As Commissioner Geoffrey Jacobs looks on, all the other elected officials act in unison: They vote in favor of publicly reprimanding him over his alleged nasty behavior and name-calling.
The showdown happens on a Wednesday night at yet another public meeting in Pembroke Park, a small town whose Town Hall has dealt with acrimony and harsh words.
It’s become a place where other elected officials, as well as some staff and residents, have criticized Jacobs. In turn, Jacobs says he’s fighting a one-man battle, an effort to fix up the town toward a brighter future.
Who is right? It depends who you ask. “I’m working in the best interest of the community,” said Jacobs, who was elected in 2019, and reelected unopposed in March. “They are trying to get me out of office. Why? I know where the bodies lie.”
Said Commissioner Bill Hodgkins, part of the commission majority who voted to reprimand him: “The town is defending itself from someone who is out of control.”
Is an end to the arguments in sight? For now, the town says it has commissioned an investigation about claims of a hostile workplace, which will be footed by taxpayers. Hodgkins has his appointment with an investigator Monday to share his grievances. If some town officials get their way, the report’s findings could potentially make their way to the governor’s desk.
“If he says we’re trying to get rid of him, he’s correct,” Hodgkins said. “We just can’t have that disruption all the time.”
A public reprimand
Jacobs was formally censured by his colleagues recently after an allegation that his “conduct and behavior” toward commissioners and staff “is unacceptable.”
About a year ago, Hodgkins had filed a complaint with the town, asking for sanctions against Jacobs, who was then the mayor, “for diminishing, humiliating and intimidating” behavior at a previous meeting.
The sanctions were never followed through. But he followed up again this year: Hodgkins this time submitted paperwork to publicly reprimand Jacobs, listing a string of allegations. In Hodgkins’ request, he alleges Jacobs “has repeatedly directed slanderous, threatening, abusive and disparaging comments towards fellow commission members” and has referred to fellow commission members as “stupid” and “ignorant.”
The censure equates to a reprimand, and no further action results from that.
Still, the censure, which was to make a point, was approved unanimously by the other three commissioners in attendance. Vice Mayor Eric Morrissette was out of the country and absent, but had he been there, he said he would have voted in favor of the censure because of the “twisting the truth and bad-mouthing the city.”
“We have tried to talk sense into him and it’s not happening,” Morrissette said this week.
Among the allegations:
- The censure faults Jacobs for sending a perceived “homophobic and misogynistic” TikTok video to the former town attorney, who was openly gay. Jacobs has denied the allegations of being either homophobic or misogynistic and said he has pushed for domestic partner benefits.
- The resolution faults him for his social media posts that question “the integrity of not only his fellow commission members, but also of Town employees” and has referred to the town as being a “—-hole” and a “—-show,” prior to his election to office. Jacobs said he stands by his comments.
- He is accused of having “routinely and repeatedly attacked the job performance of certain Town employees in public meetings.”
- The resolution states “Commissioner Jacobs has made posts on social media publicly questioning the integrity of not only his fellow commission members, but also of Town employees.”
- He has referred to fellow commission members as “stupid” and “ignorant.” Said Jacobs at an April public meeting in response: “If the shoe fits” and at the meeting of the censure: The “truth hurts sometimes.”
As Jacobs munched on popcorn at the recent public meeting, Hodgkins would later complain about the “crinkling” of the bag.
“I’m flattered, absolutely flattered, you guys are so, so into me and everything I’m doing into my life that you guys want to go to these extremes and pass and perpetuate lies after lies after lies,” Jacobs told commissioners.
Jacobs said he has worked to expose wrongdoings.
When the Police Chief David Howard was fired in May, Jacobs complained that he hadn’t been allowed to speak. Jacobs has also accused his colleagues of firing the chief as an attack on Jacobs personally, since he had helped create the department. Town officials had complained that the true police budget exceeds the original estimates that were presented and approved by the commission and they wanted a new leader.
“Me being quiet and silenced, not going to happen,” Jacobs vowed at the meeting voting for his censure.
He made a veiled threat that there were people who would go to “jail or prison and be prosecuted to the proper degree” for wrongdoings in the town.
Jacobs has his supporters, who say he’s misunderstood and others are simply turned off by his brash style.
Former Police Chief Howard, who was hired by Jacobs, called him a “visionary. I think he saw a need that wasn’t being fulfilled.
“I think he’s a great person and I think he does the right thing even when nobody’s looking. He does rub people the wrong way, but think about his position: Without him that police department never would have ever happened.”
Other former town officials agree.
“Since he got there, he always tried to do what’s best for the city, he always wanted to make sure the staff was earning their paycheck, which at times was very questionable,” said Lucie Manzerolle, the town’s former building department manager, who retired June 2. “He tried everything for the residents, the community, he went and shook hands with the business owners and they said it was the first time ever. I know that for a fact because I went with him.
“He has no support from commissioners and you could tell also from staff, like he’s on an island,” Manzerolle said. “He calls it the way he sees it. If he feels a director is not performing, he will call out that person and will be questioning that person.
“But if you perform you should not be afraid.”
The public censure comes in the wake of an investigation being conducted at Town Hall now about Jacobs’ alleged behavior.
The Town Commission approved the move on April 12, and it’s being run by attorney Tonja Haddad Coleman, an independent lawyer since town staff would not be able to investigate their own elected official.
Taxpayers will spend $225 an hour for the sleuthing, and the commission did not give a cap on the amount staff is allowed to spend on this investigation. There has been no retainer or payment paid to her yet, according to Babette Friedman, the town’s Human Resources director.
There is no date for the investigation’s completion and interviews with staff are still being scheduled, officials said.
At the April 12 meeting, the commission didn’t talk about what the outcome of an investigation could be. But leaders said by having one, it shows employees their complaints are being heard.
The decision to have the probe came after the new mayor, Ashira Mohammed, asked for an investigation. Friedman then appealed to commissioners, calling Jacobs’ behavior “toxic” and she was “pleading” to put a stop to his behavior. She said it was “unhealthy” for staff to continue to endure.
Jacobs “has attacked, attempted to intimidate and retaliate against staff who would not follow his dictatorship,” Friedman said, saying the “hostile” workplace was a “liability.”
Friedman was met with applause. The motion passed 4-1, with Jacobs the lone vote.
Said Hodgkins this week of the report: “We’ll take it to the governor and have him kicked out.”
HR director’s complaint
The documents detailing the public reprimand also mentioned “egregious and outrageous comments.” The Human Resources director, who is Jewish, accused him of referring to her as a “Nazi” at a public event, according to town documents.
He denied ever using the word “Nazi,” although he said last week he has other “four-lettered words” he would rather use.
Records obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel show Friedman emailed the town manager and town attorney in May.
“I would like to put on record that Saturday, May 6th at the Food Drive Commissioner Jacobs referred to me in front of other employees as a ‘Nazi,’” she wrote, saying, “His words ‘HR is a Nazi.’”
“I found these comments offensive since my ancestors were part of the holocaust,” she wrote.
Jacobs denied making the comment and said he has no ill will toward Jews: He told the Sun Sentinel he rode his motorcycle in support of Israel’s Independence Day in May in Hollywood. He has also publicly said he also pushed for a town proclamation for Jewish American History month.
Jacobs told the Sun Sentinel he’s not the problem: He is the one trying to snuff out the problems.
He references being the one to find the ashes of former Commissioner Theresa “Tee” Ciummo, who died in 2007. Ciummo had no known survivors, and her cremated remains were left for years in a safe downstairs and later moved to the city clerk’s office. Jacobs said he came across the commissioner’s remains by accident in late 2019 in the closet.
And he raised issues about perceived improper record keeping, such as how the town spent a $2.3 million loan from the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture more than a decade ago.
A spokesperson for the USDA said the town completed the sewer system work and the money was properly repaid, on time. But Jacobs said no staff can find any records.
“I’ve been uncovering all the wrongdoings,” he said. “If I find anything illegal, immoral or unethical it will be reported.”
And he said the town has tried to make him irrelevant by taking away his job assignments. Although the manager runs the day-to-day operations, each commissioner is assigned a department by the mayor to be the liaison with the public. Jacobs has no departments.
“I’m an investigator, that’s just me,” he said. “I want to know the truth behind it. There’s a whole lot in this town that just doesn’t add up.”
“Look, you can’t fix stupid. These commissioners have no idea what’s going on.”
The Police Department is an ongoing source of drama.
Jacobs had come up with the idea of the town having its own police agency in the first place — and in the process publicly clashed with the town manager, town attorney, human resources director and the former finance director, who had disputed the estimated cost of creating the new police force.
During one period of police-related arguing in 2022, Jacobs asked for the resignations of the manager, attorney and Human Resources director.
Human Resources Director Yolanda Menegazzo, who was a contract employee at the time, submitted her resignation. The contract with the former city attorney was eventually terminated without cause, and she received severance.
Although the town has publicly disagreed about whether the department was financially feasible to continue to control, there are internal issues as well.
On Friday, one of the two interim police chiefs, Wade Douty, resigned. RaShana Dabney-Donovan is now the sole interim chief.
Douty told the Sun Sentinel on Wednesday that a “small group” of officers had banded together to meet with town administration to support his co-chief as the only chief.
“This is bigger than one person, (so) in order to avoid further divide I elected to step aside,” Douty said. “I don’t want to stand in the way and cause a greater divide. I wish them nothing but the best, I really do.”
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash