Haines City mayor wants to return oversight of city clerk to city manager's office

·9 min read
City Hall Dowtown area in Haines City  Fl. Wednesday Oct. 20 2021.  ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER
City Hall Dowtown area in Haines City Fl. Wednesday Oct. 20 2021. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER

HAINES CITY — As issues continue to plague Haines City Clerk Erica Anderson, Mayor Anne Huffman wants the clerk's department brought back under the oversight of the city manager.

On the agenda for the special city commission meeting scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. is an item entitled "city clerk department discussion." The agenda simply states that the intent of the item is to "discuss the City Clerk's department and on going concerns."

The first order of business? Determining when the commission can expect Anderson back at work.

Mayor Anne Huffman wants the clerk's department brought back under the oversight of the city manager.
Mayor Anne Huffman wants the clerk's department brought back under the oversight of the city manager.

Previously: Haines City to pay $10,000 to get back into compliance with Florida sunshine laws

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At the June 16 commission meeting, Commissioner Morris West said that he'd been informed Anderson was out on family and medical leave, known as FMLA. Anderson was not present at that meeting and her role was assumed by the Deputy City Clerk, Erica Sanchez. City Manager Jim Elensky told The Ledger in a phone call Wednesday that Anderson was out on sick leave that day.

FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually, either all at once or intermittently.

According to Anderson's time card for the pay period between June 13 and June 24, her last recorded day in office was June 13. She worked from home June 14 and 15, though the option to work remotely ended in March for city employees, Huffman told The Ledger in a phone call Friday. The rest of the days on that time period are marked as either sick or a floating holiday.

According to an email sent by HR Director Veronica Hairston to Elensky on Wednesday, Anderson requested FMLA medical leave "and ADA accommodation for medical leave" on June 27 - two weeks after her last day in the office. Hairston said that Anderson had inquired about FMLA two weeks prior to June 27.

"Based on the number of hours Erica has worked and the fact that she has noticed to HR that she has developed a serious health condition that makes her unable to complete her essential work functions, she is eligible for FMLA," Hairston said. "We prepared all the necessary forms and sent them to her."

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Anderson informed commissioners via email June 28 that she had requested FMLA leave. She also told commissioners that her job would be taken over by Sanchez.

Hairston said that Anderson has until July 18 to return her medical documents for FMLA.

That's one of the things Huffman intends to challenge Tuesday: she thinks the 15-day window to turn in those forms should have started ticking June 17. Huffman said that the situation is "getting kind of murky" and that she's just "baffled by the whole thing."

"It's a hot mess," Huffman said. "The residents deserve more and we just don't know where she is."

Huffman said she also intends to ask Reilly whether Anderson's city-leased car and gas card, which Anderson is cleared to use for both business and personal use, will be returned to the city while Anderson is gone.

The pending questions about Anderson's absence and extended leave has brought to light how little commissioners observe about city hall on a daily basis. Huffman said she only goes to city hall three to four times a month and commissioners don't have offices there. Huffman intends to ask Reilly about how they can go about rectifying that issue.

"I'm going to point out the fact that although the five commissioners are the ones Erica reports to, we are not accessible on a day-to-day basis to provide oversight," Huffman said. "I'm going to ask Fred what can we do in order to place that department under the city manager."

The city manager used to directly supervise the clerk's office. Huffman said in 2021, voters approved a referendum making the clerk's office an independent entity under the supervision of the city commission. Huffman said the change was requested by the previous clerk, Linda Bourgeois, who wanted to be able to hire, fire and reprimand her own employees.

"I feel that the voters got it wrong in 2021," Huffman said. "It needed to stay just like it was."

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For reference, in Lakeland, the city clerk reports to the finance director. And in Winter Haven, although the city clerk is hired by the city commissioners, the day-to-day operations of the department are overseen by the city manager.

In Haines City, the city clerk is one of three positions, alongside the city manager and city attorney, that serves at the pleasure of the city commission.

Huffman said she wants the clerk's department back under the city manager's watch at least for practical matters, such as payroll. On Monday, the city's finance department struggled to get in touch with Anderson to approve her department's time cards.

Haines City Clerk Erica Anderson
Haines City Clerk Erica Anderson

"Your department is the final to submit and is holding up payroll," Deputy Finance Director Andrea Henley-Pratt told Anderson in an email.

But maintaining the chain of command within the clerk's department is something Anderson has stressed.

On Tuesday, Anderson sent an email to Sanchez to be shared with her staff, saying that she was going to be out of office "for an undisclosed period of time." In that email, Anderson sought to clear up some talk about miscommunication amongst her staff.

Anderson also emphasized keeping concerns generated within her department from going other places.

"If there are any concerns, please follow chain of command to thwart any issues. Chain of command does not extend outside the City Clerks department. If you have any concerns, please follow the city's personnel handbook and speak with your supervisor," Anderson wrote. "I would advise ALL staff, if you're not sure about something, go to your supervisor first to prevent any unnecessary misinformation or embarrassments to the department or yourselves."

Issues pile up for clerk's office

Anderson's extended absence comes at a tumultuous time for the clerk's office.

The city is moving forward with paying American High-Tech Transcription and Reporting more than $10,000 to transcribe nearly 40 meetings worth of minutes that are missing for the city commission, planning commission and community redevelopment agency.

The city clerk is responsible for city commission minutes and the deputy city clerk is responsible for minutes generated by the other boards. Sanchez said that Bourgeois, the former city clerk, was caught up on her minutes before she left in 2020. What had fallen behind were the minutes generated by the deputy city clerk, a role at the time taken by Anderson.

Elensky said there is not money available in the clerk's budget for the transcription service. The money is going to be transferred from the contingency budget, Elensky told The Ledger in a text message.

The city had previously been paying a temporary employee $23.75 an hour to transcribe minutes for half the day and serve as a receptionist for half the day. Anderson said in her email to staff that the afternoon receptionist position has now been filled.

City commissioners also sparred over a letter sent by Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards concerning Anderson's oversight of the 2022 election, saying that she had never seen "such a pattern of irresponsibility."

Commissioners expressed concerns months ago

Commissioners have a chance once a year to review Anderson's performance. They were last called to do so at the end of 2021; evaluations were due December 6, though only one commissioner, Roy Tyler, turned in the evaluation on time. The last evaluation was turned in Feb. 2 by Huffman.

The Ledger received these evaluations through a public records request and found commissioners had the opportunity to rank Anderson's performance on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being the highest, on a variety of factors and could also choose to leave comments.

Anderson earned an overall rating of 4.40. Her lowest overall score was in daily operations, at 3.80.

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Tyler gave Anderson the lowest overall scores, with an average score of 2.92.

Under daily operations, Tyler said that "timely submission of records and attendance at advisory committee needs does not appear to be consistently maintained."

Tyler has questioned in meetings over the past couple of months how the backlog of minutes the city needs to clear up to get back in compliance with Florida Sunshine laws was allowed to grow so large. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Huffman thinks oversight from the city manager's office may solve the problem.

"I just feel that if [the clerk's department] had remained under the city manager ... that we would have known about minutes not being in the system a whole lot earlier," Huffman said.

The first list of missing minutes was generated in November. Huffman has previously said that she assumed the issue was solved before submitting her evaluation in February, when she said that Anderson had "exceeded" her expectations and that she was impressed with her professionalism and reliability. A new list of missing minutes was generated in May.

Like Tyler, Huffman said in her evaluation that she wanted to see "more consistency in providing minutes in a more timely fashion."

Also: Haines City delays decision for youth football teams jockeying for use of a field

Sanchez will take over the city clerk's duties until Anderson returns. Elensky said in a phone call with The Ledger Wednesday that he's going to bring up Sanchez's pay in front of the commission to see if she can be compensated at Anderson's level for the additional responsibilities she's taking on.

Also at the upcoming meeting, city commissioners could determine which local football team — or teams — will be granted permission to use Myers & Wiley Field.

The decision was delayed over a week to accommodate City Attorney Fred Reilly's vacation days, despite the fact that the football season has already started.

Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at mlora@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora. 

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Haines City commission to discuss city clerk's absence Tuesday