Interim City Attorney wins praise for restoring order

In the months following his appointment to the City Attorney’s Office, Interim City Attorney Jim Stokes appears to be restoring order to a department that had been in disarray, mired in gossip and allegations of sexism.

“I know this is one of the things when you came here we had discussed,” Councilman John Carvelli said, addressing Interim City Attorney Stokes at a recent City Council meeting. “I appreciate your follow-through on this matter.”

Stokes reorganized the office, streamlined personnel’s titles and job duties, and brought in an Assistant City Attorney.

The City Attorney’s Office now has an Interim City Attorney, an Assistant City Attorney, a Chief Deputy City Attorney, and four Deputy City Attorneys.

The office came under scrutiny at the beginning of the year after a complaint to the Human Resources department prompted an investigation. The complaint was that a male paralegal in the office was not held to the standards as the female paralegals. The subsequent investigation unearthed a myriad of problems under previous City Attorney Reggie Osenton’s watch.

The 21-page report prompted Osenton’s immediate resignation at the end of February. The void was filled with Stokes, who also serves as the City Attorney in Sebastian, in northern Indian River County, albeit on a part-time basis.

Stokes was brought on with a full-time salary of $200,000. He is only physically in City Hall 24 hours per week, but is available to the council 24/7 by phone. His contract with the city is for 12 months. During that time, the council continues its search for the next permanent City Attorney. In the event it does hire a new City Attorney, Stokes will remain on board as a “consulting attorney” until his contract expires.

Along with streamlining staff titles, Stokes is expected to implement several recommendations handed down by the Human Resources department, which include all staff in the City Attorney’s Office attend harassment and discrimination training, along with undertaking team-building exercises to re-establish trust.

Aside from the concerns regarding how differently male and female paralegals were treated, the Human Resources investigation revealed that then-City Attorney Osenton himself might 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 a 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.”

Newly hired Assistant City Attorney Melany Crawford was selected by Stokes and affirmed by the City Council. “This appointment is pivotal to the reorganization of the [City Attorney’s Office] and will aid in providing better support for Council, management, staff and the citizens of Port St. Lucie,” Stokes wrote in his justification for the post.

Crawford is expected to act in place of the City Attorney as needed and “will be a pivotal part of the City’s executive team.”

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