No surprise: Fruitland Park officials are being threatened with a lawsuit from an employee who says she was sexually harassed by City Manager Ralph Bowers.
The demand to avoid a suit: $100,000 within 30 days.
Bowers, meanwhile, remains suspended with pay while Lake County sheriff's detectives investigate whether he committed some type of sex crime against the woman. That inquiry is expected to be finished this week.
Tavares attorney Thomas Luka sent a letter last week to the city, accusing Bowers of using his power "to coerce" the victim into a sexual relationship.
Luka claimed the "acts were of a nature to reach the degree of criminal action in their physicality, with the cumulative [effects] rising to the level of physical and psychological torture."
The woman was hospitalized twice because of her encounters with Bowers, Luka wrote, and now suffers permanent physical and psychological damage. Their trysts took place in City Hall, and Bowers used gifts, promises and threats of firing to force the woman to continue, he stated.
Whoa. Let's just take a breath here. Those are some pretty wild accusations.
Bowers' lawyer, Christopher Largey, said the city manager maintains that "nothing inappropriate" happened between him and his employee. Asked whether the pair had a sexual relationship, Largey said he couldn't discuss the details.
But, he said, "what they're claiming is that Mr. Bowers used his power as city manager to coerce her into a sexual relationship, and he denies that wholeheartedly."
This is just an "opportunistic law firm" making a claim, he said.
But the truth is that the city of Fruitland Park is in a spot of trouble over this situation and is going to end up paying considerable cash to lawyers, even if the woman's complaints are found to be groundless. And, if they're found to have merit, city commissioners will have to defend their failure to take action when told of the relationship in June.
And then there is Bowers' history with sexual-harassment complaints. In Jasper, where he previously worked, the city paid $20,000 to settle a complaint that a female employee filed against him. He was fired when a second woman complained.
So far, Fruitland Park commissioners have acted as though their little city exists in a bubble. When Commissioner Jim Richardson — who was defeated for re-election by Chris Cheshire in a runoff last week — told his colleagues in that June public meeting that he had received information that Bowers might be involved with the same employee, they shamefully did nothing.
It was as if they thought they could make the rules for their little town and that everyone living in the little bubble — and outside — would go along with them. They were wrong. Wider community standards still apply, and they may be about to learn that in a financially painful way. It's not responsible to ignore such an accusation.
This week, however, commissioners will have a chance to burst the bubble and step into the reality where the rest of us live. By then, the Sheriff's Office will have finished its investigation, and for the first time, some reliable independent information about what happened will be available to commissioners.
One possible outcome is that the Sheriff's Office could pursue a criminal case against Bowers. If that were to happen, commissioners would have no realistic choice but immediately to dismiss him.
The problem, however, arises if Bowers is not charged with a crime. Some commissioners, who personally like Bowers and the job he has done, may be poised to put him back to work. Bowers, on paid leave from his $86,700-a-year job, has offered to resign if certain conditions are met. Bringing him back would be stepping back into the bubble — and back in time. Without question, it would be the wrong choice.
In March, Bowers penned a lighthearted memo defending himself against charges of sexual harassment and noted, "I plead guilty to hugging ladies …" He wrote the memo after getting wind that Richardson had contacted Jasper about his work history there.
This should have been the commission's first clue. The time when male bosses could randomly hug or even touch female employees is long over. Fruitland Park should acknowledge that today is not the workplace of the early 1960s and should get on board with the rules.
This is going to require a change of attitude on the commission. It's time.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to join her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenonlake.