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Facts first: Always the best way to go

January 3, 2020
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

A new year.

A new decade.

And an expedited attention to old business as both a controversy and a potentially pricey problem -- each at least a year in the making -- opened city business on the second day of 2020.

Cape Coral City Council on Thursday authorized a pair of outside investigations -- one criminal, one administrative -- in the wake of at least three previously announced probes being conducted by the city's police chief, its fire chief and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Council stopped short of placing City Manager John Szerlag on paid administrative leave before the investigations commence concerning the allegations, which were made by the city's Finance Director Victoria Bateman, are conducted.

Council opted instead to wait upon the recommendations of the outside entities to be hired as to whether Mr. Szerlag should continue at the city's administrative helm while the allegations are investigated.

Ms. Bateman, a nine-year city employee and department head, told Council via certified letter received by the mayor's office on Monday that her professional relationship with Mr. Szerlag went south after she refused to sign off on financial matters she believed to be imprudent, improper or even illegal -- allegations categorically denied by Mr. Szerlag Thursday.

Ms. Bateman alleges she was placed on administrative leave in November in retaliation for a series of refusals she says began in December of 2018 when she would not sign off on a plan to outsource maintenance at the city owned and operated golf course. She says the relationship cooled further after she refused to endorse an administration proposal to create an employee health clinic because she believes Council had not been properly informed as to its true start-up costs.

Ms. Bateman disputed what she called the ostensible reason -- an accounting error made by a Finance Department staffer who has since resigned.

The matter cited for the administrative leave is actually more complex.

The IRS penalized the city for mistakes made in its submitting of various employment taxes, underpaying FICA taxes at least once in the fall of 2018, remitting those taxes late in spring of 2019 and then overpaying in other months, according to information received by the city.

To say the feds did not take these errors lightly is an understatement.

The IRS slapped the city with fines and penalties and, in August, took nearly $400,000 in gas tax revenue the city was expecting to receive with a "moving target" of $402,000 in penalties and fees assessed.

Ms. Bateman, who had signed what should have been routine tax submission documents, said she became aware of the matter in late September, addressed it with both her team and the person responsible for the payments.

A city auditor's first inquiry shows that while the city did sometimes pay late, did sometimes pay incorrectly, the city may actually have overpaid.

Another inquiry is under way.

Mr. Szerlag, meanwhile, was informed throughout, Ms. Bateman wrote, and she took particular umbrage with statements she believes were made otherwise to individual Council members.

..."recent statements disclaiming knowledge of the IRS 941 issue is simply a bold-faced lie" Ms. Bateman wrote to the mayor and Council -- which, in November, unanimously approved both a contract extension for Mr. Szerlag and a salary bump before being fully informed regarding the tax issue boiling behind the scenes.

The matter is set to come again to Council on Monday with Police Chief David Newlan directed to contact FDLE in the interim, and City Attorney Dolores Menendez directed to contact the firm the city typically uses for outside administrative matters.

Based on the recommendations of those retained, Council will then re-review whether Mr. Szerlag should be placed on leave until those investigations are concluded.

For Mr. Szerlag, other allegations aside, both the failure to inform Council on a timely basis and a perceived lack of transparency also splintered into a parallel -- and significant -- issue of their own, one that alone has spawned rumbles of an early termination of Mr. Szerlag's contract.

A couple of things.

First, we will not weigh in on the allegations made by Ms. Bateman. We agree, that is what investigations are for: To formulate a finding of the facts through interviews with witnesses and the parties on both sides as well as a review of any and all evidence that may be available.

Until verifiable information is in hand, there should be no rush to judgment either way.

That approach is fair to all the parties -- and it's fiscally prudent.

These are the types of personnel matters that can lead to litigation and/or monetary payouts in their stead.

Absolutely, keep the probe on the priority track but Council was well advised not to sell tickets until the train arrives at the station.

Council's decision to almost immediately call for and hold the special meeting, despite the holiday, despite scheduling issues, also was prudent.

Council was presented with allegations involving one of the city's few employees who actually reports directly to the elective board and neither the source nor the accusations should -- or could -- be taken lightly.

Council's resultant call for the allegations to be investigated is consistent with the way Mr. Szerlag's own office and the city's Human Resources Department handles such situations.

Council's decision not to place Mr. Szerlag on paid leave while an inquiry is conducted?

Perhaps not as much in terms of consistency, but we agree there is wisdom in waiting for a recommendation from the outside entities.

And the parallel issue of who knew what when and whether Council was fully informed before it approved a contract extension and pending raise, before it voted on the employee health clinic, before a Council member had to ask for information on the matter related to the IRS?

This may be the linchpin of the Council's ultimate decision even if the investigations Mr. Szerlag said he welcomes go as he expects.


Two words, according to two members of Council: Trust and transparency.

Trust that the information and staff presentations upon which Council relies on for its financial decisions are not only accurate, but complete.

Transparency in the sense that information requested is promptly -- an wholly -- provided.

We'll add one more: Faith.

Faith that Mr. Szerlag has his finger on the pulse of the administrative beat of the city.

Faith that he remains a strong leader at the top.

Only Council, not anyone on the outside, will be able to determine that.

- Breeze editorial



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