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Administrator chided for handling of bias claims

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003

TAMPA -- Hillsborough County Administrator Dan Kleman is facing a crisis of confidence from some of his bosses over his handling of recent racial discrimination complaints.

Commissioners on Wednesday gave Kleman six days to provide a new plan for handling hostile workplace allegations at County Center or face the consequences.

Leading the charge, two commissioners rebuked the administrator for his staff's handling of a pair of cases that resulted in lawsuit losses for the county. They criticized him for failing to enact at least temporary measures to ensure better handling of such complaints more than a month after the last two cases surfaced.

"There's no question in my mind that the county administrator has been incompetent on this issue," said Commissioner Ronda Storms.

Chairman Tom Scott, the commission's only black member, expressed disbelief that Kleman has yet to craft a response the board can approve or to take action against the accused employees.

"I am very frustrated with this whole process," Scott said. "I'm sick of it. We should not be here."

Because of county charter restrictions, commissioners may not take action themselves against employees accused of wrongdoing. That task falls to Kleman.

"The only person I can fire is Dan Kleman," Scott said in an interview after the meeting, though he said Kleman can still salvage his job with quick, decisive action.

Kleman said afterward that he had hoped to have a proposal for commissioners by Wednesday's meetings and has been pressing his staff to finalize one.

"I'm as frustrated as Commissioner Scott," Kleman said. "No one has screamed louder than I at all the people involved in this process."

Asked by Scott during the meeting whether he would have something to vote on by Tuesday, Kleman said only, "Yes, sir."

Earlier, commissioners voted 6-1 to ask clerk of the Circuit Court Richard Ake to seek bids from consultants to review how the county investigates workplace complaints. They asked Ake ultimately to craft recommendations for how better to handle those complaints long-term, a proposal brought by Commissioner Kathy Castor.

Commissioner Jim Norman, alone in defense of Kleman, said he believes the recent cases are isolated incidents that shouldn't reflect on the administrator, who oversees about 8,000 employees.

"I have confidence in Dan Kleman," Norman said. "He has to me been a good administrator."

The issues surfaced in meetings more than a month ago, when commissioners first learned they had lost a discrimination suit brought by employee Gloria Peniel. Peniel worked in the county's Human Resources Department, the office charged with investigating discrimination complaints. The court ordered the county to pay Peniel about $6,000 in a suit accusing Department Director Sharon Wall for retaliating against her for past confrontations.

Then, the county attorney's office advised the commission to settle a second lawsuit brought by former Solid Waste Deparment employee Donald Harris for $130,000. Harris alleged that he repeatedly faced racist remarks and actions by co-workers.

County attorneys confirmed many of Harris' allegations, though two prior investigations by Wall's office failed to back his account.

Commissioners responded initially by reassigning the investigation of new complaints to County Attorney Emmy Acton and to establish a hotline for employees. The hotline has not yet been established, but at least 23 new complaints were submitted.

Sour relations between Kleman and Acton have provided somewhat of a subplot to Wednesday's discussion. Kleman has noted previously that Acton failed to inform him of the problems in the Harris case until days before she took it to commissioners.

Acton and Kleman are the only two county employees who report directly to commissioners.

On Wednesday, as commissioners criticized Kleman for failing to develop a plan, Acton noted she had provided a report they requested of her April 7. Kleman presented commissioners a memo Wednesday raising concerns with some of the items in Acton's note to them.

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