A casual observer could say the exodus of top managers from the city of Groveland started last week, but that would be to ignore a culture of suspicion and disrespect that has been brewing in this south Lake County town for a year.
Certainly, however, things have come to a head with the departure of police Chief Mark Palmer, who survived only seven months, utilities superintendent Robert Holland, public-works manager Jeff Jones and a smattering of folks who work in various departments but aren't in management.
Even key employees who remain are screaming in unison with those who are fleeing:
They say Mayor Jim Gearhart and his compadre on the council, Tim Loucks, have made Groveland a miserable place to work, with their unfounded speculations that employees are lazy, dishonest or incompetent and with their continual efforts to run the city's day-to-day operations, despite their lack of education or experience in municipal management.
Neither Gearhart nor Loucks returned calls seeking comment, though Gearhart did send a rambling email that didn't address specifics.
He said the council is demanding accountability from employees and that in the process "we sometimes may ruffle a few feathers of those who are hesitant to change." He added that the council is "united in bringing our city government to a new level of active response for our local businesses and families alike."
These supposedly "united" efforts haven't gone unnoticed by employees.
Police officers are close to a vote on whether to join a union under the AFL-CIO, and employees in the fire department are discussing whether that's the right path for them, too.
Another result: The State Attorney's Office is looking into whether Gearhart and Loucks violated the state's Sunshine Law when they cornered a police sergeant in late June outside a local Chinese restaurant and peppered him with questions about the operations of the dispatching system, which is coming up for a vote. The sergeant wrote a memo documenting the encounter. .
Meanwhile, employees are either running for cover or dashing out the back door to avoid a boiling caldron of rumor and finger-pointing.
One longtime police officer said he's just coming to work and doing what he's told. He said other officers also are doing the minimum because they're afraid of stepping into Gearhart and Loucks' spotlight. Consider, he said, that the police department typically writes 90 to 120 traffic tickets a month. Now, he said, it's writing about 30 — mostly just in the case of accidents.
Holland, 58, delivered a scathing parting shot as he took his 37 years of experience in running municipal utilities to Minneola, where, he said in an interview last week, "I am wanted and appreciated."
Holland said he has been berated in public meetings and continually questioned about whether he is "padding the books" and committing other illegal acts.
"I expected the city manager to support staff instead of allowing council to harass and make false accusations. Council is working with disgruntled, laid-off former employees to undermine current staff," Holland wrote on a survey questionnaire about his departure. "It's a very hostile work environment, making it impossible for me to do my job."
Palmer, the police chief, said in an interview last week that he doesn't want to be a "rabble-rouser" but that he couldn't tolerate the culture anymore.
"People said, 'Hey, it's a small town.' But wow," he said. "Wow."
Palmer said his attempts to create a mission statement, instill core values in officers and get the department accredited were "met with resistance."
Palmer, 55, is going to work for Southern Software, a company that provides computer-aided dispatching for police agencies and public-safety operations on campuses.
The scrutiny extends down even to the level of a clerk's position.
Alissia Spivey, the administrative assistant in finance, wrote on her exit survey last week that she is leaving because of the way the mayor and a council member treat employees, and she wouldn't return until they were gone.