Art Scandal Inspires Demotions at City Hall



Sarasota Parking Manager Mark Lyons will keep his job but take a 10-percent pay cut and a demotion after officials determined he improperly swayed an advisory board to choose his son-in-law for a $100,000 public art contract at State Street Parking Garage. The decision on who installs permanent art at the new parking structure and what it will look like now falls to the Sarasota City Commission, where two new members must address the scandal shortly after taking office. 

An official investigation by the city determined Lyons improperly interfered with a Public Art Committee selection of artist proposals for decorating the new garage. The committee met April 12 and recommended Mark Krucke, Lyons’ son-in-law, be hired to create murals and installations. But board members were unaware of the relationship between the parking manager and the artist, one of five finalists considered for the contract. Committee members during the meeting asked Lyons to discuss maintenance issues related to the art installation after narrowing choices down to Krucke and a bid from Michael Parker and Richie Brasil. At that point, Lyons criticized the Parker-Brasil proposal to employ spray paint as “a terrible idea,” and also raised problems with the effectiveness of wayfinding in that plan. His comments apparently swayed the board, which had been locked in a 2-2 vote but then backed Krucke 3-1. Committee member Benjamin Grijalva, a Students Taking Active Roles participant, credited Lyons’ points as what changed his vote. 

Two other staff members working with the committee, Planning Manager David Smith and Planner Clifford Smith, also got demoted as a result of the impending investigation. The two told investigators they knew Lyons’ son-in-law submitted work but didn’t alert the board, and did not see a conflict until after Lyons spoke at the meeting, which both described as “a disaster.” Clifford Smith accused Lyons of “crucifying Michael Parker’s artwork” and said he immediately went to David Smith, his supervisor, after the meeting to report the comments as “a serious problem.” David Smith said he “never thought he (Lyons) would critique Parker.” 

Two other employees became aware of Lyons’ and Krucke’s relationship only at an artist luncheon held shortly before the committee meeting. One noted Lyons had spoken with the committee about the project “at least three times” before April 12, and the other immediately reported Lyons after she felt the comments “threw the other artist under the bus.”

For Lyons part, he said he made clear as early as November 2015 that his son-in-law would be submitting a proposal in the design competition for the garage but was told explicitly that would not be a problem since he had no say in choosing the winning artwork. Lyons had been involved in crafting the original call to artists. The Public Art Committee previously winnowed 25 submissions down to five finalists, and when asked, Lyons said the Parker-Brasil proposal was “inappropriate,” and that even if the committee chose that art, he would also tell the city commission the work did not meet specifications. “I don’t want the PAC to go to the City Commission with a project that’s not viable,” he told investigators.

Both David Smith and Clifford Smith returned to work Monday, and Lyons returns today. The employees may appeal their disciplinary action to the city manager within 10 days. Before the pay cuts, Lyons made $90,820 annually, David Smith made $104,107 and Clifford Smith $76,248. All employees must also undergo ethics retraining, and Lyons is barred from participating in any city procurement processes for at least six months. City spokeswoman Jan Thornburg says city officials will now develop a conflict-of-interest provision within the city code of ethics that addresses conflicts relating to public art contracts, a void in regulations before now. All city employees will also now have to go through regular ethics training.

City officials stressed the matter was taken very seriously by administration as soon as a relationship between Lyons and the artist became known. "It was poor communications and judgment that resulted in violations of City policies and the public trust,” says Assistant City Manager John Lege, Lyons supervisor. “We want the community and our employees to know we take ethics and conflict of interest very seriously.”

City leaders have yet to make a decision on how to proceed with the State Street contract, and commissioners are slated to consider options on June 5, less than a month after two new commissioners are sworn in; an election will be held today to determine who will take office.

Rendering from Mark Krucke proposal for State Street Parking Garage.

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