By Steve Plunkett
Nestled among Highland Beach Town Manager Dale Sugerman’s e-mail last July was a message he wasn’t supposed to see: a collection of jokes Town Clerk Beverly Brown forwarded to him by mistake via the town’s official e-mail.
Sugerman investigated and found more jokes, some “sexually-oriented or defamatory,’’ that Brown had forwarded during work hours, including one alluding to President Obama and using the N-word. He decided a one-month suspension without pay was appropriate for the town’s second in command.
But before he could suspend her, Sugerman himself was suspended—though with pay—amid strong indications the Town Commission will not renew his contract in June.
‘’Where are you coming from?’’ Commissioner John Sorrelli demanded during the commission’s initial inquiry. ‘’I am so upset, I am ready to blow my cork here.’’
The commission’s Jan. 4 meeting began with an appeal from former Mayor Arlin Voress to intervene on Brown’s behalf. Sugerman said it was inappropriate to discuss the case in public while Brown still could appeal. Commissioners were divided on talking about it, and Mayor Jim Newill cast the deciding vote (to discuss).
Brown has breast cancer, and Newill’s wife has been going with her to doctor appointments and treatments, he said.
“The doctors have been very, very specific, which I passed on to the town manager several times, that she is not to be put under any kind of stress, because stress can really ruin the treatment,’’ Newill said.
Newill said he opposed firing the town manager without cause but asked if any commissioner would make a motion to direct Sugerman to rescind the suspension. That way, he said, if Sugerman refused, he would be guilty of insubordination.
“Just because you don’t agree with what the person is saying, you don’t think that he’s necessarily doing what you would like them to do, that doesn’t to me constitute cause. I think something like this constitutes cause,’’ Newill said.
In a memo Sugerman gave Brown on Jan. 3, he outlined what he said was cause to suspend her: five e-mails containing “derogatory, racist, lewd and lascivious’’ jokes sent from April 20 to July 15 on Highland Beach’s computer system during working hours. He noted she had signed the town’s Information Technology Policy, which prohibits sending or receiving “obscene, sexually-oriented or defamatory’’ materials.
At a Dec. 20 hearing, Brown’s lawyer said the e-mail sent to Sugerman “was obviously done in error,’’ he wrote. Brown’s lawyer said a verbal or written warning was in order, he added.
‘‘What is most disappointing in all of this is that you absolutely should have known better,’’ Sugerman wrote.
There were other e-mails, but Sugerman did not want to pile them onto his complaint, he said. Town Attorney Tom Sliney told him the police chief of Wilton Manors in Broward County had received a 30-day suspension without pay for sending derogatory and racist e-mails during work hours from his city computer, he wrote. That chief ultimately resigned rather than be fired.
He said Brown’s actions were serious enough to warrant termination but because she had health problems he had decided on the unpaid suspension. He arranged for Brown to take college classes at town expense on sexual harassment, cultural sensitivity and computer etiquette.
The e-mails Sugerman cited as evidence include one forwarded to Brown by Fran Garfunkel, who Brown said is the town attorney’s paralegal. “Now I know why I like our neighbors to the North,’’ it begins. ‘’Nothing they do is politically correct.’’
Another e-mail, about a “Texas girl’’ who shoots a Mexican and an Arab at a bar because her state has “so many illegal aliens,’’ was sent to Brown by Mary Haynes, city clerk of Peoria, Ill. Brown and Haynes won Quill awards from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, which certified them both as Master Clerks.
IIMC members sign a Code of Ethics promising that “the affairs of my office shall be above reproach’’ and “to so conduct my public and private life as to be an example to my fellow citizens.’’
“I don’t think this is the norm for these two ladies, I really don’t,’’ said Chris Shalby, executive director of the organization, adding he has known Brown and Haynes a long time. “It’s unfortunate.’’
This is not the first time Brown has hired an employment attorney. She sued Redington Beach in 2006 challenging that town’s extension of her six-month probationary status, the St. Petersburg Times reported. She was placed on paid leave, returned to work but resigned two months later, the Times said.
Before that she was town clerk in nearby Seminole for three years and in Shelton, Conn., for 30 years. Highland Beach hired her in 2007.
Brown has appealed the proposed suspension. The town must select an impartial hearing officer to review her case.
At the commission’s Feb. 1 meeting Vice Mayor Miriam Zwick said she had felt pressured to order Sugerman to rescind Brown’s suspension.
“This vote unfortunately allowed certain individuals to rush to judgment and use it as a wedge to unseat the manager, who had chosen to remain with his original proposal as being the correct, democratic process,’’ she said.
Commissioners voted 3-2 with Zwick and Commissioner John Pagliaro dissenting, to put Sugerman on paid suspension for five months. They also agreed to hold a special meeting to interview candidates for interim town manager.
Sugerman’s contract ends in June. He became town manager in 2005.