The Haines City Commission was slated Wednesday night to hold a special meeting to determine if City Manager Edward Dean should be fired following accusations that he’d spread false information about a prominent developer.
Garrett Kenny, CEO of Feltrim Group, threatened a defamation lawsuit but later inked a deal with the city, saying he wouldn’t sue if the city agreed to pick up more of the tab for his planned downtown revitalization project.
But the special meeting about Dean’s employment was canceled hours before it was to begin after a new development came to light: The city manager, who’s only been on the job a year and staved off an earlier termination threat just two months ago, is gearing up to sue the city.
City Attorney Fred Reilly sent an email to commissioners at 1:30 p.m. saying that he’d been notified by Dean’s attorney, Louis Baptiste, about his intent to sue. Reilly said in the email that Dean is alleging whistle-blower claims, charter violations, Sunshine violations, and a prospective civil rights claim against the city.
Baptiste did not return a phone call seeking comment, and the letter of intent to sue received by Reilly was not provided to GrowthSpotter as of Wednesday evening.
In the email to commissioners, Reilly said that Baptiste planned to present a proposal to initiate settlement negotiations soon and recommended that the special meeting be canceled.
“In light of the Whistle-blower claim contained in the Notice of Intent to Sue, the indication by Attorney Baptiste that a proposal is imminent and the formal request for cancellation of the Special Meeting by Attorney Baptiste, I do not recommend that the City Commission take any action with respect to City Manager Dean’s employment status and I recommend that the Special Meeting be canceled.”
Reached by telephone, Dean declined to comment on the matter.
Dean, who earns a salary of $155,000, has faced scrutiny since his tenure began in October.
When he was narrowly voted in Aug. 24, Commissioner Anne Huffman, his most vocal critic, told him: “When you fall short, I will be the first to let you know.”
In February, less than four months after Dean started, Huffman made a motion to terminate the manager, calling into question contracts he’s inked without commission consent and purchases to restaurants he’d made using the city’s credit card.
She also accused Dean of attempting to alter the scope of a downtown development project that the city and developer, Feltrim, had agreed to in 2020.
Kenny, with Feltrim, is under contract for a downtown renovation project in which he’s committed to build 110 apartment units, retail space totaling 11,000 square feet, 5,000 square feet of office space and a parking garage. The project carried an expected price tag of between $12 million and $15 million.
The city agreed to give Feltrim some tax incentives, municipal utility exemptions and a zero-percent interest loan not to exceed $250,000 to investigate the viability of the project.
Huffman claimed Dean, without commission consent, attempted to modify the design from three stories to six stories. She also claims that Dean’s new plans axed the apartments from the original plan and relocated them at a cost that’s $338,000 higher than what the city originally approved.
At the special meeting on Feb. 22, Dean said he’s done nothing wrong.
In defending actions he’s taken so far during his brief tenure, he said he’s made “substantial progress.”
He came into the city at a challenging time, he said, tasked with filling ten vacant leadership positions. He said he’d already gotten close to securing grant money to help improve outdated city infrastructure that’s more than 150 years old.
Dean called the allegations charged against him “meritless” — actions he’s taken that are “standard operating procedures” for a manager, he said.
He told commissioners, “If there’s anything wrong, work with me. All I ask for is a fair opportunity.”
The commission ultimately voted 3-2 to keep Dean on as manager, with Mayor Morris West warning that he’d be watching.
The challenges for Dean immediately started up again. Days after that special meeting ended, Peter Hagood, an attorney representing Kenny, emailed City Attorney Reilly threatening legal action against the city manager.
In his email, he included correspondence that was sent to Kenny the day before from Cyndi Jantomaso, President/CEO of Haines City Economic Development Council.
“I was told from the City Manager that you pulled out of the project, due to lack of funds,” Jantomaso wrote. “Is that true? If not, I would love to work with you on this project.”
Kenny, who could not be reached for comment, has not pulled out of the project.
Feltrim Group maintains a permanent office in Haines City and has completed several projects in the city, including the Balmoral Resort development, along with its Feltrim Sports athletic complex and academy, and Tarpon Bay, which he sold to Park Square Homes. He’s also proposed as many as 198 apartments for the southeast corner of 30th Street and Roe Road.
Hagood claims that Dean disparaged Kenny to members of the community.
“My investigation has now confirmed that Mr. Dean has made multiple negative comments to individuals within the Haines City community relating to my client’s current individual and/or business financial status,” he wrote in a Feb. 24 email. “On or about February 2, 2022, Mr. Dean told multiple individuals that Feltrim would not be able to continue with its downtown project because “its investors had pulled out and it was broke.”
He continued, “My client has instructed me to proceed with the litigation against Mr. Dean and Haines City as a result of said comments as Mr. Kenny’s reputation has been severely damaged. Prior to filing suit, I think it would be prudent to have a sit down with the City to discuss an amicable resolution to this issue. Please advise if this is something the City is interested in or if the City would prefer that I simply file suit.”
The city eventually brokered a deal with Kenny.
The original development agreement stipulated that the city would reimburse engineering costs accrued by Kenny over and above $250,000. That language was adjusted to lower the threshold to $225,000, which could save the developer $25,000 in professional fees. Kenny also agreed to drop any potential lawsuit against the city.
“There has not been any change to the project,” Reilly told GrowthSpotter.
At the April 21 meeting, Mayor West made a motion to terminate Dean. Commissioner Huffman seconded the motion, but Reilly suggested that the commission take up the matter during a special meeting.
The special meeting has not yet been rescheduled.
“It’s time to cut our losses and move the city forward,” Huffman said in a phone call.