City clerk also credited for her work despite trouble with records and some workflow concerns

NORTH PORT — North Port city commissioners credited both the city manager and city clerk at Tuesday’s meeting for fulfilling their duties under difficult circumstances over the past year.

City Manager Peter Lear received a 3.5 percent pay increase and general overall positive comments during his annual evaluation by the board. He was praised for his personal ethics, as well as versatility in handling a variety of tasks, ranging from hiring new police and fire chiefs to dealing with Hurricane Irma.

City Clerk Patsy Adkins received words of encouragement as the commission tackled the awkward task of discussing two separate issues — concerns raised by employees that the office’s workflow can be influenced by her mood, as well as a backlog of public records requests leave the city open to a civil lawsuit.

“There is a work environment situation that’s negative,” noted Commissioner Jill Luke, who talked both with the city human resources department and Adkins herself. “Beyond that, the public records is the part that, to me, is the most vulnerable.

“I had both the city attorney and city clerk look me in the face and say we are vulnerable for a civil suit, because of what’s going on with public records,” she added. “That’s an uneasy situation to be in.”

On the personnel matters, commissioners were satisfied that Adkins — who declined to speak in her defense at the meeting — had agreed to take steps to improve her leadership skills and to a suggestion that the department attend team-building activities.

The way North Port government is structured, both Adkins and Deputy City Clerk Kathryn Peto are charter officers but all employees in the clerk’s office technically work for Lear, the city manager.

Both Mayor Vanessa Carusone and Vice Mayor Linda Yates pointed out that Adkins, who was promoted to the top job from her role as deputy city clerk following the July 2016 retirement of Helen Raimbeau, faced a task similar to the one Lear saw when he became city manager.

“She came in at a time when there was turmoil in that department,” Yates said. “Not only that, she had to deal with a general election, special election.”

That supported Carusone’s earlier observation that Adkins came in “behind the eight ball, where there had been minutes that hadn’t been done forever, codifications that had been missed and there was no deputy clerk.”

Carusone also mentioned the extra workload brought on by repeated public records request made by former city commissioner Cheryl Cook for current commissioners’ emails.

Cook, who hosts a local radio talk show and hosts the website cherylcook.org, even filed two complaints in March with the North Port Police on March 20, alleging that Adkins was withholding public records from her.

Police concluded Adkins had not violated any criminal laws. Records from that investigation showed that from Oct. 1, 2016 through April 4, there were 2,800 public records requests submitted to the city. Of those, about 2,400 were made by Cook.

The city hired an administrative services specialist for $38,726 per year and a public records technician for $31,612 per year just to respond to Cook’s queries.

North Port does not provide online access to its commission emails, a situation that has compounded the department’s workload.

City Attorney Amber Slayton, in a June 27 memo, told the commission that she learned some public records requests have been left unfulfilled for more than a year. She also found an inconsistency in the way the city clerk and North Port Police Department handles records requests — and recommended that only one department handle all public records requests.

The commission agreed to bring in an outside specialist to examine the city’s entire records procedure.

As for Lear, communication with the City Commission may have been his biggest foible in his first year at the helm of North Port.

When asked by Commissioner Debbie McDowell what he planned to work on to improve his performance, he cited communication.

“We talked about that at strategic planning, we talked about that at other places,” Lear added. “Keeping you all better informed will make the process run smooth for everybody.”

Among the changes Lear plans is creation of a monthly update memo to the commission, complete with progress reports on tasks assigned, or notations as to why deadlines have changed.

Board members noted that Lear was hampered by the lack of an assistant city manager for part of the year. Longtime assistant city manager Daniel Schult was placed on administrative leave last Jan. 23 and his employment ended March 14.

New Assistant City Manager Cari Branco was hired April 4. The city will hire a second assistant city manager later this year.

Lear said the extra help, combined with city staff continuing to adapt to his leadership style should help improve the speed with which commission directives are addressed.

The 3.5 percent raise for Lear, who was hired at $150,000, reflected a compromise. Carusone wanted to pay more, while Yates wanted to give him only 3 percent but was ultimately swayed into voting for that amount by her fellow board members.

“I think you’ve earned a unanimous decision that you’ve worked for this,” Yates said.