TEMPLE TERRACE, Fla. (WFLA) – An 8 On Your Side public records request revealed a contract to convert a Temple Terrace racquetball court into a space for the fast-moving and even faster growing sport of pickleball has left the city manager in a pickle.
The project that went out to bid around the first of the year did not require city council approval under city ordinance since its value was less than $25,000.
But now council is involved after an anonymous letter sent to newly elected Councilmember Meredith Abel accused City Manager Charles Stephenson of allowing an unlicensed contractor to get the project.
Abel addressed council about the claims during last week’s meeting.
“I have information to share with council about some alleged wrongdoing that I believe merits investigating,” Abel said.
Abel read the letter to put it on record, saying that decision was based on the recommendation by a city attorney.
According to Abel, the letter alleges Stephenson falsified documents tied to the contract that he awarded to the unlicensed contractor. Abel said several of what were said to be city documents were sent to her along with the letter.
Stephenson seemed ready to defend himself during the meeting until Mayor Andy Ross chimed in.
“Charles, Charles. Be careful,” Ross said. “Please, just relax. Take a breath.”
Stephenson followed Ross’s advice and kept quiet, walking out of council chambers a short time later.
The city manager, whose 2018 contract started at $144,000 a year, responded Friday writing in a statement that he is “respectful of City Council’s wishes” and will cooperate with the investigation.
“I am confident that once concluded and the facts are brought forth, I will be fully exonerated of the incorrect allegations submitted to City Council,” Stephenson said.
Our records request for the letter and other supporting documents was met with a note that states, “investigation docs are exempt.” Florida statutes prevent documents from being requested when they’re involved with a criminal investigation.
Ross has not responded to requests for comment and did not indicate which agency is investigating the allegations.
“We’ll have an objective, thorough investigation done,” Ross said during the meeting.
Abel’s motion to put Stephenson on administrative leave with pay was seconded by Councilmember Cheri Donohue, but the motion failed by a three-to-two vote.
When contacted by 8 On Your Side, Abel said she could not comment on the ongoing investigation.
According to the letter, licensed contractor DWJ Development Inc. was listed as the contractor on a city document, but 383 Construction LLC was the company that was paid $16,000 by the city for the project that was completed in February.
383 Construction is not a licensed contractor, according to the letter and a search on the Florida Department of Business and Profession Regulations.
DWJ Development has not responded to a request for comment and phone calls to a number listed for the owner of 383 Construction were not answered.
Stephenson was accused of putting his name as the contractor in the notice of commencement (NOC), the letter stated. (An NOC indicates when a project starts and includes information about who is involved in a construction project).
Moreno Industrial Services, another contractor mentioned in the letter, is one of the licensed contractors who bid on the job but didn’t get it.
An employee of that company said the city asked the company to make a bid but she did not recall what the bid was. She recalled that she knew it would be high because the company was asked to “piggyback” the pickleball contract bid to an existing municipal contract.
She said the concrete cost in the other contract was higher than the potential price for the Temple Terrace project that called for a greater volume of material.