What’s Wrong With This Picture?

A culture is strong when people work with each other, for each other. A culture is weak when people work against each other, for themselves. –Simon Sinek

Word came last week that a Delray Beach city employee was cleared of wrongdoing after more than a year of innuendo and uncertainty.

Former Assistant Community Improvement Director Jamael Stewart was given an all clear by the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission. His boss, Michael Coleman, who got caught up in the situation, resigned when this whole thing went down. To date, he’s  never been charged with anything. He’s got a lawsuit pending against the city he served and loved.
But the damage has been done.
Two careers were ended. Two people who have served our city admirably were badly hurt.
And if you care about your town, what happened to Michael and Jamael ought to piss you off. (Excuse my language).
And they are not the only ones who have been hurt in recent years as a wide range of city employees saw their careers and lives upended— in many cases —for no good reason. When I asked a few of them what they were charged with their answer was consistent: they have no idea.
Even today, in the wake of the Ethics Commission ruling, there remains a cloud. What about other agencies some ask? Aren’t they looking too?
Nobody seems to be sure. In fact, there’s a theory that all of this is some bizarre political payback scheme.
And that’s a problem, because this is supposed to be America after all. People should have the right to face their accusers and they should know what their being accused of, especially after more than a year. All of this starts at home, at City Hall with either a demand to resign or a termination order. That’s the good news, because if the problem is local it can be solved with leadership. The buck stops with the commission. Either it tolerates this kind of behavior/culture or it doesn’t. It’s really that simple.
I guess the fate of wrongly accused employees is not as acute an issue as to whether or not the water is safe to drink or whether our infrastructure can handle sea level rise but it’s still a problem.
If you pay taxes and rely on municipal services the quality of city staff is important.

And if you have a culture that eats people up and spits them out it doesn’t take a management degree to understand that it’s going to be hard to attract and keep a talented staff.

I spent seven years on the city commission and have been following local government here and elsewhere for almost 35 years. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that a good staff makes a world of difference and a poor staff can cost you dearly.

Michael and Jamael are good men. They care about this community and they have touched a lot of lives in our city. Many of the people they impacted were young people. A few were heading in the wrong direction before they were mentored by these gentlemen and taught that there was another way.
What’s happened to them—forced out of their positions, maligned and thrown out with the trash—has sent a chilling message to these young people I’ve been told. Here’s what they’re thinking.
If it can happen to department heads, a decorated cop (Mr. Coleman was a police captain before becoming director) what chance do we have?
As a result, I know a few promising young people who have taken their talents elsewhere unwilling to put up with the toxic culture that has taken root at City Hall and permeated every corner of our city. That toxicity has convinced more than a few people to start their lives and careers elsewhere.
Who can blame them? But isn’t that tragic?
And while Michael and Jamael have been the subject of a lot of discussion and publicity because of their high profiles in town, there are others who have suffered by affiliation that we never talk about.
Donna Quinlan, a wonderful person,  worked for the city for 39 years. She was shown the door for no good reason. In fact, for no reason at all.
I guess she was guilty of being Michael’s assistant.
Jennifer Costello, a 31 year employee and another wonderful person, was also forced out for no good reason.
I worked with both Donna and Jen. They were invaluable.
Donna’s husband Tom, served for 30 years in our Police Department. He was a great officer. That family gave 70 years to this city.
Is this the way we should treat people? What message does that send to the other 900 employees?
I’ve seen the pain this kind of treatment causes families. It’s severe. Losing your livelihood, —in many ways your identity— suddenly, publicly and unfairly is a shock to the soul.
Sadly, it’s become fashionable to belittle public servants. We shouldn’t.
We seem to have forgotten that they are people with families, career aspirations, pride in their city and a strong desire to serve.
It’s wrong to hurt them.
We can’t be a good community if we treat people this way.
These kind of situations ought to trigger some deep soul searching.
This cannot be allowed to happen again and the people who have been hurt need to be made whole.
This is a teachable moment but only if we choose to learn and do better.
We should not tolerate a culture that ruins people for no good reason.
Why did this happen?
What kind of culture allows this?
What has changed? Because it wasn’t always like this.
If we just look the other way and carry on as we often do, we won’t figure out a better way.
And there has to be a better way.
A toxic culture is expensive.
Both in terms of legal fees (which we pay as taxpayers) but more importantly in terms of the toll it takes on victims and all who know and love them.
Throwing people away is just not right.
It leaves wounds that never heal and like a virus it affects every pore of our city.

Comments

  1. Mariann Gerwig says:

    Jeff,
    A couple of questions, who exactly makes up the Ethics Committee? Since the Mayor and the commissioners are all elected officials, how do the residents (in reality their bosses) get the Ethics Committee to investigate them. With a laundry list of long time employees being terminated for no reason, and two employees being brought before the ethics Committee and being cleared of any wrong doing. It sounds like the Commissioners behind this may be trying to clean house of everyone that will not stand silent if things are not done properly.

    We need to make elected officials realize that they are here at our will and not to act on their own agendas.

  2. Ann Stacey-Wright says:

    Great Commentary and thanks for truth.

  3. Reginald A. Cox says:

    Right.

  4. Marianne Regan says:

    Good argument, Jeff. Just a wee typo: “People should have the right to face their accusers and they should know what their being accused of, especially after more than a year.” … Should be “people should know what they’re being accused of….”

  5. We know it doesnt have to be this way. The practice of hiring a new City Manager, who comes in and starts building a kingdom of his people as department heads, is and has been destructive beyond anything I have witnessed . Louzier, deJesus, Gretsas. Look at the damage and expense in their wake. All three were about hiding their actions. We got off lucky, those Gentlemen are still costing our City and the Cities they left before us.
    The staff is working together and going about getting the job done, let’s just support them,! Time for a change.
    Jeff, great to have you back, You are an amazing writer, always have been.

  6. Holy Moly – as a 35 year resident of this fair city and vote in every election, I’ve seen our downtown’s rebirth – both the good and the not-so good. I vote, every time. Sadly I thought our last city election took a rather “dark” turn from some candidates.
    Now we are losing dollars from city coffers to pay for attorneys, contract buy-outs on top of losing skilled, committed workers.
    How did we get here? How do we correct the perceived toxic environment in City Hall? How do we, as a city, move forward? There are 49,980 registered voters in our city and 11,120 or 22% voted in the March election.
    TODAY more than ever it’s time to VOTE locally, statewide, and nationally for a better future for us all.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Well said. It’s all about awareness and voting. We need to pay attention and support candidates who will right the ship. We stand for what we tolerate.

  7. Hi Jeff, so glad you’re doing well, stay healthy Mr Mayor 🙂

    What’s the deal with truehomestead.com — more bat shit crazy

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