Turmoil at elections office

The liaison for African-Americans takes shots at her boss after losing her job.

Published May 1, 2007

TAMPA - When she was hired by Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson last year, Beleria Floyd seemed a perfect fit for the job of community relations coordinator working with Hillsborough's African-American population.

Floyd, 47, brought 25 years of public relations and marketing experience to the task. She had numerous contacts in the county's black communities. And she was a member of the Florida Elections Commission, which rules on violations of state elections laws.

Now, eight months later, her $71, 739 job has been eliminated to make room for an unspecified and as-yet unadvertised technology hire, and some are questioning Johnson's priorities.

"It most certainly sends a poor message, " said Dee Merritt-Bell, political action chairwoman of the local chapter of 100 Black Women, whose group worked with Floyd on drives to increase voter registration and participation.

"The most disenfranchised group out there is ours, " said Merritt-Bell, herself a Florida elections commissioner. "You would think Mr. Johnson might find another place to cut."

Floyd accuses Johnson of fostering an unhealthy, stressful workplace. She says he made her uncomfortable with questions about her political affiliation, asked her and other subordinates to do personal errands and devoted office resources to an obsessive need to polish his image as supervisor.

"It was like the Wizard of Oz over there, " said Floyd.

"They don't want anyone with a heart. They don't want anyone to stand up and show any courage. And they don't want anyone to use their brain, just people who will regurgitate what they say."

Johnson was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Per his office policy, his general counsel, Kathy Harris, took written questions on his behalf and responded in writing.

Other outreach remains

Harris said Floyd's position was eliminated to make room for additional technical personnel "to keep our current touch screen technology in top running condition and - if mandated by the Governor and the Florida Legislature - to make the total switch to optical scan technology."

While the position involving outreach to the African-American community was eliminated, a similar job for outreach in the Hispanic community was left untouched. That $66, 622-a-year job is filled by Caesar Gonzmart, 63, a former consultant who worked until last year as curator of a museum connected to the family-owned Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.

But Harris said Gonzmart's job involved more than outreach duties. She said Gonzmart was hired in October to be the public information officer for the elections office and to help maintain the office's Spanish-language Web site.

But when the Times asked Gonzmart about his duties as public information officer, he said he was not the public information officer. He said he did not know who held that job.

Floyd said she wasn't surprised that the Hispanic liaison's job was retained and her job dropped.

"I just don't think Buddy has any interest in the black community, " she said.

That's not the case at all, according to Harris, who recommended the elimination of Floyd's job.

She said Johnson's office intends to "enhance" its commitment to voter outreach and education, "especially among minorities." To meet that commitment, Johnson has named Angeline Cunningham to handle primary responsibility for outreach in the African-American community, Harris said.

Cunningham, 28, was a clerical worker hired five years ago by Johnson and thrust into the job of manager of petitions last year when a move to put the county mayor initiative on the ballot in 2006 failed.

In a private audit, the citizens group behind the initiative found the petition validation process at Johnson's office had been bungled, with hundreds of petitions lost and others bearing valid signatures inexplicably rejected.

In a news release about Cunningham's moving from petition work to voter outreach, Johnson said he was "particularly impressed with the meticulous way" Cunningham handled the petition validation.

No change in job title, job description or pay accompanied Cunningham's appointment to outreach coordinator. The April 6 news release announcing it was not posted to the elections supervisor's Web site until after the Times asked about the void created when Floyd's job was canceled.

Gonzmart, listed as the contact person on the April 6 memo announcing Cunningham's appointment, said he was unsure if he had written the memo himself, nor could he say why it was not put on the elections Web site until 17 days after it was written, and just after the Times asked about it.

"You're catching me by surprise, " Gonzmart said. "I'm collecting my thoughts here."

Floyd was told in late March that her job was being phased out but also informed she might continue to work for the elections office as an outside contractor. Floyd retained attorney Clinton Paris, who prepared a two-year consulting contract that would have paid Floyd $75 an hour, or a minimum of $54, 000 annually.

Johnson's office turned down the contract offer and decided to seek other consulting proposals.

"She was a competent employee and an important contact for many in the community, " said Paris. "Johnson needs someone out there like Beleria to boost confidence in his office."

Floyd kept low profile

Although Harris and Assistant Supervisor Jim Reed evaluated Floyd's performance after 90 days and declined to award a pay raise, they put nothing in writing, and Floyd said she was left in the dark.

As an unclassified employee, Floyd served at the pleasure of Johnson and enjoyed no Civil Service protection. So, she made no waves when she said Johnson spoke or acted inappropriately.

In her job less than two weeks, Floyd said she was handed a $20 bill and instructed by Johnson to gas up his Mercedes and bring back $10 in change. Floyd was astounded he would ask a Florida elections commissioner to run that errand.

Harris responded: Johnson did recall inspecting voting sites with Floyd, and after stopping for gas, Floyd got out of the passenger side of the car and began "filling the gas tank - without being asked."

Floyd said that Johnson also made her uncomfortable with queries about her political affiliation. Johnson, appointed elections chief in 2003 and elected in 2004, is a Republican.

"He said, 'You're doing a terrific job, and I want you with me in 2008, ' " said Floyd. "Then he asked me was I a Republican or a Democrat. He said, 'A lot of my problems are due to Democrats.' "

"When I told him I was a Democrat, he said, 'Well, I hope you'd vote for a Republican if it was your boss.' "

Harris responded: "This is not true. This is a nonpartisan office. Ms. Floyd is understandably extremely upset about our business decision to eliminate the position she previously held, and these false allegations are a reflection of her disappointment."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:


Turnovers in the elections office

Beleria Floyd is the latest of a number of high-level staffers to leave the office of Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson after a stormy tenure. Others include:

Dan Nolan: a former Central Command Army colonel hired to be Johnson's $85, 000 chief of staff. Lasted less than year before distrust developed between him and Johnson. Resigned after the 2004 election to start a consulting company.

Helene Marks: A lawyer recruited by Johnson to replace Nolan as his top assistant. Lasted a little more than a year before Johnson diminished her role and sent her home for several months to write an employee handbook. Resigned her $115, 190 job in July 2006.

Ken Tinkler: An assistant county attorney who advised the elections office, Tinkler resigned his $83, 428-a-year job in August 2006 to join a private law firm after Johnson said he could no longer work with him. On his way out, Tinkler wrote a memo describing Johnson as paranoid, temperamental in dealings with subordinates and distrustful of his highest advisers.

Steve Holub: As a $79, 768 public information officer, Holub followed Laquinda Brewington, who quit to join the county, and Laura Miller, fired by Johnson when she fell into disfavor. Johnson asked for Holub's resignation in August 2006, paying him $24, 142 not to sue and to keep quiet about anything he had observed in his eight months of employment.