Firing of Sarasota County ethics coordinator raises questions

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- The recent firing of Sarasota County's first ethics coordinator has sparked controversy. According to recent reports, Steve Uebelacker says his termination had more to do with one commissioner not liking him than his job performance.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Tom Lyons delivered a scathing column on the subject Tuesday, which quotes previous reports in which Uebelacker said was told that commissioners were off-limits to his ethics investigation. When the ethics coordinator didn't back off he was fired. The current county employees that have been allowed to comment on the story deny many of Uebelacker’s charges. Some members of the community aren’t so quick to doubt Uebelacker.

"I think that if a man of integrity and this high standard of professionalism is fired, I think that raises a really big red flag about the commission’s ethics," says Jim Lampl with Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. Lampl says his organization has been following what he calls “questionable actions” by county officials for a while now. As such, he says he wasn’t surprised to hear about Uebelacker’s claims of wrongful termination.

"There's a lot of reason to be concerned about their behavior,” Lampl says. “This particular event is a glaring conflict of interest in relationship that’s improper by Commissioner Barbetta.”

According to Lyons’ column, Uebelacker maintains that he lost his job because he refused to back off from investigating complaints against the county commission. Lyons went into further detail, saying the firing was the result of specific complaints by Commissioner Barbetta.

Barbetta denied the allegations during a phone conversation today, saying the termination had nothing to do with him, and that all hiring and firing of employees is done by county employees (mainly the county administrator).

When ABC 7 contacted the administrative office, we were told the change is part of a bigger organization restructuring plan implemented by Thomas Harmer, the new administrator appointed back in February. That new plan does include an ethics point person, with Steve Olmestead apportioned the job after Uebelacker’s departure.

“One of my functions is to help administration in assuring that this roll is appropriately designed,” Olmestead says. “And so we want employees to know that they can come to me in the interim if they have any ethics concerns.”

Olmestead also says his job duties are different from the previous ethics coordinator. But regardless of the changes, officials want to stress they will be investigating any and all concerns they receive -- even if the person in question is a commissioner.

"I want to make sure that both the public and employees know that they can come to us; they can contact me and their concerns will be addresses," Olmestead says.