Firing Line

Sure, the economy's great, but these jobs are disappearing

There's a sulfur smell in the air. No, it's not just the odor of unrefined gasoline shooting out of car exhausts (hey, don't look at Tailpipe!) or the rotten-egg smell from that misfiring wastewater treatment facility in Delray Beach. This is the scent of Big Shot bosses simmering with righteous indignation. It's employers grinding their teeth and shooting wrathful looks at their underlings.

Aiyee, it's the Firing Time. That old, brusque, high-handed refrain has been echoing through the Broward County air as Big Shot bosses try to cover their butts by blaming the troops for their own mistakes. "You're fired!" It's a freakin' trend.

For example:

Whacking the Press

In the past month, the Express, a once-scrappy gay newspaper, has dumped two long-time employees, both heterosexual women. Maybe not so surprising. New Times told you six months ago that the Express,formerly owned by Fort Lauderdale attorney Norm Kent, would become soulless under its new owners, Washington, D.C.-based sister companies Unite Media and Window Media. The gay-newspaper chain Window Media has a history of union-busting, not paying bills, and valuing cheap-to-produce national content over local shoe-leather reporting.

"The Express is dead," says former Arts Editor Mary Damiano, who alleges that Window Media fired her to create an exclusive boys' club. "The only thing that's left is a name."

She's not alone. Logan Kent, Norm's 25-year-old niece, received her walking papers June 2. The explanation the bosses gave their office manager, who's due to give birth in eight weeks: Her job was eliminated. But that's not the real reason, Kent contends: No, girlfriend! You ain't gonna get maternity leave at this gay-media chain!

"I'm about to be a single mother, and I live by myself, and I support myself," Kent says.

Hmm. No more office manager? How come Window Media advertised the opening in the weeks prior to the termination? "Logan was discriminated against based on her pregnancy," Norm Kent says. "Window Media went out of their way to send me a memo saying that they were eliminating the position and consolidating, and [the firing] wasn't discriminatory. But my niece doesn't buy into that."

Neither Unite Media President Steven Guerrini nor Express Editor Mubarak Dahir returned calls for comment.

Tossing the Artist

It was barely a month ago that the Las Olas Art Center kicked off with a huge, Tinseltown-style black-tie party. About 2,500 people showed up to toast the glitzy new art mart. "I expected to see Madonna," says artist/gallery owner Matt Carone, who in January sold his two-story Carone Gallery on SE Second Court, facing the northern entrance to the Fort Lauderdale tunnel, to a group of investors including Boca Raton shoe manufacturer Bob Campbell. The price: $2.5 million.

The place was renamed and given the mission to provide a lively and varied artistic experience, with space for art galleries on the first floor and, on the second, open studios where you can see artists at work. Carone had his doubts, but he was soon won over by LOAC founder and President Elle Holbrook. To sweeten the deal, Holbrook gave Carone free use of studio space in the building for ten years and hired Carone's son David as executive director. David Carone, a long-time museum and gallery employee who had been working as the registrar at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, knows his stuff. He brought along his fiancée, Jeanne Mautoni, another former Boca Museum employee, as assistant director.

With the champagne all guzzled and the bonhomie a fading memory, though, Holbrook developed an overpowering case of hatchetitis. First to go was the suave David Carone, who had made it clear that he wanted LOAC to be a high-end art venue. Notice came June 9 when somebody dropped an envelope on his desk. He was out of there, Holbrook informed him without explanation. The next day, she sent an e-mail to LOAC staff, artists, and participating gallery owners saying that David had to go "for this facility to achieve the greatness that it is capable of." Then came Mautoni and an FAU student who had been brought in to do maintenance chores. About a dozen of the gallery owners also dropped out of LOAC.

"What I don't understand is the abruptness of the decision," says LOAC participant Jack Hyman, owner of Galleria Ocho, who is waiting for the dust to settle before he decides what to do.

There are various theories about what Holbrook's up to. One is that she wants to turn LOAC into a kind of "designer warehouse," where shoppers can buy artwork to match their décor and budget -- a long way from David Carone's notion of bringing Picasso or cutting-edge Latin American painters to Fort Lauderdale.

Asked about the dismissals, Holbrook, a blond woman with a steely smile, shrugged. "People get fired all the time," she said. "It was for lack of performance." What about Mautoni? "She was talking negatively with the rest of the staff," Holbrook said. She added: "There was absolutely no impact on the program." Holbrook denied that she's lowering standards; she just wants LOAC to be not "like a museum" but a place "that's all about having fun and loving art," she says.

Matt Carone says Holbrook fired his son because she was jealous of all the attention he was getting from art professionals. "I began to think about it when I saw all the artists and gallery owners gravitating to David," he said. "She'd have this odd kind of expression. I kind of knew there'd be a little problem down the line."

Good-bye, Techies

Back in the late 1990s, Monte Guthrie positioned himself as a marketing visionary for the South Florida gay community. Ideas poured out of him. A Gay Yellow Pages. A Gay Expo. A slick-paper magazine called Quintessential. A travel agency to pitch gay vacation destinations. By fall of 2003, his company, Gay South Florida Inc., had more than 40 employees, a lot of them talented sales and marketing people who had listened to Guthrie's seductive assertions that they were getting in on the ground floor of a kind of gay Microsoft.

But the flush of optimism faded quickly. Early this year, Guthrie started firing people. Most of the sales staff. The event planners. The editorial staff for Quintessential. In the first round of layoffs, in February, Guthrie dumped 40 percent of the staff, saying that his sprawling company was "narrowing its focus." At the same time, he started looking around for potential buyers for the magazine. By then, he had already alienated a large portion of the staff. Sales workers, who had been earning base salaries of $18,000 plus commissions, were cut back to straight commission. And Guthrie -- who had just bought a new Oakland Park house and a Chevy Tahoe truck -- started skimming $50 a week from their paychecks for deposit in an escrow account. This was a contingency fund that was supposed to be returned to employees if they left the company. One problem: Those who were laid off said they were being shortchanged. "I had $600 in the fund, but I only got $400 back," former sales rep Anthony Sommella says.

Among the first to be fired was Executive Vice President Jeff Licalzi, who had invested $175,000 in the company ("He's a fabulous salesman," Licalzi says of his ex-boss). Guthrie says he fired Licalzi for nonperformance (sound familiar?). "He had a terrible work record," Guthrie says. "In his three months here, he was absent 40 days." But Licalzi attributes his difficulties with Guthrie to different management styles. "I'm honest, and he's not," says Licalzi, who has sued Guthrie, charging his former employer with fraud. In court documents, Licalzi says that Guthrie had solicited money from him with "untrue" and "misleading" statements. The two are near an out-of-court settlement in which Guthrie will return the money.

Other employees say Guthrie is probably more ineffectual manager than unscrupulous employer. "Back in November, we had our biggest sales month ever, about $375,000," one ex-employee says. "A good businessman would realize that you sock some of that money away. Instead, Monte took the entire staff on a cruise to the Bahamas. Then he put on a huge Christmas party, with an open bar."

Guthrie says, probably rightly, that he has done nothing illegal. Firing people is his prerogative. "It's my company," he says. He adds that Gay South Florida is not in trouble. "We have downsized," he says, "and we're going back to focus on what we do best, to our core product, the Gay Yellow Pages." Meanwhile, a lot of former employees, many of them saying they signed on because Guthrie had appealed to their idealism, are licking their wounds, trying not to succumb to cynicism.

"I'm extremely disappointed," comments one ex-employee, who relocated to South Florida and took a salary cut to work for Guthrie. "We worked so hard, and we were hoodwinked."

But at least Guthrie did Tailpipe a favor and put his finger on a basic truth. Why do the Big Shot bosses go on firing rampages? Because they can.

-- As told to Edmund NewtonDoes Anybody Hear a Fire Alarm?

Before state Democrats descended on the Westin Diplomat last weekend, their honchos organized a Friday-night booty-shaking session at the State on South Beach. The stiff dancing and sensible, ankle-length dresses did little to add glamour to the Democratic image. But Chris Petley, political director for the Democratic Party of Florida, insisted that the bash would give the organization a youthful jolt. "There's a need to 'keep it real,'" he shouted over the music, gesturing air quotes with $7 Heineken in hand. The event was also supposed to tout a useful new website for Dem go-getters, urbanpolitix.com -- which at the time of this writing contained a home page full of links that were all "under construction."

If wanton ruthlessness defines the GOP, perpetual cluelessness defines the Dems. At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday, the veterans of American Legion Post Number 98 in Coral Gables stood at the front of the sprawling ballroom while donors pecked at their mixed greens. Then the vets sat (in the far back corner). Then stood. Then sat. "Chinese fire drill," said Carl Lionel Laks, who was there to present the flag. "Nobody has a clue." Finally, somebody remembered the old soldiers, and they were called -- mid-dinner -- for a ceremonial march.

Later, potential John Kerry veep John Edwards ripped out a good speech: no more hungry kids, better education, stronger unions, broader health care -- right on, brother. But the Dems running the dinner took his call for job creation too literally. As Tailpipe stood at the back, wearing a press badge, one woman in a star-spangled top hat mistook the 'Pipe for a volunteer. "Do you know where the bathroom is, in case somebody asks you?" she asked. No, came the reply. "It's left, out of the ballroom, then left." Got it. Left, then left. One more would make a right.

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