CLEARWATER — The city's customer service department is where Clearwater residents come to pay their utility bills. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary office with a row of cashiers' desks and a drive-through window.
But when Clearwater officials poked inside, they found a hornet's nest of discontent. Workers called the office tense, hostile, dysfunctional, unprofessional and even "cutthroat."
"We walk on eggshells around here, and it feels like a war zone," a cashier told city officials during an internal investigation.
A customer service representative described the atmosphere as "very negative energy, always in turmoil — like stepping on glass. You have to watch your back."
The city's interviews with 32 employees revealed a working environment plagued by favoritism, uncommunicative managers and low morale, where some employees work hard and others surf the Internet, knit or tie fishing lures.
The end result of the investigation: Clearwater's customer service director, Jim Geary, a 14-year city employee, resigned. Customer service manager Jamie Abbott, a 12-year employee, was fired when she wouldn't resign.
"I have nothing but the utmost respect for the employees, the citizens and the management of the city of Clearwater, whom I was privileged to serve for the past 14 years," Geary said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Abbott couldn't be reached.
The department's assistant director, John Scott, has been named the interim director.
The investigation was launched because the city's human resources office kept getting complaints from employees in customer service, which is located on the first floor of the Municipal Services Building on Myrtle Avenue.
Human resources staffers spoke to the employees one-on-one.
The department's supervisors are not accused of any kind of fraud, theft or sexual harassment. Instead, they're accused of running a dysfunctional office.
A couple of employees accused Geary of being volatile, but several others liked him and said he was friendly and courteous. Abbott, a manager under Geary, was accused of instilling fear in the employees.
City Manager Bill Horne said it was rare for his administration to oust a senior manager.
"We have a pretty high standard in how we like to see our employees work with each other, and how managers work with employees," said Horne, who noted that customer service jobs can be stressful. "I came to the conclusion that this really wasn't meeting our standard and the right solution was to pursue a different management team."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.