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Shuler to get 11 weeks of severance pay

Gainesville council split 3-2 on deal for former manager

POSTED: December 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Former Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler will receive an 11-week severance package, one week for each year he worked for the city, a divided City Council decided Thursday morning.

With a 3-2 vote, the council agreed to pay Shuler a total of $28,520.80. Mayor Myrtle Figueras referred to the decision as a "financial settlement" with Shuler, who resigned suddenly last month, just days after he was placed on administrative leave while officials investigated sexual harassment allegations against him.

Shuler, who did not return a message The Times left for him Thursday, will not receive his automobile allowance or any other benefits.

Councilman Danny Dunagan proposed to give Shuler the 11-week severance in a called council meeting Thursday, and his motion immediately was seconded by Councilman George Wangemann.

Figueras also voted for the proposed compensation.

Council members Robert "Bob" Hamrick and Ruth Bruner voted against Dunagan’s proposal.

Earlier in the meeting, Bruner had made an unsuccessful motion to pay Shuler six months of severance pay minus any benefits that dealt with travel.

Her motion died for a lack of a second.

In making her motion, Bruner, who was out of the country last month when the rest of the council unanimously voted to accept Shuler’s resignation letter, said she wanted "to honor the first decision that was made" regardless of the city’s financial difficulties.

Shuler’s resignation letter said he would receive a six-month severance package including his car allowance and retirement contribution.

"That was what was agreed to when the letter was read to the council," Bruner said. "I’m not disagreeing with that decision at all, but you thought it was the right thing to do at the time. And if it was the right thing then, my feeling is it’s still the right thing, and when you give your word I think your word should mean something."

Other council members said their vote to accept Shuler’s resignation letter on Nov. 13 had nothing to do with a decision on his severance, however.

Hamrick did not support either of the motions presented Thursday. After the meeting, Hamrick said he would not have voted for any post-employment compensation for Shuler.

"I just felt like he wasn’t entitled to it — that’s it," Hamrick said without further comment.

Because Shuler voluntarily resigned — citing a need to care for his elderly parents — Shuler’s employment agreement did not entitle him to a severance package.

However, city officials said the council has the power to override the terms of his employment agreement and give Shuler, who served the city for 11 years, post-employment compensation.

Shuler’s abrupt resignation on Nov. 13 came three days after Figueras placed him on paid administrative leave so she could investigate an anonymous allegation that Shuler had sexually harassed two city employees. The allegations, made in an anonymous letter to the city’s Human Resources director, stated Shuler’s cell phone records show late-night phone calls and text messages to city employees.

Documents The Times obtained through an Open Records Act request detail the content of a few text message exchanges from Shuler’s city-owned BlackBerry in which he compliments someone on his or her looks and says, "You can leave with me any time you want."

A note from Human Resources Director Joan Sheffield to the city’s mayor also notes that phone numbers of two city employees "repeatedly appear at unusually late hours" on Shuler’s phone bill.

Sam Harben, an attorney for the city’s personnel board, said the mayor was not able to find evidence Shuler had sexually harassed anyone by the time he resigned.

The former city manager did not return a call from The Times’ on Thursday and previously has declined to comment on the matter, leaving his resignation letter as the only clue to what he expected from the city upon his departure.

"I understand I will receive my compensation and benefits for the following six months as provided by my employment contract," Shuler wrote in his Nov. 13 letter to the City Council.

A letter drafted for the mayor by city staff seemingly validated Shuler’s assumption. The letter promises the former city manager that he will receive $5,185.60 every other week and another $600 each month for a vehicle allowance, and that the city will put money into his retirement fund until his six-month severance period ends on May 17.

That letter was never sent, according to Harben. The mayor previously has said she never saw the letter.

Shuler will receive his 11 weeks’ pay in a lump sum, according to a news release the city sent out less than 10 minutes after the council voted Thursday morning.

Dunagan said paying Shuler for every week of service was "a rule of thumb" with many companies. Dalton awarded its former city administrator a similar severance package when he immediately resigned in July for personal reasons.

"It just felt like the right thing to do, and that’s where I came up with it," Dunagan said.

The decision was a compromise for Wangemann, who said the 11-week severance was in the best interest of the city and Shuler.

"He’s been a good manager to us, you know, for a number of years. ... I just felt that this was probably the best we could have done for Bryan and yet not give away the store, so to speak, from the city’s point of view," Wangemann said. "Certainly the taxpayers must be considered in this whole thing, so you might say it was a compromise. And I realize a compromise is not going to satisfy everybody, but yet I think we did the best we could for both parties involved."

Although they differed on how Shuler should be compensated, all the council members except Hamrick seemed to feel the former city manager should receive something for his time at the city despite the circumstances surrounding his departure.

"Not everything in life is so black and white, and this is one of those gray areas, I think," Wangemann said. "I would say that anybody in our position that worked with Bryan for as long as we did and ... received good service as a manager from him for that period of time has to have at least some compassion for Bryan and not leave him high and dry."

Thursday, Bruner said Shuler had been an adept city employee. Dunagan, too, has said more than once since Shuler’s resignation that Shuler was a competent city manager.

Taking into consideration Shuler’s past performance and the current economic situation, Bruner said "it was realistic to think he needed six months’ severance."

"I felt like he had done a great deal for the city and had been a very efficient manager of our finances and our budget and has done a lot to save the city money over the years. ... I felt like he deserved compensation," Bruner said. "... Whether he ended up actually deserving it or not, I thought that we should recognize the good job he did for the city and really try to help him salvage his career by letting him have time to find another job, because I think he could be a valuable asset to another city or another county."

The mayor, who cast the deciding vote to give Shuler 11 weeks worth of post-employment compensation Thursday, twice refused to comment to The Times about her vote.

She later spoke about the decision with Bruner at a separate engagement, however.

"I vote with my heart all the time, and politically, I guess that’s not good," Figueras told Bruner.



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