Although officials and residents harbor concerns about Mayor Hagen Brody’s behavior, a majority of the City Commission saw no benefit in a formal investigation following a March outburst at City Hall.
Despite a request from Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, the city of Sarasota will not launch a formal investigation into the conduct of Mayor Hagen Brody following a March outburst at City Hall detailed in concerned witness statements from city staff.
The commission voted 4-1 against a proposal to hire a third-party investigator to look into Brody’s behavior, but the agenda item drew a mixture of responses from elected officials and members of the public who spoke at Monday’s meeting.
Brody acknowledged he acted inappropriately during the incident, but he expressed frustration at the continued focus on the topic, characterizing his vocal critics as politically motivated and vowing not to revisit the subject going forward.
“The people hold me accountable,” Brody said. ‘The people elected me here. and quite frankly, they didn’t elect me to make friends and play nice. They elected me to change things here at City Hall.”
Ahearn-Koch said her request for an investigation was motivated not by politics, but by input from constituents who remained concerned about Brody’s behavior the morning of March 29. According to statements to human resources, three city staff members said Brody was irate because he disapproved of a video posted to the city’s Facebook page about a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The witness statements said Brody was yelling in the office demanding to speak to City Manager Marlon Brown, and Brown and other employees told the mayor his behavior was inappropriate and attempted to calm him down. Brody made critical remarks about Van Wezel Executive Director Mary Bensel, who was featured in the video, and the city's Senior Communications Manager Jan Thornburg, who posted the video, asking for salary information about both employees.
Ahearn-Koch said there were a litany of reasons to conduct an investigation. She said it was an opportunity to show staff the commission would not tolerate hostile behavior in the workplace and a chance to get a full, independent account of the events of that day. She noted that Commissioner Liz Alpert had indicated the March outburst was not the first time city officials had heard about inappropriate conduct from the mayor, and Ahearn-Koch said the commission had an obligation to do its due diligence on this topic — not just morally, but also to limit potential legal liability.
“Moving on without an investigation is synonymous to sweeping this under the rug,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Alpert was critical of Brody’s behavior, but she said she did not see the value in an investigation, stating the commission’s powers are limited when it comes to reprimanding a fellow elected official. Although Alpert was hopeful the March incident was a watershed moment and the mayor had realized the magnitude of his mistakes, she expressed disappointment Brody had not been more publicly remorseful for his actions and for the tenor of his criticism of city staff members.
Commissioners Kyle Battie and Erik Arroyo said they had spoken to city staff, who said they had moved on from the incident and did not want an investigation. Alpert said those staff members were in a “terrible position,” and that it would be challenging for a city employee to actively request an investigation into an elected official with whom they would likely need to continue to work. Still, every commissioner but Ahearn-Koch expressed no interest in an investigation.
“I’m sure this has humbled [Brody]; I don’t see how it couldn’t,” Battie said. “Hopefully we have this discussion today and we move forward.”
Pattern of behavior?
Six of the 11 public speakers supported the proposed investigation, many of whom said Brody’s inappropriate behavior extended beyond the March 29 incident.
Multiple speakers referenced Colleen McGue, who served as the city’s chief transportation planner before leaving her position for another job this month. Earlier this year, Brody repeatedly expressed frustration with staff’s plans for a trolley service linking downtown Sarasota to the barrier islands. On April 12, in response to a chain of messages between McGue and Brown about the trolley, Brody sent an email to Brown stating, “We need to talk about CM.”
Although McGue had taken the lead on discussing the trolley at public meetings, within 10 days of that email, she said she was no longer involved.
“... Long story, but I am not working on that project anymore per the mayor’s request,” McGue said in an April 22 message to another city employee.
In an email, a city spokesperson said McGue’s departure from the project was “a mutual agreement at the department level.” McGue declined to comment for this story. Still, residents at Monday’s meeting saw reason for concern, questioning whether the mayor had attempted to overstep his bounds on multiple occasions to get involved with staff-level personnel decisions.
“Other than a begrudging 32-word text vaguely promising to do better, he has not voiced any understanding of how wrong this pervasive pattern of workplace bullying has been or publicly apologized for his actionable denigration of city staff members,” resident Kelly Franklin said.
Five speakers at Monday’s meeting were opposed to an investigation, several of whom argued the continued focus on Brody’s behavior was an attempt to capitalize on an opportunity from individuals who disagreed with him politically.
“These people do not speak for me, and I would hazard a guess they don’t speak for most voters and most residents of Sarasota,” resident Maryellin Kirkwood said.
The speakers critical of Brody noted that many of the individuals at whom he targeted his criticism — including Bensel, Thornburg, McGue and Ahearn-Koch — were women, asserting there was a sexist pattern of behavior. Brody rejected this characterization and said he believed it was an effort to paint his actions in the worst possible light.
Alpert said she also did not believe Brody’s behavior was fueled by sexism, stating former City Manager Tom Barwin was a previous target of the mayor’s ire. Still, she pushed back on the suggestion that the concern about Brody’s conduct was sensationalized or solely fueled by political opportunism.
“This was not ‘fairy tales,’” Alpert said. “This was not innuendos and lies. This was an incident that actually happened.”
At Monday’s meeting, Ahearn-Koch also asked the commission to create a code of conduct for elected officials and a set of procedures for how to respond to any future issues that might arise among board members. That proposal also failed in a 4-1 vote. The commission unanimously agreed to read its code of public conduct at the beginning of each meeting and to continue holding mediated workshops as a board.
In declining to pursue an investigation into Brody’s behavior, a majority of the commission said it would be up to the public to hold the mayor accountable for his actions to whatever extent it deemed appropriate.
“The electorate, the people, they’re going to judge me one way or another,” Brody said.