TAMPA — A former Hillsborough County social services manager who was fired last year when the county cleaned house over problems in its homeless housing program is trying to get his job back.
Artie Fryer, who oversaw federal Community Action grants for low-income clients, was fired in October following a “marginal” personnel evaluation, a written reprimand and failure to follow counseling in a personal improvement program, according to county documents. He has appealed to the Civil Service Board, which hears appeals from workers who think they were unfairly disciplined or fired.
Fryer, 61, says those disciplinary actions were an orchestrated campaign by county higher-ups to get rid of him. The Civil Service Board denied the county’s motion for summary judgment which, if approved, would have ended Fryer’s hopes of getting his job back.
The county’s motion for a swift end to Fryer’s appeal included charges he had broken six civil service rules that dealt with incompetence, neglect of duties, and insubordination. The Civil Service Board did not find evidence any of those rules had been broken.
“The board went through each of those charges and disagreed,” Fryer said.
In answer to a request for comment on Fryer’s case, the county responded with this statement: “The Civil Service Board ruled on a preliminary matter and now the case will move forward and be considered on its merits.”
Fryer handled his civil service case without a lawyer, crafting an appeal supported by county documents he obtained through public records requests. Fryer said he will now hire an attorney to represent him in mediation with the county and a possible evidentiary hearing.
County Administrator Mike Merrill fired Fryer about the same time three other Social Servicessocial services managers were let go. Sammie Walthour, the former division director, and Jim Silverwood, manager of the Homeless Recovery Program, were fired because of revelations that the homeless program was putting clients in unsafe, unsanitary apartments and mobile homes.
Reginald Earl, who managed the division’s West Tampa Service Center, was fired for accepting county payments to house clients in rental apartments he owned.
Among the documents Fryer submitted to the Civil Service Board were several years’ worth of personnel evaluations in which his performance was rated “exceptional.”
That changed in June 2012 when Mary Jo McKay, interim social services director, gave Fryer mostly “marginal” ratings with no category rated above “satisfactory.” McKay had only been Fryer’s supervisor for four months; Fryer said he never met McKay during that time and they worked in buildings miles apart.
Also during that time, McKay was reported to be on “indefinite medical leave of absence,” according to a statement by her supervisor, Family and Aging Services Director Venerria Thomas. She made the statement at a May 19, 2012, meeting of the Community Action Board, an advisory board made up of residents.
Fryer said he believes the poor performance evaluation was ordered by Thomas or her boss, Deputy County Administrator Sharon Subadan.
Fryer was especially incensed when Thomas, in an October interview with The Tampa Tribune, blamed him for a potential conflict of interest uncovered in her department during an internal investigation. Thomas said Fryer had ordered a social services manager named Anika Coney to send 12 students to a nonprofit job-training agency run by Coney’s husband.
Fryer said the department’s organizational chart shows he was not Anika Coney’s boss and thus could not have given her orders. The county confirmed in an e-mail to the Tribune that Fryer was not Coney’s supervisor.
Also backing Fryer’s contention that Thomas and Subadan were out to get him was an affidavit submitted to the Civil Service Board from Sammie Walthour. The former social services director said it became apparent soon after he hired on with the county in July 2012 that it was the county administration’s goal to fire Fryer.
“The goal of firing Fryer, and my progress toward such, became a constant theme of my weekly one-on-one meetings with (Venerria) Thomas,” Walthour wrote in the affidavit. “Thomas expressed that removal of Walthour was an aim of Deputy County Administrator Sharon Subadan.”
The county argued that Walthour’s affidavit consisted of “inaccurate, misleading and outrageous allegations” that were only raised after the county fired Walthour.
In her evaluation, McKay said Fryer’s “credibility with his supervisors and the (Community Action Board) has been undermined by ineffective and/or unresponsive communication.”
The evaluation also blamed Fryer for unfavorable audits of programs he oversaw.
Fryer said those unfavorable audits were not the fault of his team of four to five people who oversaw writing grant applications and communicating with the Community Action Board. To support his argument, Fryer submitted a letter from the West Central Florida Area Agency on Aging Inc. The agency made a grant of federal energy assistance funding to Hillsborough County.
The agency found a number of deficiencies in documentation that recipients were eligible for help paying their electric bills. But the agency also said one factor affecting the quality of the client files was the county’s organizational structure. Fryer’s team, while providing “technical oversight to ensure program compliance ... do not directly supervise the social workers who dispense the funds,” the Agency on Aging wrote in its audit.
“The people who actually interact with the customers don’t report to me,” Fryer said. “The people who make the errors don’t report to me.”
The county claims Fryer had chances to improve his performance, but continued to under-perform by failing to submit budget modifications and grants in a timely fashion.
“Your failure to adequately plan and execute the timely submission in both these instances created an undue hardship on the county and jeopardized the receipt of over $2 million in funding,” county attorneys said in a “State of Charges.”
Fryer said the late budget modifications were largely the fault of the county’s Fiscal and Support Services Department, which must complete them.