By KENT E. SMITH
One day after they locked horns in a Brooksville City Council meeting, the head of the Human Resources Department filed a formal ethics complaint against councilwoman Betty Erhard.
Human Resources Director Kimberly Price filed the complaint on Aug. 17 with the Florida Commission on Ethics, which has opened a formal investigation after which it will announce its findings. In an Aug. 23 letter to Erhard, commission Executive Director C. Christopher Anderson stated all records and proceedings related to the probe will remain confidential in the early stages without releasing any information to the public or the press.
The complaint was filed the day after a council meeting where Erhard criticized Price’s job performance in four areas.
First, she doubted if Price was qualified to help the council hire a permanent city manager because she hadn’t done so in the past; the council has been looking for a new manager since Mark Kutney was terminated on June 21.
Price responded that she asked former boss Pasco County Human Resources Director Barbara Hitzemann to help her hire a city manager because Hitzemann had the experience in that area she lacked. Price said she had consulted with Hitzemann on other matters because of her knowledge and expertise.
Second, Erhard said Price should have told the council she asked a friend to help her, even though Hitzemann wasn’t paid. “I feel there should be transparency and disclosure to city council,” Erhard said.
Third, Erhard said Price’s title when she was hired last October was human resources administrator, but in recent months that inexplicably changed to HR director. “Where and when did you become director?” Erhard demanded.
Price’s employee file does indeed contain paperwork that refers to her post as administrator when she was hired. However, a copy of her Employee Identification Badge Request completed Oct. 21, 2020, 12 days after she was hired, also reads “HR DIRECTOR” with Price’s signature at the bottom.
Erhard also criticized Price’s presentation on June 7 of a pay study she conducted because she recommended the HR director get a raise from $32.69 an hour to $37.72, which would be a conflict of interest had it benefitted Price. “It looks like she gave herself a raise,” Erhard said but added she didn’t know if Price is actually receiving more money now. “Now we’re relying on her to do a pay study?… She should have recused herself.”
Price said she made sure the study, which recommended hiking compensation for 64 of the city’s 101 workers, actually calls for raising the salary for the position, not her personally: “I didn’t get a pay raise,” she said, something confirmed by Mayor Pat Brayton at the time. Price’s salary has remained $68,000 a year since she was hired.
“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,” Price said at the meeting. An HR director since 1994, Hitzemann said she is also an employment attorney experienced 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.
The Brooksville City Charter follows state law regarding a city council-city manager form of government that says the council is the primary legislative body charged with writing municipal policies. While the council hires and oversees the manager, it is prohibited from hiring or supervising any other city employees below the manager’s office because those are the specific duties of the city manager, who handles workers involved in day-to-day operations. In doing so, the manager must implement, follow and enforce municipal policies, laws, and guidelines that are expressly prescribed by the council.
Price’s complaint accuses Erhard of violating the Standard Code of Ethics in Florida Statute 838.02 which reads, “It is unlawful to harm or threaten to harm any public servant and influence the performance of any act or omission that the person believes to be, or that the public servant represents as being, within the official discretion of the public servant, in violation of a public duty, or in a performance of a public duty.”
The complaint alleges Erhard’s “personal attacks” began after the water tower fiasco in which the iconic municipal structure was accidentally sold to local businessman Bobby Read May 5; Read freely deeded the structure back to the city, but the error was placed squarely at the feet of Kutney, who was promptly fired.
Erhard has claimed Kutney helped create an attitude being continued by a half-dozen or more employees and council members of wasting taxpayer dollars or handling their jobs without professional dedication. Price’s complaint states, “Ms. Erhard has been known to refer to me and others as ‘Mark’s favorites’ and that she is ‘going to get rid of them,’ and the attacks are affecting her ability to earn a living despite a record of conspicuous public service.”
Price said her main reason for filing the complaint is to protect her professional reputation, which she has worked hard to build, “I won’t have her damaging my credentials.” She said there was a brief discussion among a group of city workers who considered filing a class-action complaint, but she didn’t want to harm the municipality: “I love the City of Brooksville.”
“It’s just misinformation…She’s barking up the wrong tree,” Price told the Sun.
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, including references.
Price also noted Erhard a couple of months ago asked her for public records.
On Aug. 17, acting City Manager Ron Snowberger subsequently emailed department heads, the council, and the Sun clarifying Brooksville’s policy that it is “inappropriate” for council members to ask employees for records, files, or documents. He stated such requests should follow the city’s established “formal process” of submitting them to the city clerk’s office so the public knows who got what information from whom, and when.
He also stated regarding “directing staff” on “operational matters” that council members should address their concerns about employees to him directly, not to the employee. “I will then apply the appropriate actions toward the intended staff to achieve the desired results,” he wrote. He points out the law, such requests need to go through him for several reasons including maximum efficiency and productivity.
Snowberger and Erhard have sparred in several recent council meetings, with Snowberger dismissing her criticisms of the staff as baseless and offensive. “My responsibility is to keep morale up, to ensure our employees have a comfortable, respectful place to work,” he said.
When asked if that morale has been affected by Erhard or the ethics complaint he said, “The email was a reminder to all of the council members… I told Kimberly Price we’re going to continue business as normal. If she needs to address issues (with the complaint) she’s perfectly capable of doing that.”
By majority vote, the commission interprets and acts upon ethics complaints, including penalties where warranted and issuing legal opinions and rulings. The commission applies the state’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees to regulate their conduct along with “candidates, lobbyists and others in State and local governments…”
The criteria for a violation include personal use of public property and equipment, conflicts of interest, use of public funds by governments to retain lobbyists, and honoraria laws limiting the giving of gifts to public officials. Lighter penalties include fines of $1,000 or censuring, but aggravated cases involving violence or threats can result in being banned from public office or up to one year in county jail.
“This is nothing but intimidation to shut me up. If you feel threatened, maybe you’re hiding something,” Erhard said of the complaint. “A year in jail? For asking questions? Give me a break!”
She said she has little chance to create a hostile work environment because she rarely visits city hall; for instance, she’s the only council member who attends meetings through an audio hookup due to concerns about Covid-19.
Erhard said she is cooperating with the ethics investigation. She said she is consulting with an attorney who advised her, “asking questions is part of being a councilwoman and handling tax money. I’m not supervising her.
“I’m asking that they dismiss these allegations because I’m a steward of taxpayer money,” she said.