Search Firm Must Be Paid, Attorney Says

Just when it appeared the drama surrounding Susan Stanton had subsided, there appears to be yet another staffing-related snafu trailing in her wake.

Stanton, fired as the city manager in Largo, Florida, in February 2007, later applied to serve as city manager of nearby Sarasota, Florida.

The city of Sarasota retained national firm The Mercer Group to conduct its city manager search.

City commissioners interviewed five candidates, including Stanton, who was not ultimately selected.

However, at the end of the search, city commissioners expressed disappointment in The Mercer Group’s handling of the background searches, claiming problems with some of the candidates the firm provided.

Abuse allegations were leveled against the city’s top choice, while the runner-up had an alleged personal bankruptcy history.

The city hired Robert Bartolotta, the former town manager of Jupiter, Florida. Days later, it was revealed that he was facing unsubstantiated allegations that he hit his hospitalized wife in 2003.

After further investigation — by the city, not The Mercer Group — Bartolotta will begin his job July 23 at a salary of $170,000 a year.

In another example, it was revealed days later that the city’s runner-up had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1993.

As a result of these facts surfacing, the city of Sarasota tried to withhold its final payment to the search firm. That’s when an attorney intervened in the matter.

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City attorney Bob Fournier recommended that the city pay The Mercer Group the remaining $20,000 balance, despite complaints. The Mercer Group had already received $40,000, paid in two separate installments.

Fournier wrote in a memo that if the city did not pay the final fee, the search group would probably have a successful legal case.

“There is a high likelihood that The Mercer Group would ultimately be successful if it filed suit to recover the amount unilaterally withheld,” Fournier wrote.

He added that while “both parties, when the contract was executed, had the understanding and expectation that unproven allegations would be uncovered and reported,” he didn’t think the language in the contract was explicit enough.

Specifically, he noted that the city’s contract with The Mercer Group lacked specific wording about including “alleged” information gleaned from background searches.

According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the firm’s contract claimed it would “verify past employment difficulties, if any, including any legal action filed against former employers” and “arrange for credit checks, criminal checks, and Internet newspaper checks.”

Elaine Rigoli has nearly 15 years of experience managing content and community for various B2B and consumer websites. Elaine has written thousands of business and technology articles and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and eWeek, among other publications.

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