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The events leading to Holt’s firing require an investigation

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JUNE 18, 2019

The events that led to Carlos Holt’s firing and the commissioners’ statements during the discussion that led to his firing are worth reviewing. On August 27, 2018, Holt’s wife Joanna sent emails to the general city commission email address, making various domestic abuse allegations against Carlos Holt.  Thanks to Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie’s comments, both to the Gainesville Sun and from the dais at the April 18 city commission meeting, it has become public knowledge that the city investigated those claims, including sending Gainesville Police Department officers to the Holt residence on that same day. 

The confidential report from the investigation was leaked in an unredacted form and delivered to multiple people between December 2018 and February 2019, reportedly including a Gainesville Sun reporter and several people who frequently comment at city commission meetings; Gabe Kaimowitz, for example, mentioned it in citizen comments at a city commission meeting. This document included medical and private contact information about Holt, his wife, and his children. Among the many problematic aspects of this leak is the fact that disclosure of this information may constitute a federal HIPAA violation.

In a Special Note attached to the Reichert House audit report, Holt stated that on March 11, 2019, he met with the Interim City Manager and the City Attorney to go over the draft report of the audit. On March 12, he forwarded a draft version of the report, marked as confidential, to both of their offices. On March 22, he was notified by the City Attorney that “a city employee has provided a copy of the draft report” to a member of the public and that he should consider releasing the report to the City Commission. Holt released the report on April 3. 

In her official response to the audit and in comments to the Gainesville Sun, Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie brought up the previously-confidential investigation and her opinion that this interaction with GPD constituted a conflict of interest for Holt in auditing the Reichert House, which falls under GPD. 

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The audit highlighted a lack of financial controls at the Reichert House itself, along with multiple nonprofits that have received money intended for the Reichert House. At least $42,000 was not accounted for. Although no information was presented to contradict any of the financial findings in the audit, Commissioners Hayes-Santos and Ward decided that the alleged conflict of interest was concerning enough that they voted against accepting the audit during the April 18 city commission meeting.

Holt’s attorney sent a letter to Nicolle Shalley, the city attorney, on May 14, stating that he was preparing to file a complaint with the Gainesville office of Equal Opportunity. The letter says “It is obvious that the City of Gainesville is engaged in a pattern of discrimination and retaliation against Mr. Holt.” The letter said that Holt and his lawyer have “actionable basis to believe that former City Manager, Anthony Lyons, was the man responsible for this devastating leak of information.” The letter goes on to allege that the city has taken no action “regarding this breach.” Holt’s lawyer offered to discuss a settlement with the city and proposed a separation from the city with two years of pay, payment of accrued past paid leave, and two years of additional paid leave. The letter gave the city 15 days to respond.

A second letter was sent by Holt’s lawyer on May 30, stating that a charge had been filed with the City of Gainesville Office of Equal Opportunity and that a lawsuit would be filed by June 18, addressing “the unlawful data breach of my client’s unredacted personal information.”

Holt was fired by the City Commission on June 6. The discussion began as a motion to give Mayor Poe authority to negotiate a severance package. In response, Poe said, “I think if we ultimately vote to do this tonight, we need to make it effective immediately because he is in a position of great power that has a lot of access to information and critical systems.”

City Attorney Shalley interjected that Florida law only provides for 20 weeks of severance, so if the commission decided to separate from Holt “without cause,” they could only give him the 20 weeks that were specified in his contract.  

Several commissioners praised Holt. Helen Warren said, “I support the motion to allow you to honor the rules of negotiation, and to honor his work that he has done here. I feel that he has done an excellent job, and unfortunately with relationship that he has had, the negative publicity out there and the delicate nature of the family’s position, I want to support him in doing what he thinks he needs to do to take care of his family.” Ward said, “I just want you to know that I appreciate the work that you’ve given.” Poe said he was “professional” and “still doing [his] job every day” and later said, “I would very much like to thank you. You’ve been a pleasure to work with… You’ve provided a tremendous amount of great service to the city, so I thank you for that.”

Poe pointed out that no negotiation of a resignation package was possible because Holt had not submitted his resignation. The May 14 letter said that “a separation is the most desirable outcome for all parties” but did not offer a resignation. Ms. Shalley read that part of the letter out loud and said it was “an offer of settlement, not clearly an offer of resignation” and “under law, whether there’s a resignation or you terminate, 20 weeks is the maximum that you are allowed to pay.”

Commissioner Warren was confused about the terms “with cause” and “without cause,” thinking that separating “without cause” would “put a blemish on his record.” 

Holt was given the opportunity to address the commission and said, “I wasn’t really ready to address that tonight, sir. I’ll just remain silent.”

The motion to fire Holt passed 5-2, with Gail Johnson and Gigi Simmons dissenting.

The commission moved on to talk about other issues, then Commissioner Warren brought up Holt’s firing again: “I’m still kind of my numb of my ignorance with that last vote that we had. I did not realize it was going to be effective—and as one of the four or one of the five, I would rescind my vote to see if there’s a revote, if there was a fourth person who would switch over to—I thought there was going to be a transition where he would be there for several weeks.  I was totally miscalculating the impact of our vote.”

Poe responded, “I want to really caution the commission, we have a person
with a great amount of access to city information, data, records, who has an active EO complaint filed against the city commission, to allow that person unrestricted access,
knowing they’ve been terminated, would be very dangerous.”

Warren decided not to pursue the revote. Commissioner Ward said the commission shouldn’t feel bad about firing Holt: “I like Mr. Holt. I’m sorry we’re not going to work together anymore. He’s always been helpful for me. I like to think I’ve been helpful to him in the past as well. But we don’t need to beat ourselves up because we did not send that letter. We did not send that letter. We did the not hire that lawyer that sent the letter.”

This is when things got interesting, given the allegations that an investigation report with details about Holt’s family was circulated by a former city employee. Gail Johnson said, “I was just wondering if I should just go home and not say not what I have to say, but I have to say it or I won’t be able to sleep. So this is not a point where I want to be.
 
“Like you said earlier, it’s really difficult for all of us, and I want us to think about where we are right now with this situation and where we were a few months ago, and really how landed here, how we got here.

“I ask myself this question quite a bit with this situation, I’m wondering if we handled things as a board in the correct way.  There’s a lot that’s involved with this that I have questions about. There’s HR, there’s how we handled sensitive information that went out potentially that came from inside the city. There was a difficult audit process that happened. There were allegations made. There were levels of decision making that maybe could have been—maybe been at a different level.  So… I really want us to think about how we handled this situation because my fear is that we didn’t and because we didn’t, we’ve left an opening for some things to continue to happen because we didn’t address some things head-on.

“And I’m going to take full responsibility for that because it was going on and I could have stepped up and said, you know what, we need to look at this, we need to handle it, we need to figure it out before we move forward. I’ll take responsibility for that, but this is something that I really needed to say because I don’t think we needed to get here. I don’t think we would have gotten here if we would have handled things a little bit differently in regard to sensitive information that went out and levels of decision-making, and that’s what I have to say so I can sleep tonight.”

Warren started to chime in, saying she had “very similar” comments, but Ms. Shalley cautioned the commission against making public comments: “I would just like to caution the commission that your decision to terminate a charter officer rests in the contract, but there are also, according to the letter from the attorney, there may be claims and/or lawsuits filed against the city, so I would just caution you to be cognizant that what you say here will obviously be heard and so having made your decision, you may just want to make peace with that decision.”

Warren continued, “To another angle of it, I concur with you, Commissioner Johnson. To say that how we deal with mental health issues, I’m going to say, I think ambiguously, we have to learn how to treat each other in a way that we would treat our own children and our family, maybe sometimes not our family, but our friends—because this did unfold in a way—I’m sorry, attorney, I can’t not see the truth of this. I will say he had good cause and I’ll leave it at that.”

Given that multiple city commissioners are admitting that improper actions were taken by the city, they should insist on a full investigation of the leak of the report and not hide behind the pending lawsuit. The citizens of Gainesville deserve to know whether city employees are leaking personal information, and if the employee who leaked the report is still with the city, he or she should be fired.

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