Mount Dora Council discusses workplace harassment findings against its attorney

by David Cohea

Results of labor attorney Dorothy Green’s investigation into allegations of harassment Mount Dora city attorney Lonnie Groot were discussed at an April 4 work session of Mount Dora citcy council.

In early September, Mount Dora Human Resources director Ken Bloom asked Green to investigate a complaint of harassment and intimidation against Groot filed by John Peters, the city’s Public Works Director. In the course of her investigation, it became apparent that another city employee, city clerk Gwen Johns, felt she had suffered similar treatment by Groot but had not filed a claim in fear of retaliation. Her complaints were added to the investigation. Interviews with other city employees revealed similar concerns about Groot.

In her March 22 report to Bloom, Green concluded that while there was not enough evidence to support claims of harassment under federal or state discrimination statutes, she still found Groot had created a hostile work environment in violation the City’s harassment policy, and stated it was up to Council to decide what to do.

(Green’s report is posted on the city website and can be read here.)

Groot denies any fault and calls the investigation “a travesty.” In a Dec. 12 email to Green included in her report, Groot writes, “the complaints, at best, are indicative of a lack of professionalism and sophistication by certain employees and, at worst, indicative of bad motives.” He goes on to write, “The baseless complaints would call for for some form of disciplinary action against the complaintants for abusing the complaint process in that policy.”

Saying that a report like this was bound to result in varying opinions on Council, Mayor Girone limited discussion of the matter at the meeting. He said he should meet first with William Colbert (the head of the legal firm which retains Groot) before moving ahead with any decision making. (Neither Colbert or Groot was present at the meeting.)

What comment there was from council members indicates that reaching a decision about what to do with Groot in light of the report will be difficult.

Cal Rolfson wondered how such a strongly-voiced opinion by Green about workplace harassment could be so stridently denied by Mr. Groot. He also wondered how this cannot make the city itself look bad. “If these complaining witnesses are so pathetic and unsophisticated, is that not an affront to the manager and those who employ the manager?”

New member of council John Tucker found Mr Groot’s “bloviating, unrelenting attacks” on staff disheartening. “Hopefully from this day out, if Mr. Groot’s law firm is lucky enough to continue, eomployees will will be treated with respect.

Cathy Hoescht, the other new member of council, didn’t see how Mr. Groot’s manner could change having denied any fault. She also worried about a meeting between the mayor, city manager and William Colbert to discuss Groot won’t have legal representation with the city’s interests in mind.

Members of council who voted Groot in last spring fell short of suggesting any serious action — in some cases, way short. Mark Crail said that while Groot’s qualifications were not at issue, his ability to develop and maintain professional relationships with City staff is a problem, and hoped Groot was ready and able to change.

Mayor Grione assured Council he was capable of acting ethically in the meeting with Colbert. “Trust me,” he said. Laurie Tillett wondered why the issues couldn’t have been dealt with better when they were occurring and agreed that William Colbert’s input was needed.

Mark Slaby faulted the report as incomplete, saying the labor attorney conducting the investigation was “intellectually lazy.” He added that council should not assasinate the character of any one person involved until all the facts come out. He felt Council should do its own investigation.

Public comment was not allowed. A meeting was scheduled for April 10 at 7 p.m. to further discuss appropriate actions to take with Groot, if any.

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