Charlie Wilson set to retire amid allegations of harassment

Maybe there was no better way to go, given the unusual circumstances under which Wesley Davis became the Indian River County Property Appraiser two-plus years ago and the challenges he faced as he embarked on his vision for the office.

Maybe bringing in the sometimes-abrasive, no-nonsense Charlie Wilson as one of his top lieutenants was necessary to push through ambitious and much-needed technological changes to the agency’s operations.

Maybe, even now that Wilson has announced he will retire as Davis’ director of communications and governmental affairs on May 1 – amid alarming allegations by staff members of “harassment,” “intimidation,” “bullying” and “retaliation” – it was worth all the turmoil.

“Is Charlie the most popular guy in the office? No,” Davis said last week, addressing the complaints about Wilson. “He’s not the most popular guy in a lot of places. But he does his job, and he does it well.”

Wilson’s job, among other duties, was to make sure Davis achieved his three major initiatives: installing an online system that enables residents to remotely apply for homestead exemptions; remodeling and upgrading the agency’s website; and improving customer service by simplifying the homestead application process.

Wilson said his efforts to implement the changes Davis wanted were “met with some resistance” from longtime staffers, some of whom questioned his motives, tactics and authority.

“I make a terrible government employee, because I understand things like deadlines,” Wilson said. “I was there two years and three months, which was probably two years and two months too long. But now my work is done.

“We’ve made the Property Appraiser’s Office more transparent, more efficient and more accessible to the public, particularly through technology, and that’s what I was asked to do,” he explained. “Sometimes, you have to rattle the cage to get things done for the public, and there were times when I had to be the tough guy.

“But I didn’t bully anybody,” Wilson continued. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t regret anything I did. I apologize if I made a few people uncomfortable along the way, but I accomplished my tasks.”

He paused for a moment, then added, “Are there some people in that office who are happy to see me retire? Absolutely.”

I can’t help but wonder if Davis is one of those people, though he’d never say so publicly.

The relationship between the two men dates back to 2008, when Wilson headed Davis’ campaign for re-election to the County Commission. Wilson also played a significant role on the transition team Davis brought to the Property Appraiser’s Office, where some staffers weren’t overly welcoming.

Remember: In 2016, Davis challenged – and lost to – David Nolte, who won a 10th consecutive four-year term as Property Appraiser.

When Nolte died in November 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed Davis to serve the two years remaining of Nolte’s term, choosing the former school board member and county commissioner over three other applicants.

One of those applicants was Assistant Property Appraiser Helen “Sissy” Long, who Nolte endorsed in a letter written to Scott days before his death.

Davis said Scott’s decision to name him rather than Long “didn’t sit well” with some of the office’s longtime employees, and that Wilson’s take-charge approach “ruffled some feathers.”

“Change isn’t an easy thing, especially after your predecessor has been there for nearly 40 years, and some of the things I’m trying to do differently were not well-received,” Davis said.

“So, you have to look at both sides.

“It wasn’t just Charlie,” he added. “It takes two to tango.”

Actually, more than two staffers complained about Wilson’s conduct, which, according to documents provided by Davis, has been a topic of discussion as far back as July 2019.

In a meeting attended by Davis and staff members to discuss “issues with Charlie Wilson,” five different staffers voiced complaints that included allegations he:

  • Purposefully pitted staffers against each other.
  • Bullied and intimidated staffers to get tasks completed the way he wanted them done.
  • Used his reputation as Davis’ henchman to manipulate staffers into agreeing to ideas they didn’t agree with, sometimes threatening retaliation that included the loss of their jobs.
  • Invaded staffers’ privacy by standing outside of offices and listening to private conversations.
  • Didn’t listen to advice given by staffers that collectively had more than 160 years of experience.

More recently, Davis ordered an in-house investigation into complaints stemming from a September incident involving Wilson quizzing the agency’s front-office staff about the application process for homestead exemptions.

During the investigation, staffers were interviewed, statements were taken, videos were reviewed, and reports were filed, after which Davis accepted its findings – that there was no evidence to support allegations that Wilson in that incident had bullied staffers, retaliated against them, or acted outside the chain of command and beyond his authority.

In other words, Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing.

At the end of his report to Davis, Operations Director Rick Baker described the incident as a “misunderstanding” that was “overblown,” attributing the staffers’ reactions to “Charlie’s persona.”

When asked about the allegations against Wilson, Davis didn’t dodge the issue.

He returned every call, answered every question and immediately responded to every public-records request, providing documents that contained the staffers’ allegations against Wilson.

“You can see from our report: We took it seriously,” Davis said. “We did what needed to be done, and probably more. We investigated. We talked to the people involved. We reviewed the statements and the evidence. We handled it the right way.”

Still, Wilson’s decision last week – after being informed this column was coming – to move up his planned departure date from Sept. 30 to May 1 was curious. Also interesting is what looks like an attempt to flip the script and portray himself as the victim in the matter.

In his resignation letter to Davis, Wilson wrote that he would be retiring “earlier than expected,” explaining that “recent events have taken a dangerous toll on my health.”

In a March 4 email to Davis, Wilson appeared to be laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against the Property Appraiser’s Office, claiming to be a “victim of a hostile workplace” that has affected his health, hurt his financial status and damaged his character and reputation.

He wrote that his ability to defend himself “has been compromised,” and he said last weekend that he was never given the opportunity to contest the staffers’ allegations against him. He also told Vero Beach 32963 he has been hospitalized twice in the past two months.

He blamed his problems on the agency’s managers – not the staffers, who he said were merely “misinformed” about his role and authority.

Wilson’s email brought a strong response from Baker, who recommended in a March 10 email that Davis allow Wilson to resign “to help you diffuse a toxic situation” in the office.

Baker, who stated that he was “once an ardent advocate” for Wilson, took exception to Wilson’s claim that he’s a victim.

“That is nonsense, and completely a figment of his imagination,” Baker wrote. “He has directly affected his own health and lack of status in the office and should not blame the rest of the staff for their attitude or reaction to his personality.”

Clearly, Wilson’s relationship with the Property Appraiser’s Office is in tatters. He knows it. Baker knows it. Surely, Davis knows it.

“They’re scared of me,” Wilson said of the staff. “They were scared of me when I first got there.

“I’m 70 years old and I’ve had health issues,” Wilson said. “It’s time to retire.”

He’ll get no argument here.

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