Dangerous Liaisons

After an hour of casting various ballots and failing to figure out a foolproof formula to fill the most powerful nonelected position in the city of Fort Lauderdale, the commission decided to give up on math and hash it out with words.

They would go around the table, and each of the four commissioners and the mayor would say out loud who they wanted for the job of city manager. Commissioner Tim Smith was first. He chose Pete Witschen, the current assistant city manager with 12 years' experience in the job.

Next, Commissioner John Aurelius also chose Witschen, who showed no emotion as he sat watching the proceedings, his tall and and thin frame motionless.

Then commissioners Carlton Moore and Jack Latona both picked Floyd Johnson, a former Broward County administrator also loaded with government experience.

So it came down to Mayor Jim Naugle, who would have the final say and break the two-two tie. Anticlimactically, Naugle declared that Michael White, the city administrator for West Palm Beach, was his first choice. Everyone in the cramped room on city hall's eighth floor knew White had no chance by that time.

Naugle then almost offhandedly remarked that in a race between Witschen and Johnson, he'd have to go with Johnson. That was all it took. The talking was finished and Johnson was quickly penciled in as the appointed city manager. All that's left is a routine background check and contract negotiations.

An hour after he made his decision, Naugle said he was glad he didn't have to disclose the reason he didn't choose Witschen. The mayor wasn't speaking of the obvious one -- that Witschen has long been allied with outgoing City Manager George Hanbury. Naugle and Hanbury openly despise one another, and the mayor had said that, if Witschen got the job, "it would just continue the dynasty, and more wrong decisions would be made."

But more important, Naugle says Witschen is unfit for the job. The reason: The mayor claims it's "common knowledge" among city officials that the 48-year-old Witschen has had romantic relationships with two city employees working in departments he was supervising.

"If the person at the top doesn't have strong character and set a good example, I think you have that reflected through the whole organization," Naugle said the day before the meeting. "I think it shows he shouldn't be the city manager."

While there is no written city policy against supervisors having such relationships with subordinates, Witschen's long-time boss, Hanbury, says he has his own rules prohibiting it, whether it's consensual or not. Liaisons between employer and employee are inappropriate, Hanbury says, and he won't allow them.

Employment lawyers say boss/subordinate romances are fraught with danger and could lead to dire complications in the modern workplace, not the least of which is a sexual harassment lawsuit, the experts say. In short, it's simply asking for trouble.

And that goes double in a political setting.
Witschen -- who's been a finalist for city manager positions in Boynton Beach, Miramar, Sunrise, and Tallahassee, but has never been chosen -- calls the allegations "vicious rumors." He also says he's "concerned" about them and acknowledges that they've been harmful to him.

But he doesn't deny them. He won't say he didn't have sexual relationships with a Fort Lauderdale police officer and a city planner while overseeing their respective departments.

Witschen, in fact, admits he had a romantic relationship with the planner, Clare Vickery, but says she was a "friend before she left [city employment], and after she left, we moved in together."

If by "friend," Witschen means it was platonic (he refused to clarify the matter), then their romantic courtship appeared to be extremely fast. Vickery, who is 32 years old, left her city job on January 9, 1997. She and Witschen bought property on which to build a house together on Valentine's Day, little more than a month later, according to land records. They've since broken up, and he's deeded his interest in the house back to Vickery. (Witschen recently married someone else.)

Vickery's departure from the city is clouded. She left the planning department, Naugle says, after Hanbury got wind of the affair and confronted Witschen about it.

Naugle says he was told by Hanbury himself that the city manager gave Witschen an ultimatum: Either the relationship ends, or one of the two would have to leave the city's employ.

While Hanbury, a strong supporter of his assistant Witschen, wouldn't deny that he confronted Witschen about it, he also wouldn't discuss it, calling it a "personnel matter." He did say he never delivered any ultimatum to Witschen.

"Whether I did or didn't get involved in this, I'm not going to respond to," Hanbury said. "I will say he's now a happily married man, a newlywed. There are people out there trying to smear his name, and I don't want to be a party to that."

When asked whether Hanbury addressed him about his relationship with Vickery, a defensive Witschen asked, "Who were you told that by? Do you have proof? Because before I say anything, I'd like to deal with some facts here."

Vickery said her relationship with Witschen had nothing to do with her quitting her job with the city. "I left because I got a great job offer, and it really came out of nowhere," she said. "I think [Witschen] should be judged on his professional work and not on anything else."

Just how much power Witschen wields over various city departments -- and wielded over Vickery's professional life while she was employed with the city -- can be discerned from a 1996 memo from planning director Chris Wren to Witschen. In it, Wren asks Witschen permission to give Vickery a raise.

There has been no allegation made that Witschen ever gave preferential treatment to either employee he's accused of dating.

Witschen, whose first wife divorced him in 1996, wouldn't confirm or deny that he'd had an affair with the police officer (whose name is being withheld by New Times) prior to his relationship with the planner. "If a police officer comes forward and says I had an affair with her, then I will answer to that," Witschen says.

The police officer, when asked if she had a romantic relationship with Witschen, paused for a couple seconds before deciding, "I'm not going to answer that." When asked if the relationship caused her any problems, she tacitly confirmed that something happened between her and Witschen. "It didn't cause any professional problems," she says.

Commissioner Latona said he'd "heard some stuff" in regard to Witschen's alleged city romances but has no evidence that anything occurred. He said such relationships in general constitute "inappropriate and improper behavior." Latona declined to say whether or not what he'd heard had any bearing on his decision not to choose Witschen.

Commissioner Moore, who speaks very highly of Witschen, has also heard the allegation and called it a nonissue. "It had no role in my decision [not to choose Witschen] at all," he said.

Nothing suggests that Witschen ever sexually harassed anyone or that any relationships he had with city employees were anything but consensual. No complaint has been filed against Witschen in his long tenure with the city, and he's been credited by Hanbury and many others as being nothing short of an excellent assistant manager.

But attorneys specializing in employment law say romances between bosses and employees can be devastating not only to the individuals but also to the organization for which they work. At the least such a relationship can be poor for morale and may create dissension in the office.

A boss is especially vulnerable in such situations, they say, because a case -- with or without real merit -- can fairly easily be made whether he or she has done anything wrong or not. Facts are easily twisted because of the secretive nature of the relationship itself.

"It's dangerous," says employment lawyer Randy Fleischer, who also serves as the chairman of the Broward County Human Rights Board.

The bottom-line difference between a boss in the private sector and a boss in public life in terms of sexual harassment suits is simple, Fleischer says. "The difference is that the money [lost in a lawsuit] is paid out with tax dollars."

Witschen and the city haven't been sued in these matters, but even the perception that he's been playing the paramour with city employees has cost him a dear price in the form of one vote.

The mayor says it "disqualified" him from taking over the reins of Fort Lauderdale.

Witschen indicates that, like Hanbury, he feels that he was the subject of a politically motivated smear campaign. "The timing is terribly suspicious," Witschen says.

As for that veiled accusation, Naugle says politics had nothing to do with it. Instead, the mayor said his "upbringing and sense of values" led him to feel the way he does.

Despite his apparent moral indignation, Naugle also says he believes Witschen is still suited to be the city's assistant manager.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman