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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 1 month ago

City leaders to discuss discrimination complaints

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Since late 2019, employees have accused the city’s finance director and auditoriums manager of improper workplace conduct.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Last week, City Commissioner Hagen Brody called to convene a special meeting to discuss three documented allegations of discrimination and improper workplace conduct against city employees in supervisor roles.

In late 2019, a city employee accused Finance Director Kelly Strickland of discriminatory hiring practices and making racist remarks in the workplace. The allegations led to a human resources investigation that confirmed Strickland had made at least one racist statement but said the allegation regarding discriminatory hiring practices was not substantiated. In July, the employee filed a charge of discrimination against the city with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

In June, two former employees in the city’s auditorium and special events office sent emails to city officials detailing a series of complaints regarding Auditoriums Manager Debbie Perez. The emails accused Perez of discriminatory treatment of Hispanic customers and of creating a hostile work environment.

The emails, from former administrative supervisor Sheyla Pena and former administrative assistant Sevde Haner, said Perez discriminated against Hispanic people interested in renting city auditorium spaces. Pena said Perez did not allow quinceaneras, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, at Payne Park Auditorium. Pena said Perez did not trust those parties to provide an accurate number of people attending.

The emails also alleged discrimination within the workplace, a lack of discipline for problematic employees, favoritism and inconsistent attendance from Perez. Both Haner and Pena were laid off following the onset of COVID-19. In her email, Haner said she believed they were targeted for raising concerns about Perez.

In an email, a city spokesman said city administration has asked the city attorney’s office to review the messages and provide guidance.

The commission has set a special meeting for Aug. 19 to discuss the complaints, with Shelli Freeland Eddie joining Brody to call for the meeting. In his original email, Brody took aim at City Manager Tom Barwin, expressing a desire to discuss how Barwin has handled the complaints and the “culture his administration has created that allows this behavior.”

More information on the meeting, including the full text of the complaints and the city’s investigation, are available on the city’s website.

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