The Bradenton City Council is debating whether it can take action against Councilman Bill Sanders after an investigation determined that he used his position to harass municipal employees.
Over the past few months, a labor attorney, at the city’s behest, spoke to nearly 30 current and former city employees and officials to put together an 11-page report that concluded Sanders has shown a habit of “intimidating, abusive and threatening behavior.”
Sanders is accused of publicly embarrassing employees, misusing city resources and threatening to have workers fired. Those actions may have violated city rules and Florida law, the report said.
But Sanders, who declined to speak with investigators, has tried to discredit the report, calling it a series of “lies and innuendo.” He claimed that he should have been able to hear specific allegations from his accusers and suggested that the report was a coordinated effort to discredit an elected official.
The councilman, who was first elected to represent voters in parts of East Bradenton in 2018, has also said that he doubts the report will lead to any disciplinary action.
“In my opinion, I don’t think they’ll take action because I don’t think they can,” Sanders said. “The (city) charter is the Bible.”
Report suggests city action against Sanders
However, the report came to the conclusion that city officials should take any “appropriate” action to correct the situation but did not specify what that action should be.
While city leaders are reviewing different possibilities, Sanders is unlikely to be removed from office or face other severe punishment because of the report.
In a statement last week to the Bradenton Herald, City Administrator Rob Perry said Bradenton City Council members have to decide what the next steps are.
“The city has a legal obligation to protect the safety, productivity and well-being of our workforce from inappropriate and prohibited unprofessional conduct,” the statement said. “The matter is now in the hands of our elected officials to consider their legal authority to take the action they deem appropriate.”
Some City Council members said they were concerned with the findings of the report and hoped to move forward in a way that protects city staffers from misconduct.
“I’m still kind of processing it. It’s disturbing,” said Councilman Jayne Kocher. “I am not sure what the remedies are for us as a council, but I do feel responsible for making sure that we have a healthy environment for everybody.”
“I found the report disturbing, and I’m going to be speaking with several different attorneys to fully understand how this report can affect not only our employees but our citizens,” added Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey.
Councilwoman Pamela Coachman could not be reached for comment.
What does Bradenton’s city charter allow?
Councilman Patrick Roff argued that the city’s charter, which was first published in 1903, doesn’t allow city officials to take action against one another.
“There’s no action to be taken,” said Roff.
Roff previously suggested a comprehensive review of the charter in 2020. At that time, city officials declined to have an outside expert suggest improvements to the entire charter.
The Bradenton Herald’s review of the charter document did not reveal any specific rules or guidelines that would give one city official the power to punish another.
Mayor Gene Brown has a different interpretation of the city’s governing charter, which details the mayor’s powers to hold “city officers” accountable.
“There’s a couple of different options. It will be an agenda item at next month’s meeting,” said Brown, adding that he believes the charter gives him “fining power” against a council member.
The city attorney is still reviewing the charter to determine whether the mayor has the power to impose a monetary fine. It’s unclear what other options the city is considering taking against Sanders. Agendas have not been posted for Bradenton’s public meetings in September.
City leaders consider upcoming election
City officials also said they did not want the report or the action against Sanders to have an appearance of political tampering. Sanders is up for re-election in November. He is being challenged by Kurt Landefeld and Lisa Gonzalez Moore.
Council members said they planned to move cautiously, hoping to show accountability without tipping the scales in the election.
“I just don’t want to see this turned into a big political game, but we have to keep a good work environment for our staff,” Kocher said.
Citing Sanders’ election in November, Roff cautioned his fellow board members against taking any action.
“This is a time when there’s an election going on. The appearance has to be considered,” Roff noted. “The citizens will be deciding what direction they want to go very quickly. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
While the election process is a factor in the city’s upcoming decision, Brown said in a recent interview that officials must also weigh the importance of protecting city staff.
“My whole goal in all of this is basically to make sure the employees are safe and can do their job without fear,” Brown said.