Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated the special meeting was scheduled for Wednesday. The meeting has since been rescheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Mount Dora City Hall Board Room, 510 North Baker Street.
MOUNT DORA, Fla.—The Mount Dora City Council has scheduled a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Monday to discuss the findings of an investigation into City Manager Patrick Comiskey, and the recommendations of the investigator are to fire both Comiskey and his assistant, according to a document obtained by Inside Lake.
In July, DSK Law in Orlando was retained to investigate a complaint filed by Interim Human Resources Director Kimberly Helfant against City Manager Comiskey for whistleblower protection and retaliation. Helfant believes she was mistreated by Comiskey after initiating a survey into Comiskey’s management abilities as directed by the city council last summer after several months of Mayor Crissy Stile calling for his termination.
The investigation into Helfant’s claims revealed numerous issues, including Comiskey withholding critical information from Interim Police Chief Michael Gibson, retaliation and dereliction of duty. The findings were provided to the city council last week in a summary of interviews addressed to Vice Mayor Marc Crail in a letter dated Jan. 8 and available on the city’s website in the agenda packet for Wednesday’s meeting.
DSK Law Attorney Lindsay Greene conducted the investigation, “…while I question whether Ms. Helfant has any protections pursuant to State or Federal law, there is sufficient evidence that Mr. Comiskey took adverse actions against Ms. Helfant because of her role in the survey process.”
Those adverse actions included ramping up the search for a permanent human resources director, even though many other department heads held interim titles for months and even years; Gibson has held the position of interim police chief since June 2022, and is the fourth police chief in four and a half years. He was named interim police chief when Chief Brett Meade resigned in 2022 after Comiskey allegedly interfered with Meade’s ability to conduct internal investigations.
“Meade was given two options, either allow the city to violate the law by circumventing his responsibility to conduct internal investigations or be terminated. As Meade had sworn to uphold the law, the only action he or any reasonable employee could have taken in that situation was to involuntarily resign in order to escape illegal employment requirements. The involuntary resignation on June 1, 2022, amounts to a constructive discharge in retaliation for engaging on protected activity in violation of Florida’s Public Whistleblowers Act,” a lawsuit Meade filed against the city states.
The investigation into Comiskey revealed a culture of favoritism for certain departments, employees and residents, while others were retaliated against for a variety of reasons, and Comiskey discouraged Interim Police Chief Gibson from having extra officers on hand for a scheduled protest, stating it would be “counter-productive”—a protest Comiskey’s wife and daughter were a part of. Gibson informed Comiskey that their crime analyst had contacted the organizers on social media but had not identified them. Comiskey never revealed his wife was leading the protest. Vershurn Ford, the city public information officer at the time, informed Gibson, “Jane was planning another demonstration.” Ford told Gibson “Jane” was Comiskey’s wife and Gibson told the investigator he was “floored” when he found out.
“The Chief said that the entire time that the City Manager was receiving intel and plans were being made by law enforcement to prepare for the demonstration, the City Manager said nothing. Mr. Comiskey did not inform the Chief of his conflict. He did not ask to not be included in the intel. He did not assist the Chief in determining what was best public safety response for the City, which the Chief believes was the City Manager’s primary duty,” Greene stated in her findings.
“The Chief said that he believes that it was Mrs. Comiskey’s involvement with the demonstration which led the City Manager to request a decreased presence of officers at the demonstration. He does not trust the City Manager and will never trust him because of the City Manager’s withholding of information leading up to the demonstration. He put demonstrators and officers at risk. Chief Gibson said, ‘I understand that I can never ever trust Patrick with sensitive law enforcement intelligence from that moment forward. And I never have,” the findings stated.
The investigator found Comiskey also took the hiring process away from Helfant’s human resources department, resulting in months of delays in filling open positions in various departments, a violation of city policy. Comiskey also removed Helfant’s ability to initiate investigations after his Executive Assistant Merry Lovern told him Helfant was investigating Lovern’s behavior. Comiskey failed to investigate this claim or even ask Helfant, he simply “imposed a new rule which potentially impacted all employees.”
In their interviews with Greene, several employees expressed their concerns about Lovern being cruel, mean-spirited and having too much power, going as far as threatening to break an employee’s hand if she went around her to get Comiskey’s signature. She made a remark stating she hoped a council member would break both of his hips, and she also told at least two employees she would uncover the identities of those who gave negative survey responses. Vershurn Ford, the city’s former public information officer stated in his interview, “The environment in the City Manager’s office was ‘toxic.’ He said that an employee’s relationship and access to Mr. Comiskey was reliant and dependent on their willingness to” kiss the ring” of Ms. Lovern.” Ford mentioned his inability to contact Comiskey for more than 24 hours in December 2022 when Darryl, 83, and Sharon Getman, 80, were found murdered in their Waterman Village apartment. Inside Lake was the first to reach out to Ford and struggled to get information for many hours after the Getmans were discovered.
Greene stated, “From all appearances Mr. Comiskey and Ms. Lovern took an ‘us against the world’ approach to running City Hall.”
“Mr. Comiskey made clear that he believed that Ms. Lovern had been treated unfairly. He believed that Ms. Lovern had been raked through the coals during Council meetings. Even if true, none of this justified his unreasonable and improper steps to protect Ms. Lovern. To be clear, Mr. Comiskey’s fiduciary duty, at all relevant times, was to the City of Mount Dora. He serves at the pleasure of the City Council, thus, to interfere with the City’s investigation procedures and negatively impact other employees seeking redress was highly inappropriate and a dereliction of his duties,” Greene stated in her findings. “Mr. Comiskey’s blind allegiance to Ms. Lovern further supported the notion that Ms. Lovern was protected and that as Mr. Ford described, employees needed to “kiss the ring” of Ms. Lovern to gain access to Mr. Comiskey.”
Greene recommended Comiskey be fired, “(Comiskey’s) conduct is evidence of wrongdoing and his failure to perform his duties and responsibilities. As the City Manager one of Mr. Comiskey’s primary duties was to promote the mission, goals, and policies of the City. Mr. Comiskey failed in that endeavor. For example, Mr. Comiskey’s treatment of Ms. Helfant in removing job functions from her and the Human Resources Department was unjustified and in exchange internal complaints went unresolved and hiring was severely delayed.”
Greene believes Lovern lied during a sworn deposition regarding the threat to break an employee’s hand and recommended she be fired as well.
“Ms. Lovern denied ever having made the comment. That was simply untrue. Ms. Lovern was under oath and was aware that her answers were being considered as part of an investigation. This is unacceptable. Finally, Ms. Lovern’s comments that she intended to uncover the identities of survey participants (which she also denied) are incredulous. Her behavior had a chilling effect on survey participants, as evidenced by employees amending their responses. Ms. Lovern’s desire to invoke fear, coupled with the knowledge that she had such power made her behavior all so much more troubling. Ms. Lovern’s ongoing “power trip” has been toxic and is unsustainable.”
Monday’s special meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Mount Dora City Hall Board Room, 510 North Baker Street.
Read the complete agenda packet here: January 17, 2024 City Council Special Meeting Agenda Packet