PALM HARBOR – The longstanding tension between the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency and the director for the East Lake Community Library ended with a separation last month.
This time, the advisory board for the East Lake library sided with the Palm Harbor agency that oversees its operations and recommended that Patricia Perez was “no longer the correct individual” to be its director.
The recommendation was emailed to the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, or PHCSA, Chair Rex Haslam April 9, after the advisory board discussed the issue during a monthly meeting. However, Perez took an extended leave of absence beginning March 28, citing health concerns for herself and later her brother under Family and Medical Leave Act.
“You may call me at home to talk about fun things, but for work issues please call Rex,” Perez wrote in an email to her staff March 29. “I will miss you all, but I need to take care of myself right now.”
She never returned to her position. Haslam and the advisory board’s chair, Ron Schultz, filled in the immediacy of her absence. Gene Coppolla, Palm Harbor Library’s director, officially took over the helm at East Lake April 17.
Perez’s absence was not the only factor in the advisory board’s, and then the PHCSA board’s, decision to let her go. Her most recent performance review, delivered Dec. 17, included suggestions for improvement.
“Director does not effectively utilize peers, PHCSA staff or advisory board. At times, she tends to present an adversarial role/position,” the PHCSA representatives wrote. “The director appears to be more concerned with how to change/eliminate the current organizational structure (PHCSA) than working towards making the existing system work.”
The PHCSA board cited that they had seen no improvement in Perez’s tendency to resent the requirement/recommendation” to work with Coppola and Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation Director Erica Lynford, who represent the other two entities the PHCSA board oversees.
The advisory board commented that Perez had a strong rapport with her staff, but also had their concerns.
“Director should not be sharing personal reflections of negativity concerning economic and current interlocal structure with staff and public,” the comments read.
The review recommended education classes on human resources and public relations and for her to be better equipped when presenting budget requests to the county board of commissioners, which funds the library. She was called out for not being “reluctant to participate in community events” and for giving the appearance that the East Lake library “was not a team player” in Pinellas Public Library Cooperative.
Things did not necessarily get better after the review. PHCSA Human Resources Specialist Mary Mason, who was specifically mentioned in Perez’s review as a person with whom she should strive to work better, commented that communication between Perez and members of PHCSA in general, went icy in the last several months.
“There really hasn’t been a lot of communication, I think, since things started breaking down,” she said. “In previous years, there certainly was a lot more.”
Mason said she stepped aside when things became “uncomfortable” and allowed Perez to communicate directly with Haslam.
The advisory board also mentioned that Perez needed to adhere to run background checks on new employees, per PHCSA policies established in 2011. When the board voted to let Perez go, almost four months later, background checks on employees, especially those working with children, had not been completed.
“We had to repeatedly ask it to be done,” Haslam said. “We actually had to finish them after she had left.”
The outstanding background checks for library employees were completed after Perez went on medical leave. Haslam also said that he and Schultz learned that Perez had been allowing her hourly staff to take paid lunches, instead of clocking out as required.
The 12 weeks granted for family or medical under federal law expired for Perez at the end of May.
The PHCSA board convened a special meeting June 4 to decide how to proceed with her employment status.
“A decision had to be made because she needed additional time off,” Mason said explaining the PHCSA board’s reason for calling the special meeting. “Are we going to grant her additional time off based on no policy that we have until an indefinite item period, which is what was requested … Or is her employment going to end?”
Haslam had been unable to meet with Perez regarding the extent of her leave, as requested by the PHCSA board.
Perez could not be reached for comment. The personal email address associated with her time at the library has been disabled.