Simmering problems at the Florida State Fair Authority came to a full, public boil Monday at a special meeting called to discuss why the group's executive director was dismissed last month.
Allegations of drunkenness on the job and sex harassment of female employees were leveled at Frank Ross, former executive director of the authority, whose contract was not renewed by vote of an executive committee May 24.
Betty Duda, chairwoman of the authority, was told by the board Monday to appoint an independent fact-finding commission to look into those allegations and others and report to the authority at its next meetings scheduled July 15 and 16.
"I am not charging Frank with sexual harassment _ at this time," Sandy Lee, public relations coordinator for the authority, told the meeting.
But then Lee read a prepared statement in which she alleged Ross was drunk on the job, used profanity and, on one occasion, grabbed his crotch in front of her while telling her how he would have handled a business problem.
Lee said the incidents all occurred in the presence of other staffers, who could verify her statements.
Ross also read a statement in which he asked "for a chance to clear my good name and reputation." He said his overriding concern in all his dealings "was always what was best for the State Fair."
Ross left the meeting before he could be asked questions. Contacted at home, Ross characterized the charges against him as greatly exaggerated.
"Everybody remembers things differently," he said. "But these charges are misrepresentations, distortions and outright lies."
He said when he voiced his concerns to board members concerning some state fair employees, he was accused of character assassination.
"But others seemed to be able to say anything they want about me," Ross added.
Longtime authority member Doyle Carlton Jr., a Ross supporter, voiced some charges of his own.
Carlton charged that someone other than Ross kept the authority's financial ledgers in such a way as to hide losses caused by poor management decisions. He did not elaborate.
The authority's executive committee, which voted 4-3 not to renew Ross' contract, cited his arrogant management style and low morale among authority employees.
Frank Ray, an executive board member who voted against the renewal, told the group there were "significant problems" during Ross' administration and that the committee was justified in voting not to renewhis contract.
More than half the authority's members requested the special meeting, saying they were angry they had no opportunity to discuss Ross' performance or the contract renewal issue. Sixteen of 24 members were present Monday, and several said they were displeased with the executive board's actions and lack of communication with other members.
"We should have been informed about these problems," said board member Abe Brown. "Either that or you don't need a board."
Ross served as vice president of operations for the State Fair of Virginia from 1987 to 1990, when he resigned to take the Florida job. His first contract with the Florida fair paid him $65,000. His last contract called for an $80,000 salary.
In his three years here, the authority's budget doubled to $11-million, and the State Fair last year broke the 1-million attendance mark for the first time.
Authority member Emma Taylor will serve as acting director, Duda said.
Bill Schwartz, vice president and personnel specialist with the State Fair of Virginia, said Monday he was dumbfounded by the Florida accusations against Ross.
"Frank is the most multitalented man I've ever seen," said Schwartz, who worked with Ross the full time. "I wish he stayed here with us."
Schwartz said he never saw any signs of alcohol abuse or any other type if inappropriate behavior.
"I'm just wondering if someone is trying to trump up some charges on him for some reason," Schwartz said.