Gainesville City Council members refused Wednesday to discuss whether they properly awarded former City Manager Bryan Shuler a $76,000 severance package when he resigned suddenly last month amid allegations of sexual harassment.
They also declined to discuss why they said Shuler was leaving to care for his ailing parents, though e-mails obtained by The Times showed council members were discussing the harassment allegations a week before Shuler quit.
Two members said Wednesday the city’s attorneys have advised them not to discuss the issue.
But Councilman Danny Dunagan conceded he hid allegations, made in an anonymous letter, that Shuler had sexually harassed a city employee.
"I was just trying to protect him, but that’s it. No comment," Dunagan said.
The severance package Mayor Myrtle Figueras outlined in a Nov. 17 letter to Shuler awards the former city manager $71,012.80 in pay over the next six months, $3,600 of which is a monthly allowance Shuler receives for using his vehicle on city business.
The package also adds another $5,393.05 to Shuler’s 457(b) government retirement plan, according to Gainesville’s Human Resources Director Joan Sheffield.
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 severance pay does not apply to a voluntary resignation, according to the employment agreement.
Shuler, an 11-year city employee, resigned Nov. 13, three days after he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the anonymous letter, which alleged that records from Shuler’s city cell phone showed he had been calling and sending text messages to a city employee at late hours.
Efforts to reach Shuler since Tuesday have been unsuccessful.
Council members either refused comment on questions about why they tried to hide the allegations of sexual harassment from the public or did not return phone calls Wednesday from The Times.
Documents obtained by The Times through an Open Records Act request, including e-mails between council members, show that members knew about the allegations for at least a week prior to the resignation.
A series of e-mails between Figueras, Dunagan and council members Robert "Bob" Hamrick and George Wangemann show that they arranged meetings at the mayor’s home to discuss the allegations.
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner was not included in the e-mail conversation because she was out of the country at the time.
At 5 a.m. Nov. 11, Figueras sent an e-mail to the three councilmen, the last she would send on the matter before Shuler resigned two days later.
"My prayer is that we will be able to make decisions that consider the depth of all human lives that are affected; yet have the strength to do what our oath requires in protection of our City," the mayor wrote.
Wangemann told The Times on Wednesday that attorneys Sam Harben Jr. and James E. "Bubba" Palmour had advised him not to speak about the circumstances surrounding Shuler’s resignation in a recent executive session.
Palmour is Gainesville’s city attorney. Harben consults the city’s personnel board.
"Our attorneys told me I wasn’t to talk to anybody on this case anymore, you know, just because of possible pending litigation," Wangemann said.
Hamrick also deferred all questions to the two attorneys, neither of whom returned phone calls Wednesday from The Times.
Figueras and Bruner also did not return multiple messages left for them Wednesday.
When Shuler resigned, council members said they were shocked at his sudden resignation. They stood by a statement that Shuler was leaving the city to care for his ailing parents in South Carolina, and agreed to a severance package that awarded the former city manager six-months’ pay.
The terms of Shuler’s severance package are subject to the council’s interpretation, Sheffield said Wednesday.
"That would be out of my scope of duties," she said. "It would fall back on the mayor and council to evaluate the circumstances and make a decision on how they wanted to handle that severance. I would just administer whatever it is that they directed me to do."
Dunagan refused to comment Wednesday on whether Shuler violated city policy or if he agreed to place Shuler on administrative leave.
A week after Shuler’s resignation, however, Dunagan acknowledged the anonymous letter that preceded Shuler’s resignation.
"It was an anonymous letter, that’s all I know," Dunagan said on Nov. 20. "I have not seen anything in writing to show that (the allegations) were true. ... I don’t take too much factual about a letter that’s not signed; I think if you’re going to write a letter, you need to sign it."
An initial investigation by Sheffield turned up scant evidence of sexual harassment, according to documents obtained by The Times.
The documents detail the content of a few text message exchanges from Shuler’s phone in which he compliments someone on his or her looks and says, "You can leave with me any time you want."
Sheffield turned the investigation over to the mayor on Nov. 4, she said. Six days later, Figueras placed Shuler on paid administrative leave. Shuler resigned, effective immediately, Nov. 13.
On Wednesday, Sheffield said she still stands by a statement she made two weeks ago that she did not think Shuler sexually harassed anyone.
"It’s certainly damaged a lot of people’s lives, and I would just like this whole thing to dissipate," she said.