LARGO — Joan Byrne, the longtime director of the city’s Recreation, Parks and Arts department who was fired from her post July 27, told city commissioners Aug. 3 that she was “blowing the whistle” on a culture of “crony management” that led to her termination.
Byrne, who had worked for the city for the past 22 years, 18 as head of the department, also came before the commission to call for an inquiry into her firing.
“An independent management audit is required,” she said. “This must be conducted in a way which penetrates the intimidation and secrecy that exists.”
In a response to a question by Commissioner Samantha Fenger, City Attorney Alan Zimmet said the city charter gives the commission the authority to investigate the termination.
However, no member of the commission made such a request. In fact, Vice Mayor Jamie Robinson, who was running the meeting while Mayor Woody Brown was on vacation, and Commissioner Eric Gerard came to the defense of City Manager Henry Schubert.
On July 27, Schubert sent an email to city employees that said he has “lost confidence that Byrne is able to uphold the role of leadership including promoting the good of the whole, demonstrating collaboration across departments and divisions, and inspiring trust both internally and externally in the community."
He wrote that it was a difficult decision and not the result of any one incident, but that "he needs to hold team members accountable for behaviors that do not align with our values and actions that do not reflect our commitments of leadership."
In a scathing email to the commission, Byrne called the comments “profoundly offensive” and demanded an apology.
“For all the defamation targeted at me, there is not a single example of impudence or insubordination, not even one prior disciplinary for any reason in 22 years,” she said Aug. 3. “Even the city manager can’t claim a similarly unblemished official record.”
She went on to say that, in the past two years, a small group in the city administration has been “given power and influence beyond their title and experience.
“They are unencumbered by constraints and can focus on their ideological agenda. They avow diversity but suppress diversity of opinion,” she said, singling out Assistant City Manager Maggie Paluch, who was hired in June 2019.
According to news reports, Paluch resigned from her post as city manager of Alamogordo, New Mexico, earlier that year after some citizens were angered about her decision to suspend the police chief, who had expressed concerns about some employees receiving preferential treatment.
“It is a badge of honor to be fired by hypocrites,” Byrne said. “It is obvious that I was displaced to deflect attention from the authentic problem of crony management.”
Several of Byrne’s supporters also came before the commission to express their disappointment.
Penny Janowski, a longtime resident and member of the RPA advisory board, said Byrne has built a legacy of excellence and quality for our department.
“I feel that firing Joan Byrne is a major loss to the recreation department and the city of Largo,” she said.
When asked if he would want to expound on his decision, Schubert said Aug. 3 that he would prefer not to do so in public.
“Out of respect for Ms. Byrne, I would prefer not to have a public discussion to get into more and more details surrounding why I made the decision I did,” he said, adding that he would be happy to discuss the matter further with commissioners individually.
Robinson, however, did comment.
He said Byrne has done a “great job” but that he supported Schubert’s decision — even if it wasn’t a popular one.
“I think the city of Largo over the last several years has directly and expressly changed the culture that we’re trying to have here in the city of Largo,” he said. “And, from my understanding, and it’s not just from Henry, it’s from a lot of the conversations I have with the members of the ELT (Executive Leadership Team) as well as a lot of members up and down every level of staff here at the city of Largo, that maybe Joan was not specifically aligned with that.”
Commissioner Eric Gerard said he has known Byrne for many years, but he still supported Schubert’s decision.
“I think he does an outstanding job and every now and then we may say, ‘Jeez, I wish he hadn’t done it that way,’ but I still think he does an outstanding job and I’m going to back him on this,” he said.
Commissioner Michael Smith said he also supports Schubert, but was disappointed in the way her termination was handled.
“I think for someone who has been here for that amount of time, we should’ve done it a little bit more graceful,” he said.