara Hitzemann, to help her hire a city manager.
“I feel there should be transparency and disclosure to city council,” she said, adding the issue may have constituted another conflict of interest. One of the ways to determine such a conflict occurred would depend upon whether or not Hitzemann was paid by the city for her help, something Erhard said she did not know.
“Oh God no!,” Hitzemann said when asked if she was paid. “Not any more than I would ask to be paid any time a friend asked me on the telephone for help.”
An HR director since 1994, Hitzemann said she is also an employment attorney with extensive experience in labor law and public administration. She said Erhard’s behavior is “really not appropriate” because she may be violating state statutes prohibiting “torturous interference or obstruction with people doing their job,” adding this could result in a civil action.
According to Hitzemann, the Brooksville City Charter follows state law regarding a city council-city manager form of government that states the council is the primary legislative body charged with writing municipal policies. While the council hires and oversees the manager’s post, it is prohibited from hiring or supervising any other city employees because those are the expressed duties of the city manager, who handles workers involved in day-to-day operations. In doing so, the manager must implement and enforce the council’s municipal policies.
Price returned to the podium to lodge a forceful response.
“I did not give myself an increase,” Price said, adding her salary has been $68,000 a year since she was hired. Citing her credentials, she said she made $108,000 in a previous job but accepted less from the city because she loves Brooksville.
Regarding Hitzemann, Price said she consulted with her because of her knowledge and expertise dealing with salary matters, indicating she felt she could trust her guidance.
“I take offense to Mrs. Erhard constantly, publicly slandering me. She suddenly has decided to attack me, and I will file legal action against her if she continues to do so based on no grounds at all,” she concluded.
When Erhard denounced Price’s conduct, a heated exchange followed in the meeting with Brayton, who doubted this had anything to do with the topic at hand, setting the manager’s salary range.
“It has a lot to do with it, mayor!,” Erhard asserted.
“I don’t think it does Mrs. Erhard so we’re just going to continue on with our discussion,” Brayton retorted.
“It seems like when anyone else speaks you don’t interrupt them but me being a woman…when I have something to say you interrupt me,” Erhard said. “I feel threatened.”
After the session, Erhard said Brayton has exhibited a pattern of sexist behavior for years. She said this includes “constantly” arguing with her and other women who address the council to discuss city business while he accommodates male members of the board.
A six-year veteran on the council, Erhard is the only woman on the council.
Brayton said Price did not give herself a raise or commit any conflict of interest involving Hitzemann, adding he has “no concerns whatsoever” about her or any other city staff. When asked if any action is planned in response to Erhard’s concerns he declined to comment.
The mayor said he asks questions when necessary, adding, “I trust people.”
Erhard also criticized councilman David Bailey for voting to give city staffers a pay raise according to the employee compensation study conducted by Price because it included a hike for his son, who works for the fire department. “He should have recused himself,” Erhard said, indicating it amounted to a conflict of interest.
Bailey said he consulted the city attorney regarding his son and “all is good.
“No need to respond to her, she attacks me almost every meeting about my son working for the fire department,” the councilman said.
Erhard also doubted Bailey’s numerous statements that he knows about public construction projects because of his “day job” as a professional roofing contractor in town. Bailey responded he has 30 years of experience as a contractor.
Erhard also criticized Booth during the meeting for recommending the city build a $1.45 million public works complex during a PowerPoint presentation she said was based on inadequate information. The council instead voted 3-2 to hire a consultant to return with alternatives, like repairing part of the current facility and building an enclosed structure for fleet maintenance, welding, and mechanical repairs.
“I want documentation, I want proposals, estimates, bids,” she said. “Booth came to council with excuses, numbers that are unreliable…He wants a new building.
“I said to myself, ‘Isn’t this slick,’” she said of the presentation.
Clearly miffed about Erhard’s criticism of his staff, Snowberger said their actions don’t follow public opinion, and Booth’s presentation carried “valuable information.”
“I have confidence in what they’re recommending. We do not come up here haphazardly. If that appears to be the allegation nothing could be further from the truth,” he asserted.
These are only the most serious complaints lodged by the councilwoman. There were several more, including the lack of either a civil engineer or a licensed contractor on staff that is qualified to discuss construction projects with the council.
This is the second time Erhard has been at the center of a firestorm at city hall.
Last September she apologized after encouraging residents to boycott any businesses supporting Brooksville Main Street, a group of local merchants. One company owner mounted an unsuccessful petition drive to have her removed from office, with some longtime residents infuriated when Erhard referred to the city as “Crooksville.”
The councilwoman pledged to continue investigating how the city is being run because officials are “going too fast and not looking at alternatives.”
“I am not anti-staff but I will question everything,” she said. “I suggest the council do their due diligence. I’m disappointed they don’t ask more questions and always agree with staff.”