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Former Gainesville city manager was accused of sexual harassment

Mayor put Shuler on administrative leave 3 days before he resigned

POSTED: December 11, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Former Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler was placed on administrative leave three days before he resigned while officials investigated anonymous allegations of sexual harassment, city records show.

The records, obtained by The Times through an Open Records Act request, contradict statements by Shuler and other city officials that he resigned immediately on Nov. 13 to care for his ailing parents.

Among the records obtained by the newspaper was an anonymous letter that accused Shuler of sexual harassment. The letter was sent to Joan Sheffield, the city’s human resources director, who said she received the letter on Nov. 3.

The city has only released an edited version of the letter, removing the names of employees involved, and has refused three requests from The Times to produce the unedited letter.

An attorney for the Georgia Press Association said the complaint is a public document and should be released unedited. City officials disagree, saying they can’t release the letter without violating privacy rights of the employees.

When Shuler resigned, council members said his contract entitled him to six months severance pay and benefits. But the employment agreement, obtained by The Times, shows the severance package does not apply if Shuler resigns.

Messages left on the voice mail of Shuler’s personal phone seeking comment were not immediately returned Tuesday night.

The anonymous letter accused Shuler, an 11-year city employee, of harassment and said that records from Shuler’s city cell phone showed he had been calling and sending text messages to a city employee at late hours.

"I want this letter to serve as official notice that sexual harassment is occurring in the City workplace (sic)," the letter read. "It makes the entire city a hostile work environment since it is being done by the City Manager."

But Sheffield, who initially investigated the allegations, said that she does not believe the former city manager sexually harassed anyone.

"No, quite frankly, I’m not convinced he has," Sheffield said in an interview with The Times on Nov. 21. "I think he’s a fine individual, and I wish him well, and I just think this whole thing is very unfortunate."

The city released text messages from Shuler’s city cell phone. The records show a number of texts to someone after hours and on weekends, some as late as 2 a.m. The texts appeared to be casual banter with no sexual overtones.

Although city officials said they were surprised by Shuler’s sudden resignation, the documents obtained by The Times show that council members knew about the allegations for at least a week prior to the resignation.

In her Nov. 10 letter informing Shuler he was being placed on administrative leave, Mayor Myrtle Figueras said she and council member Ruth Bruner had discussed the allegations with Shuler the previous week.

Sheffield said then-Assistant City Manager Kip Padgett also received the anonymous letter, and after some initial research, Sheffield said she turned the matter over to Mayor Myrtle Figueras on Nov. 4.

"Before any kind of witch hunt was launched, I felt like we needed to do some research and find out if there was any merit whatsoever (to the letter’s claims)," Sheffield said on Nov. 21. "Once I started into the research, I realized there may be a possibility that the mayor needed to take a look at it."

Documents obtained by The Times show that Sheffield wrote to Figueras on Nov. 4 about phone records Sheffield had given to Figueras.

"I reviewed the bills very hurriedly for about an hour prior to seeing you today," Sheffield wrote to Figueras. "I noted on some of the bills where these numbers repeatedly appear at unusually late hours."

In that letter, Sheffield advised Figueras to meet the next day with Sam Harben, an attorney who works with the city’s personnel board and advised the city on the newspaper’s open records request.

"I gave Sam a quick overview, but advised him that this was a very delicate matter that Kip and I wanted no part in investigating," Sheffield wrote. "He assured me he would meet with you and give you clear counsel as to what your future actions might be. Good luck tomorrow. ... I will be praying for you extra hard during these troubling times."

Figueras wrote a letter to Shuler the following Monday placing him on administrative leave. In the letter, she advised Shuler that he should surrender his keys and BlackBerry to her while she investigated the matter.

Figueras also directed Shuler to not have contact with any city employee or "discuss this matter with anyone while I am conducting my investigation."

Shuler resigned three days later, citing his parents’ failing health. At the time, Shuler refused to comment to The Times about his parents’ condition.

Immediately following Shuler’s resignation, Gainesville council members maintained that Shuler’s resignation was due to his parent’s failing health, but said that City Attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour advised them not to discuss the circumstances surrounding the former city manager’s resignation other than the contents of Shuler’s resignation letter.

Interim City Manager Kip Padgett in turn instructed city department directors not to discuss Shuler’s departure.

"The reason for (Shuler’s) departure was made very clear in his letter to council," Padgett wrote in an e-mail two days after Shuler’s resignation. "The suddenness and timing of his departure was a personal decision for Bryan and should be the concern of no one, except City Council. Human nature makes one inquisitive and rumors have been swirling for days.

"I am asking each of you to meet with your employees or division managers and remind everyone of their commitment to our city," he continued. "Rumors will not be tolerated."

Shuler’s employment agreement gives him six months’ salary and benefit coverage if he is fired before the "expiration of the term of employment." The six months’ severance pay does not apply to a voluntary resignation, according to the employment agreement.

The agreement states that if Shuler is terminated because he engaged in "unprofessional or improper practice," then he can be fired without any severance pay. It also states that if Shuler voluntarily resigns, he must give the city 60 days written notice "unless the parties otherwise agree."

The agreement states Shuler’s annual initial base salary is $102,000 and allows him a $600 vehicle allowance each month. The agreement was first signed in 2002.

The details of Shuler’s actual severance package are outlined in a Nov. 17 letter from Figueras to the former city manager.

"Under the terms of your employment contract, you will receive six months of aggregate salary and continued benefit coverage," Figueras wrote. "As I understand your preference at this point, the payout will be provided over the next six months on a bi-weekly basis. Included in this compensation is your monthly car allowance. ... Upon completion of the severance period, you will be paid for your accrued vacation leave. At present that leave accrual is capped at 300 hours."



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