Sarasota County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson said she and her fellow board members should have done a better job of following up on concerns county Clerk of Court Karen Rushing raised in audits regarding employees’ use of purchase cards. The information from the audits contributed to a scandal this year regarding procurement procedures.
Patterson made the statement during the Tiger Bay Club meeting Sept. 15 at Michael’s On East. About 300 people attended.
She also addressed former employees’ statements that they were fired by former County Administrator Jim Ley for pointing out problems.
“(The commissioners) had put a lot of faith in the administrator in those decisions,” she said.
Patterson said with the addition of new Ethics and Compliance Officer Steve Uebelacker, who started Sept. 14, the county should be able to correct some of those problems.
“There will be somebody independent of the various staff supervisors … who will be able to vet … complaints out in a way that the commissioners by charter are not empowered to,” she said.
However, Cathy Antunes, a 2010 candidate for County Commission, said members of the public were concerned the commission did not provide effective oversight regarding Ley’s actions. The commission’s inaction, Antunes said, resulted in Ley’s creating a “march for death” culture against honest employees.
She asked Patterson: “As a strong supporter of (Ley), do you feel any responsibility for the negative treatment of those employees, and how will oversight of the administrator change so this never happens again?”
Patterson said: “I don’t honestly have evidence of mistreated employees … It is very, very difficult, other than to sympathize, to figure out exactly what happened.”
The commissioners tried to verify stories of employee mistreatment by Ley, Patterson said, but she emphasized they are “five people forbidden by the (county) charter to act as administrators.”
Interim County Administrator Terry Lewis said the county has launched several new initiatives to help as well. The county’s new “Financial Transparency” button on its website, www.scgov.net, as well as a toll-free hotline allow anyone with a complaint to report it anonymously.
Lewis said Uebelacker would report directly to him.
Patterson also said part of Rushing’s statutory charge is to initiate audits whenever she feels they are necessary.
“We’re all kind of on high alert at this point,” Patterson said.
In response to another question, Patterson said the county administrator and the attorney are the board’s only employees, as stipulated in the county charter. She said, however, if three commissioners meeting independently with the county administrator reported the need for an audit, “We could get it done.”
Attorney Dan Lobeck directed comments to Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange. Lobeck has been outspoken about the need for slower growth in the county and questioned the development industry’s push to reduce environmental protections in the county’s zoning code and its comprehensive plan.
“The reality is that you can’t have growth in this area without maintaining our quality of life,” Dougherty-Slapp said. “It is the thing that attracts people to come to this community. We’ve got to do away with the job-killing regulations.”
However, she also said she was not in favor of harming the environment.
“It’s about that balance,” Dougherty-Slapp said. “If regulations have been implemented that we’re seeing that are deepening or lengthening this recession, we need to be willing to look at them.”
Earlier, Dougherty-Slapp had told the audience: “The mantra for this economy is, ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs.’ We need growth in a reasonable, smart way.”
Sheriff Tom Knight also was a member of the panel.