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Sarasota Wednesday, May 19, 2021 1 year ago

Mayor’s conduct causes concern among residents, officials

An argument at City Hall regarding a vaccination clinic has led to criticism of Mayor Hagen Brody’s behavior.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Three city staff members reported that Mayor Hagen Brody had an extended angry outburst at City Hall on March 29 because of his displeasure with a video posted to the city’s Facebook page.

All three reports to human resources state Brody called City Hall prior to 9 a.m. to schedule a meeting with City Manager Marlon Brown to discuss a video publicizing a COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The staff members said Brody’s anger escalated when he was told Brown’s schedule would not allow him to meet before noon. 

Brody arrived at City Hall between 9 and 9:30 a.m., staff said, and yelled about his need to talk to Brown while Brown was meeting remotely with other officials. While Brody was at City Hall, Brown and other employees told him his behavior was inappropriate and attempted to get him to calm down.

Brody made complaints about Van Wezel Executive Director Mary Bensel, who was featured in the video, and Senior Communications Manager Jan Thornburg, who posted the video, asking for salary information for both employees. Brown eventually met with Brody in Brody’s office, and Brody left City Hall before noon, staff said. 

One staff member said Brody’s behavior was unprecedented in her 15 years with the city. Another said she questioned whether the mayor was in control of his emotions, stating the incident caused sleepless nights and that she would resign if that sort of conduct continued. A third accused Brody of creating a toxic work environment.

“I have never seen anyone in the workplace act out like this, filled with so much rage,” the third report stated.

After the incident became publicized, members of the public began to raise concerns about Brody’s conduct as mayor. Speakers at the May 3 and May 18 called on the commission to consider removing Brody from his position as mayor, questioning whether he had the temperament for the ceremonial role leading city meetings.

“Being a mayor is not a right, it's a privilege, it's a ceremonial function,” resident Cathy Antunes said. “If you're demonstrating difficulty in demonstrating equanimity and fair treatment as a mayor, time to take a break.”

At the conclusion of the May 18 meeting, commissioners spent about 30 minutes discussing the incident. Commissioner Liz Alpert called on Brody to issue a public apology to staff, and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested the city may need to conduct a formal investigation.

“It would be egregious for this commission to ignore it, because silence is condoning it,” Alpert said.

Brody said he had apologized privately to staff and that he made a mistake, but also said the dispute was solely between he and Brown and that his behavior was a reflection of his passion. That drew pushback from Alpert, who called it “a non-recognition of having done anything wrong.” Brody later said he could have handled himself better, that he felt badly when he read staff’s account of the morning and that he would strive to improve his conduct moving forward.

“I’m learning,” Brody said. “All of this is a learning experience.”

In an interview prior to the meeting, Brody expressed some regret for his behavior and said his frustrations with the Facebook video fueled his emotions. Although one staff account said Brody was upset that the video did not highlight his involvement in organizing the vaccination clinic, Brody said he felt a message centered on the prospect of resuming shows at the Van Wezel was inappropriate given the circumstances of the event. 

Brody said the tone of the argument was partially reflective of the working relationship he had with Brown.

“We have disagreements from time to time, rarely, but we have a relationship where we let each other know what is on each other’s mind in a very frank and blunt way,” Brody said. “I was definitely irritated and agitated, but at the end of the day, it was a dispute — kind of an animated dispute.”

The three city staff members submitted their testimony to HR the week of April 5, one week following the incident. After a public records request produced those reports, two additional individuals submitted their accounts of the day on May 12: City Commissioner Erik Arroyo and then-Planning Board applicant Dan Clermont. Arroyo was meeting with Clermont at City Hall, and both parties downplayed the severity of the argument, stating that they only heard elevated voices for eight to 12 seconds.

“I was surprised, considering my experience that day, that this experience has been documented,” Clermont wrote.

Speakers at the May 3 and May 18 meetings raised other issues they saw with Brody’s conduct as mayor, including his enforcement of time limits for commissioner questions despite the protests of Ahearn-Koch. At the May 18 meeting, Alpert said the March 29 dispute was not the first account she’s heard of problematic behavior from Brody toward city staff.

Former City Commissioner Susan Chapman, who appeared at the March 3 commission meeting at the request of other residents, said Brody was overstepping his bounds by pushing for policy action that is the purview of the entire commission.

Chapman, who lost a bid for re-election in 2017, acknowledged that a majority of the commission has not publicly raised concerns about Brody’s conduct. At the May 18 meeting, Commissioner Kyle Battie said he did not approve of Brody’s behavior, but that he did not want to dwell on the matter, either. Chapman expressed broader displeasure with the current makeup of the city’s elected body.

“I want to leave the city,” Chapman said. “It’s depressing to pay double taxes for a crummy government of people who never attended a meeting before they got elected.”

Brody rejected the idea that his actions undermined his ability to act effectively as mayor, stating he strives to uniformly apply time limits and other restrictions to individuals participating in commission meetings. He said he was proactive in sharing his perspective with Brown, but he maintained that he remained just one voice among five commissioners.

Brody said he can get agitated at times during city meetings, and he said his behavior in public settings is largely consistent with his conduct in private.

“The way I am at the commission dais is how I am,” Brody said. “I’m passionate about what I do, and I’m passionate about working for the people of this community, and my passion is visible sometimes.”

Update: On Wednesday, Brody issued a statement apologizing for his actions.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought and after reflecting on the conversation last night, I would like to clearly and publicly apologize to our staff and community for my behavior March 29th,” Brody said in the statement. “I will do better.”

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