Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series about Lakewood Ranch Town Hall.
LAKEWOOD RANCH — Supervisors on the Inter-District Authority are investigating claims by a former Lakewood Ranch Town Hall employee that managers supervised her with an “abusive, cruel and harassing” style.
Former Town Hall employee Sue Kara, who resigned Nov. 16 as a property management coordinator, sent an open letter to IDA board members, other community development district representatives and officials at Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in mid-December, calling her former workplace at Town Hall a “toxic and dysfunctional environment” and challenging the practices of Town Hall Manager Bob Fernandez and Cynthia Wills, manager of community association services.
“I’m surprised because I think our Town Hall management is doing a pretty good job, but if there’s something that needs to be addressed then we’ll address it,” said Tom Green, chairman of the IDA.
No CDD supervisors brought up Kara’s concerns or letter at the Dec. 17 public hearings, but Green said the IDA is conducting an investigation, and a board member is interviewing current Town Hall managers and employees as well as former employees who are willing to speak.
“I’ve been around long enough to know there are two sides to each story,” Green said. “I just want to make sure we get facts before we take any actions.”
According to Kara’s letter and her exit interview, she’s one of many who have left Town Hall recently. Camille Perez resigned in October 2008. Another, Mary Skorupa, resigned Nov. 9, 2009. A third, Regina Morris, had her position eliminated but declined an offer to fill Skorupa’s position. A fourth, Brenda Noellert, resigned last month.
Fernandez admits a few employees have expressed concerns similar to Kara’s but said overall Town Hall personnel have good morale. Kara, he said, is a disgruntled former employee and maintained both he and Wills care about employees and have made efforts to show it.
Chronicling the problem
Two months before she resigned, Kara began waking up in a cold sweat. The nightmare was the same each time. In every instance, she would be falling down a dry well.
“Do you know what it’s like to have dreams like that because you are afraid the next time you say something (wrong at work, it’s the end)?” Kara asked. “That’s one of the reasons I left. The tension was so bad it was beginning to affect my home life.”
In her exit interview, Kara stated: “The management principles that guide Bob Fernandez and Cynthia Wills are fear-based.”
“It’s chaos,” Kara said. “Friction. They say they care about the employees, but the way they treat you doesn’t say that.
“The harassment and belittlement is just constant,” she said. “Being nice doesn’t cost anything. Listening and using employee ideas or resident input doesn’t cost anything either, but it does require ‘doing something about it’ and not hiding in an office.”
Other Town Hall employees shared Kara’s feelings through an e-mail exchange with her but declined to comment publicly.
Perez, who now lives in Chicago, agreed to speak with The East County Observer but was not able to because of scheduling conflicts. In an e-mail, she wrote: “I’m so happy something is finally happening with all of this. It is a shame that it took so long.”
Noellert, who finished her last day at Town Hall on Dec. 28, agreed with Kara’s sentiment. As a former assistant manager, Noellert said she witnessed many of the types of “petty” incidents Kara experienced.
“It’s not any one big thing,” Noellert said. “It’s a lot of little things. I tried to let them roll off my back, and then when Sue left and Regina (Morris) decided not to stay. … It was too much all at one time, and there was no need for any of it.”
For Noellert, one example of Town Hall’s questionable management practices was when it was reorganizing internally. Rather than hiring more managers, Noellert suggested creating a sort of career path program for her department, which would give more responsibilities to employees and an increase in pay. The concept, she said, would have saved the IDA money and encouraged employees.
Despite her suggestion, Fernandez hired a manager and changed Noellert’s position to handle bankruptcies and foreclosures and to oversee Town Hall — a change she was not entirely expecting, she said.
Former employees also said they had no one they could turn to — especially considering the company that provides human resources services for the IDA reports directly to Fernandez. Because of that, in an employee’s mind, they cannot make a complaint against their boss without feeling the threat of retribution.
Employment records provide evidence for Kara’s argument as well. Town Hall officials would not provide The Observer with the number of employees who had either resigned or been terminated within the last year. However, when Noellert resigned from her job after four years of service, she was ranked third in seniority out of 20.
“How many employees can you go through?” Noellert said. “With the benefits the IDA gives their employees and the overall working benefits, the IDA should be the employer of choice in Manatee County. Nobody should be leaving there. I left a job that I really enjoyed because of how management treats their employees.
“I didn’t see that anything would change, even after Sue sent her e-mail,” she said. “(Lakewood Ranch) is a fine community. If circumstances were different, I would go back. I did not make my decision lightly.”
Fernandez and Wills declined to discuss personnel matters regarding Kara’s concerns, saying it would be “unprofessional.”
Fernandez said a few other employees had similar complaints and those employees have been limited to Kara’s area of employment. Beyond that, Fernandez would divulge few details.
“It’s hard for us because much of what is there is inappropriate for public discussion,” Fernandez said.
Wills said individuals making complaints “all use the same verbiage” but declined to elaborate.
“I choose to take the professional high road,” she said.
Fernandez said he believes the spirit of employees overall at Town Hall is high, as evidenced at the potluck Christmas party, which was attended by about 27 of 34 total employees, he said.
“I think the morale is excellent with the exception of about seven or so employees who chose not to come,” Fernandez said.
One employee who left after three months at Town Hall has reapplied for a position, Wills said. Fernandez also said many of the situations described in Kara’s exit interview were taken out of context — such as a statement that “Bob Fernandez replied that he ‘knew certain managers managed by instilling fear in employees.’ He did not state he was against us,” Kara wrote.
“I have always felt managers manage best when employees are feeling encouraged and empowered to participate,” Fernandez said, noting his comment was intended to reflect that sentiment.
He also suggested his hiring in October 2006 marked a major shift for employees, who went from working for a private entity — Schroeder-Manatee Ranch — to a public one, the IDA. The change meant an end to some seemingly simple practices that were important to employees, such as the purchase of birthday cakes with company money or flexibility in pay raises — both of which Kara levied complaints about during her interview with The East County Observer.
“She’s not alone,” Fernandez said. “This organization has been through an awful lot of change over the years I’ve been here. (Changing to a public entity) had many implications on our employees and required adjustments on their part.”
However, Fernandez’ assertion about change being a catalyst for disgruntlement angered Noellert, who said the comment was just another example of how management casts blame on others.
“It’s any boss’ job to smooth the way for their employees and try to find out what the issues are,” Noellert said. “Bob has never done that. Bob will have a staff meeting, and he dictates to the employees while he’s there. You don’t challenge him. It’s a perfect example of what the issues are. Instead of saying, ‘Maybe I failed,’ it’s always the employee’s fault.”
Is change possible?
In Kara’s letter, she blames the recent rash of resignations at Town Hall on the IDA for its failure to manage upper management at Town Hall.
She writes: “(There) apparently are no consequences for bad management, either inside or outside of Town Hall. Cynthia Wills and Bob Fernandez have given new life into the phrase ‘snafu,’ and you don’t even know it. Shame on you. The IDA employees work diligently day in and day out without a kind word that isn’t forced. They make what they do for the residents appear effortless and seamless. The residents look to Town Hall for leadership, answers and direction, which they so desperately need but are left wanting. Is this the legacy the IDA wants?”
Green said the he expects to have the results of the investigation at the next IDA meeting.
At least to date publicly, Kara remains alone in her complaints. As of press time Tuesday, she had been the only employee to address the IDA about concerns with management as well as the only employee to formally write an exit interview, making the document open to public inspection according to Florida Sunshine laws.
In the last year, no other employees have written their exit interviews. Instead, Town Hall’s human resources consultant took notes and relayed the information verbally to Fernandez, making the information exempt from Sunshine law requirements.
Fernandez and Wills said they care about employees and were disappointed Kara had chosen to voice her concerns to the IDA rather than resolving issues with them.
Wills also said she had some items she was working on to address the issue but was not ready “to offer those for a newspaper article.”
Kara said she is trying to remain hopeful her letter to the IDA will spark a positive change for Town Hall’s employees.
“At the end of the day, you will know no one cares if it doesn’t,” Kara said. “If there’s no change, nobody cares about the employees. And that’s my whole point.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view Sue Kara's exit interview, click here.
To view Sue Kara's letter to the IDA, click here.