NORTH PORT — Pete Lear’s troubles have spilled over into the public domain.
North Port’s city manager returned to his job Wednesday after serving paid leave and a short suspension for an alleged workplace romance. An investigation had shown Lear and a subordinate having a consensual relationship around the same time COVID-19 arrived in March. Lear was married, and the subordinate was in a relationship with a city staffer.
Lear was placed on paid leave in July while a report was prepared by a Fort Myers investigator. The findings in August showed that Lear and Planning Division manager Nicole Galehouse had admitted their consensual relationship. The 59-page Sproat Workplace Investigations report detailed the affair, with contributing dialogue from a series of staffers.
But Sproat’s report found little evidence that Lear had violated terms of his five-year contract, as ethics or integrity weren’t spelled out clearly, according to three of the commissioners voting to reinstate Lear to his $162,000-per-year job.
But after his five-day suspension ended, the gloves came off, as Lear’s message to staffers upon returning to City Hall was played out on social media.
It was like lighting a fuse, as Mayor Debbie McDowell and Vice Mayor Jill Luke chimed in, posted those responses to social media, where public feedback was vocal and sometimes unkind.
The back and forth started Friday after Lear in an internal memo apologized for his actions cited in the Sproat report, noting that “it might be easier to walk away. There has been public ridicule I’ve had to face as a result of some of my actions but also as a result of a lot of misconceptions … one thing I learned during my service in the Army is the best way out is always through. That’s all I can do at this point while looking only forward.”
McDowell responded: “If you are seeking forgiveness and absolution — that is between you, your conscience and your God. Not me.”
But Commissioner Vanessa Carusone, who had voted with commissioners Chris Hanks and Pete Emrich to reinstate Lear, produced a lengthy document that backed up her thinking on keeping Lear. Carusone, in 20 or so pages, struggled with legal reasons for dismissing Lear, she wrote in the document that was distributed Thursday at the city’s final budget hearing.
“I’ve broken them down,” she wrote of the collected details used in her decision, “in an organized manner so that a fair decision, without emotion, could be made. I spent four days during the long holiday weekend (Labor Day) researching, requesting records and analyzing all that was presented,” meaning what Sproat Workplace Investigations had used in its final report. The document included details that Carusone, Emrich and Hanks had met with Lear during his paid leave from work. That would have violated conditions set forth by City Attorney Amber Slayton, however.
Luke, noting she hadn’t considered responding to Lear’s message to staff until it became public, took a few shots at Lear, “so there is no guessing of how I may have reacted. My stand is clear … my trust is broken.”
Luke on Monday said she had had previous conversations with Lear about ethics, as other staffers had violated such workplace rules.
“He told me nobody is above the organization,” Luke said. “Goal and purpose should always come first.“