By Joe Capozzi
Ocean Ridge commissioners finally chose a new full-time town manager Jan. 31, capping a difficult six-month selection process marked by complications right up to the very end.
Lynne Ladner, who has held the post on an interim basis since Sept. 11 when former Town Manager Tracey Stevens resigned, will be offered a contract for the full-time job at the commission’s next meeting Feb. 6.
But Ladner wasn’t the commission’s first choice.
After a full day of interviews with six finalists — including private one-on-one sessions with individual commissioners in the morning and public interviews at a special meeting with the full commission in the afternoon — former St. Lucie County deputy administrator Alphonso Jefferson, 52, emerged as the top choice.
But during a recess, called so the town’s recruiting consultant could discuss a contract with Jefferson, word spread among a half dozen residents at the meeting about Jefferson’s demotion from his job in 2019 as assistant county administrator in Broward County.
Residents found articles online reporting that Jefferson was demoted and forced to take a $30,000 pay cut after he was accused of sexual harassment by a former county employee. Although a county investigation determined the allegations were unsupported, Jefferson was demoted for questionable judgment in maintaining a personal relationship with the employee and for sending inappropriate texts.
The allegations were included in a background report about Jefferson provided to Ocean Ridge commissioners Jan. 23 by Colin Baenziger & Associates, the recruiting firm the town hired for $29,500 to find a new town manager.
“Broward’s Office of Professional Standards found all allegations in [the woman’s] complaint to be ‘unsupported.’ It did so in part because the complainant refused to provide her cell phone and because she did not supply any witnesses to corroborate her allegations. Mr. Jefferson could not provide the texts because they ‘were no longer on his phone,’’’ the Baenziger report said.
The complainant “and Mr. Jefferson had some sort of relationship. We believe it was consensual, and Mr. Jefferson did send some inappropriate texts. It was clearly a mistake,’’ the report said.
Baenziger’s report also said: “We have been told that if you hire Mr. Jefferson, it is likely [the accuser] will resurface these allegations in an effort to cause Mr. Jefferson to lose his job.’’
According the report, Jefferson’s supervisor in Broward County told Baenziger that Jefferson’s “work was exemplary and he was always on top of his projects” and that his accuser “had made other allegations against other county employees.’’
Although the allegations were never brought up during the commission’s public interview with Jefferson on Jan. 31, some commissioners said they asked about the report during one-on-one interviews with Jefferson in the morning and were satisfied with his answers.
But during the recess, some residents found a 2022 article in the Florida Bulldog blog that described salacious texts Jefferson allegedly sent the woman. Some residents loudly complained that the town’s selection of Jefferson was “an embarrassment.’’
When the meeting reconvened, commissioners agreed to consider casting a new vote for town manager.
“Some material has come to light that perhaps all of the commissioners were not aware of, which is what is causing this brouhaha,’’ Commissioner Steve Coz said, referring to the Florida Bulldog article. “Several townsfolk and commissioners thought everybody was aware of this. If they were, they maybe didn’t interpret it fully.’’
Another recess was called while Baenziger met privately with Jefferson. When the meeting resumed a few minutes later, Baenziger said: “Mr. Jefferson has decided to withdraw. He felt that it wasn’t the right fit at this point.’’
Commissioners held a new vote and gave unanimous support to Ladner, who was the runner-up in the first round of votes that supported Jefferson, 3-2.
“I’m thrilled and excited and looking forward to continuing the progress we’ve made,’’ Ladner, 53, said in an interview after the meeting.
“We have great ideas and a wonderful staff and I am really looking forward to the next several years,’’ said Ladner, whose interim contract was set to expire Feb. 28.
Commissioner Martin Wiescholek, who cast one of three votes for Jefferson, said after the meeting that the texts detailed in the Florida Bulldog were not included in the background report. If they had been, he said he might have cast a different vote.
After the meeting, Jefferson — who would have been Ocean Ridge’s first African American town manager — emailed this statement to The Coastal Star: “I was excited about the opportunity to be the next town manager. This would have been an historic achievement for the Town and me. I respect the will of the distinguished commission, and I look forward to serving an organization that will benefit from my 31 years of public/private/military sector experience.’’
On Jan. 18, the Interim St. Lucie County Administrator requested the resignations of both Assistant County Administrators, Jefferson and Mark Satterle, Baenziger said in his report. They were both "at will" employees. There was nothing in Jefferson's personnel file.
The search process started July 25 — 10 days after Stevens announced she was leaving Sept. 11 to take the town manager’s job in Haverhill. At the time, commissioners expected to hire a new full-time manager by Thanksgiving at the latest.
They also opted to save money and rejected hiring a recruiting firm, relying instead on guidance from the Florida City and County Management Association’s senior advisers program, which is less expensive.
But just 15 candidates applied. After a series of meetings with the commission, all but two finalists withdrew, prompting town officials in October to start over with a recruiting firm.