Officials scramble in wake of city attorney resignation

Following a month-long probe  that produced a 21-page summation of the investigation, the latest Port St. Lucie City Attorney appears to have his work cut out for him.

In-fighting, allegations of sexism, gossip – the City Attorney’s Office climate seemingly has many of the hallmarks of legal TV dramas.

The abrupt change in leadership in the office was sparked by a complaint lodged to the City’s Human Resources Office. The complaint was that a male paralegal in the office is not held to the standards as the female paralegals. The subsequent investigation unearthed a myriad of problems under City Attorney Reggie Osenton’s watch.

Upon the publication of the HR Department’s report on Feb. 22, Osenton submitted his letter of resignation, effective immediately.

Council members accepted the resignation and approved Osenton’s severance package – to the tune of $87,260.

Vice Mayor Shannon Martin said during a special council meeting last week that she was unhappy with the financial arrangement but “chalked it up to the cost of doing business.”

The Council also moved forward with hiring James Stokes as the Director of the Legal Department. He will serve as the Interim City Attorney.

Stokes currently is the City of Sebastian’s part-time City Attorney and was the runner-up for the Port St. Lucie post in 2016, when the Council hired Osenton.

“He was my No. 1 choice,” Mayor Gregory Oravec said of Stokes; the only reason more council members didn’t support hiring Stokes at the time was his reluctance to relocate.

“We can’t un-ring the bell,” Oravec said of having hired Osenton, but the city can learn and move forward.

Stokes will be tasked with assessing the current staff within the City Attorney’s Office and enacting the numerous HR Department recommendations.

“We need to get that department working,” Martin said. “I’m just being really blunt about it.” She said they need to work as a team and, if they can’t, they need to be out.

How, exactly, Stokes will be able to provide the oversight and review of the office remains to be seen. Due to his commitment to Sebastian and other legal posts he holds, he has agreed to be physically in the Port St. Lucie City Attorney’s Office 24 hours a week.

He is expected to provide full-time service to the city as well as be available 24/7 by phone to council members.

The last time the City Attorney’s Office went through a transition, the council opted to bring in an outside legal firm. That arrangement cost Port St. Lucie $21,400 a month – an annual sum of $256,800, not counting expenses.

Stokes, however, will serve with a $200,000 annual salary. And in the event the city hires a permanent City Attorney, Stokes will remain at his current pay as “Consulting Attorney” until the end of his one-year term.

Like Osenton, Stokes will also receive a 10.5 percent contribution to a retirement account, according to his Letter of Engagement.

City Manager Russ Blackburn told the City Council during the special meeting that he has discussed the situation with Stokes, and that Stokes said he would be happy to serve in the interim.

Stokes was expected to meet with the legal department’s staff late last week.

“I heartily recommend and endorse him,” Blackburn said.

Council members were equally supportive of bringing in Stokes to restore order to the department.

Councilman John Carvelli said that Stokes needs to be made clear on what the council and city expects of him – including implementing the recommendations set forth by human resources.

The recommendations included having all staff – attorneys, paralegals and support – attend Harassment and Discrimination training, as well as undertaking team-building exercises to re-establish trust.

“This is a simplistic statement relative to the work that needs to be done to heal wounds that have been inflicted throughout the [City Attorney’s Office] staff,” the recommendations state.

Along with the allegations of disparate treatment between the male paralegal and the female paralegals, the investigation revealed that City Attorney Osenton might, himself, have engaged in sexist behavior.

According to the report, when Osenton was considering applicants for a staff attorney, his list of criteria included the word “Attractive.”

A male staff attorney sitting in with Osenton on the interview noticed the word and raised concern about it, according to the report. Osenton dismissed it as an old form he had used in his private practice.

“We found no hand-written notes on the evaluation forms that included the word ‘Attractive’ as a criterion for employment,” the Human Resources Department wrote in the report.

“Nor is there evidence that [City Attorney] Osenton used attractiveness as part of the criteria for selection of a candidate, but the fact that the word even appeared on an official form is objectionable.”

Either way, the form served as one more piece of evidence in the investigation.

Stokes is expected to review the staff, clarify job descriptions, come up with a system for assigning overtime, and ensure schedules and procedures are followed consistently.

And, to make sure that hiring practices following human resources policies and procedures, the department recommends a member of its staff sit in on all interviews to act as a monitor.   

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