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East County Wednesday, Mar. 17, 2010 7 years ago

IDA board reiterates support for Fernandez

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Lakewood Ranch Inter-District Authority board members continue to support Community Manager Bob Fernandez in the wake of complaints by former Town Hall employees.

At the IDA board meeting March 16, Supervisor Jean Stewart proposed using an anonymous survey of current employees to gauge morale and solicit suggestions. But the board stopped short of mandating the survey and left the decision up to Fernandez whether to implement it.

“I think it’s a way to get input from the employees without feeling retribution,” Stewart said after the meeting.

Fernandez said he would consider using a survey as suggested but did not say whether he would implement it.

“It’s something that must be carefully considered,” he said, noting sometimes using anonymous surveys fosters an expectation that all suggestions will be implemented. “We do get feedback constantly when we have our meetings.”

Stewart’s proposal comes, at least in part, because of concerns about the morale of Town Hall employees raised in recent months. The IDA launched an internal investigation in January after receiving a letter from former Town Hall employee Sue Kara, who called the work environment at Town Hall “a toxic and dysfunctional environment” and specifically challenged the management practices of Fernandez and another manager.

Supervisor Glenda Robertson was charged with interviewing current and former employees on the topic. Although she shied from specifics in the report she gave Jan. 19, Robertson noted that “at a minimum, communications, morale and employee relationships of the IDA can be improved” and that “whether correct or not, there is a perception that staff is not being kept fully informed and that this is affecting morale.” The IDA board then tasked Fernandez to specify how he planned to address employee morale, among other concerns.

Since that time, IDA Chairman Tom Green has met with Fernandez to verify the claims made by Kara and make sure issues needing correction are addressed.

“Yes, Sue’s letter was a big surprise to us,” Green said. “When we dug into it, there’s always ways you can improve. I don’t see, and I don’t think the board sees, any major moral issue. The board and I talk to a variety of people to make sure we are monitoring the situation.”

Green said Fernandez, whom Kara criticized for his treatment of employees, is continuing to do a good job in managing the community and is doing the “kinds of things you would expect a community manager to do.” Green said he would be monitoring the situation himself.

“I think employee morale is OK,” Green said. “I can’t tell you that there are still some unhappy people in the organization, but I haven’t seen any legitimate complaints. We are doing what we think is right, and we will continue to do that. As far as I’m concerned, this issue is closed. I’m done commenting on it.”

Stewart agreed Fernandez has done a good job handling the day-to-day operations of Lakewood Ranch’s community development districts and was confident employee morale was being addressed.

“We have left the management of the employees up to the management and not the IDA,” she said. “If we think there’s a problem, we’ll do something about it.

“We have bigger issues, more critical issues that are being addressed by management,” she said. “We want to keep our employees happy. We need them there. We need them to do their jobs, but I think it’s been blown out of proportion, and we need to stop and move forward.”

Stewart added she hopes the enthusiastic attitude of several newly hired employees may rub off and encourage longer-standing ones.

Robertson declined to say whether she believed employee morale at Town Hall is OK based on her interviews of current and past employees or how many of the those employees had expressed dissatisfaction. She stated only that she stood behind Green’s statement at the Feb. 16 meeting that follow-up on the issue is ongoing.

“All of the IDA personnel issues that I brought to the attention of Bob Fernandez and the IDA Board, including the four-day work week, are still being addressed,” she said. “I feel that all issues, including employee morale and communication, are being actively reviewed.”

Supervisor Gordon Norquay said in a phone interview last week he expected for a follow-up morale survey to be conducted. If it were not planned, he said he would raise the issue at the board’s meeting. However, he was absent from the IDA’s agenda review meeting Tuesday.

“We’re all very concerned about the morale of the people that work there,” he said.

Fernandez said is he continuing to implement policies and procedures he already had in place, and is reviving a policy to spend time working alongside employees and making sure to get their input.

“We’re dependent on them to come to us and give us input,” Fernandez said. “We welcome that, and we always have.”

Fernandez said he also has tried to add some fun events to quarterly staff meetings to build rapport such as a trivia contest, and he’s added periodic covered dish luncheons for staff, with the next luncheon slated for Cinco de Mayo.

He also is exploring a benchmarking recommendation to help ensure employee work anniversaries, for example, are recognized and to look at salaries and make sure they are competitive. Those recommendations were given to the IDA at Tuesday’s meeting.

“(We plan to) put some guidelines to make sure there’s integrity,” Fernandez said. “Guidelines will include service awards for longevity. This organization has never had any formal policy on that.

“We think all those things will contribute to improve morale,” he said.

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

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