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Harmon "Out" as County HR Director

BRADENTON  — Manatee County Government’s director of human resources has been terminated from her position with the organization. The department’s director position has seen significant turnover, with the most recent employee having been in the role for less than a year. 
Multiple sources close to the situation shared with TBT on Friday that Jennifer Harmon, the organization's most recent hire to the position, has been terminated under unconfirmed circumstances. 
TBT attempted to reach the county by email on Friday for comment on the matter but had not received a response to our request prior to this story’s publication deadline. 

Harmon was hired by the county in July of 2022. In August 2021, Kim Stroud—who had worked for the county for over ten years—was dismissed by the county’s previous administration, shortly after former administrator Scott Hopes was appointed to the role of permanent administrator. 
Stroud's firing was never publicly explained, but TBT was able to confirm through public records that Stroud was one of several employees dismissed under Hopes’ reign who received a separation agreement and payout, with a non-disparagement clause. 
From August 2021 through late March 2022, the department remained without a permanent director at the helm. 
On March 22, 2022, former administrator Hopes announced that he had hired Arnel Wetzel for the role, but just weeks later, Wetzel quit the position. 
Nothing was shared publicly at the time about Wetzel's unexpected departure, but public records showed Wetzel had accepted an offer that included an annual base compensation of $150,000, and a one-time relocation allowance of $8,000. Despite accepting the position and relocation allowance, Wetzel never relocated from Texas to Manatee County and returned the $8,000 weeks later when he announced he would not be continuing in the role.  
TBT attempted to reach Wetzel in April 2022, to inquire about his decision to leave the position so soon, but received an email from the county's PIO who stated the county had been contacted by Wetzel who authorized the county to release a statement on his behalf. 
"I truly appreciate the chance to interview for this important position in a vibrant and growing community. However, due to timing issues and other personal concerns, I am unable to accept the offer at this time. I do want to wish the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners and Administration the best of luck in finding a suitable candidate for this vital role. I appreciate their thoroughness and compassion through this involved and important process," Wetzel’s statement read as delivered by the county. 
But text message records obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability later in 2022, revealed a text message Wetzel sent to the former administrator that more directly addressed the cause of Wetzel’s short employment with the county. 
A portion of a text message Wetzel sent to Hopes dated June 9, 2022, read, "...After speaking to my family, I’m out. There is just too much drama and conflict to overcome for me to be truly successful on my end… my style will only add to that drama and conflict with everything that you have going on there with the board, the department heads, and the culture…"
Wetzel’s quick departure again left the county without a head of a department that plays an integral role in employee relations—in an organization that employs more than 2,000 county workers. 
By July 18, 2022, Hopes announced that he had hired another director of human resources. The county announced the hire in a mid-June press release that touted Harmon’s "extensive background in employee relations" and experience in both the private and public sectors. 
Less than a year into her tenure, Harmon found herself at odds with some employees and even some commissioners who began stating publicly during commission meetings that there were "significant issues" needing to be addressed in the department. Dozens of employees who had spoken with TBT in anonymity over the course of various topics of our reporting confided in our publication that existing issues stemming from human resources' leadership did not improve—but allegedly grew—under Harmon. 
But the issues with HR appeared to have existed prior to her arrival, at least going as far back as Hopes having fired the long-time director back in 2021. During numerous meetings between 2021 and 2022, the subject of known "issues with HR" and an alleged "hostile and volatile" work environment was raised. One former commissioner went so far as to express his understanding—via conversations with county staff—that many employees feared retaliation for turning to HR to report their concerns or to seek support. 

In April of this year, just two months after commissioners announced the unexpected departure of then-adminstrator Hopes, commissioners also put the wheels in motion to identify a third-party independent contractor to take over some of the operations of the human resources department. 
The decision came on the heels of a scandal involving allegations against an incoming deputy county administrator chosen by Hopes, and the handling of those allegations by human resources. Though commissioners have never publicly discussed any specifics on their understanding of how HR handled the allegation, some information crept out to the public, including that employees involved in filing reports with HR against the incoming deputy administrator were reportedly retaliated against. One employee was placed on administrative leave, while another was reassigned. 
As of Friday, TBT was able to confirm that an investigation launched by the Clerk of Court Inspector General into the handling of the allegations lobbied against a formerly incoming deputy administrator is still ongoing. Due to the "active" status of that investigation, no additional information or details are available. 

TBT will continue to follow this story and will provide updates when more information is available. 


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