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Top candidate for Winona County admin says dismissal from last job based on misunderstandings

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The top finalist for Winona County’s administrator job was fired from his previous job running a Florida city, following concerns that he failed to properly release or respond in a timely way to requested public records, and in one case released a document regarding a harassment complaint that contained sensitive information.

William Reynolds, formerly the city administrator in Pensacola, has been transparent with the county board about the situations, saying the complaints were largely the result of misunderstandings, and has argued that in the case of the harassment complaint, he was simply attempting to protect and help his staff.

In the case involving possible public-records violations, Reynolds was accused in an investigation report obtained by the Daily News of failing to provide public information, but later cleared by a judge. That report concluded that Reynolds in a different instance improperly released information on an internal discrimination issue, but found that while the actions were “inappropriate,” they didn’t rise to the level of requiring legal action.

Reynolds said in an interview that he understands his tenure in Pensacola may make it a challenge for the Winona County board to consider hiring him, and stressed that’s why he presented the board with details about the incidents.

“That’s why I put it in my cover letter,” Reynolds said. “I wasn’t trying to hide the ball. You need to be up-front.”

During his interview recently with the board, Reynolds stressed trust and relationship-building as important qualities the county needs, especially after firing its last administrator over accusations of not disclosing information internally.

Reynolds, who the board has ranked as the top candidate following that first interview, said Thursday he’s working to make sure the board has all the information it needs to make the best choice.

“(The situation is) something Winona County has to be comfortable with,” Reynolds said. “If they’re not comfortable with it, I understand.”

Dispute over a logo

The investigation, released in July 2013, found the city as a whole under Reynolds had failed to “adequately or timely respond to public records requests” for a number of reasons.

Those included not providing the city clerk, the main contact person, with adequate resources, having too many individuals redact information, and not having employees properly trained, the report said.

As a result, the state office said it met with various city officials and provided a list of recommendations on how to avoid future issues — which city officials said they would implement, the report stated.

The investigation stemmed from a June 2012 incident, in which the city of Pensacola received a data request concerning city logos. Reynolds said the city was in the middle of rebranding and had hired a firm to come up with new logo, and the requester asked to view a copy.

On the same day the request came in, the city clerk forwarded it to Reynolds and another staff member, but Reynolds replied he had not received copies of the logo, the report said. The investigation found that Reynolds had received an email with the logo about two months ago.

The investigation concluded that Reynolds be charged with a minor civil violation of the state’s public-records law, payable by fine. That charge was later thrown out by a judge, Reynolds said, verified by court records provided Thursday by Reynolds’ attorney.

When asked how the investigation found an email with the new logo in it, Reynolds said, “the state’s attorney was wrong and that’s exactly why ... the case was thrown out.”

“I didn’t have the logos,” he said. “When the request came in I asked one of my deputies if we had it, they said no, I said no.”

Leaked information

The harassment incident dates to March 2013, when a city employee sent an email concerning a discrimination complaint, the report found.

Two days after it was sent, Reynolds gave a copy of the document, without redacting any information, as well as his response to the situation, to an unidentified woman he met at a local bar who had not requested the information, the report concluded.

The investigation concluded the document was not confidential, so giving it away did not rise to a level of any legal offense, but described it as “inappropriate.”

Reynolds said the city clerk had cleared the release of the documents, and that there were multiple public requests for the document. Reynolds said he released the information to a former city employee because the harassment was ongoing situation and he believed “sunshine” would help it stop.

“Two females were being harassed by a male,” Reynolds said. “I was trying to find a way to make the actions stop. I was trying to protect the employees.”

“This was not a protected document at the end of the day and that’s what the state attorney’s office said,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said in hindsight, though, he may have approached it differently.

“There can always be a better way of doing things,” he said. “With this situation I would have handled it differently in retrospect. At the time I thought I was doing the right thing.”

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