• Groveland city manager resigns amid allegations mayor created hostile work environment


    GROVELAND, Fla. - The Groveland City Council met Tuesday night for the first time since state agents announced they were investigating city leaders for possible rules violations.

    Several top city officials, including the police chief who resigned recently, and now the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed it had officially opened an investigation after Mayor James Gearhart allegedly asked the city's IT director to search for incriminating data on his computer.

    Since then, Channel 9's Christopher Heath uncovered a chain of memos going back five months and detailing heavy-handed involvement by Gearhart and Vice Mayor Tim Loucks, as well as possible violations of state law.

    Heath uncovered a dozen personnel memos written by the Groveland city manager detailing meetings with Gearhart, Loucks and the city attorney.

    In the memos, Gearhart calls for city staff to be investigated, and he even compiled a list of staff and handed it off to the city manager.

    Also in the memos, Loucks is recorded as saying he doesn't trust the Groveland police or fire departments, and that he has been telling his constituents not to call local first responders, but instead to call the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

    The internal memos go on to show several instances where Gearhart and Loucks have called for the firing of specific city employees, a clear violation of the city charter.

    Groveland's city manager Sam Oppelaar tendered his resignation Tuesday night, offering 30 days notice.

    "Do you have anything to say to the people of Groveland?" Heath asked the mayor.

    "No," said Gearhart.

    "So the people of Groveland can't expect an answer from you?" Heath asked.

    "Nope," Gearhart said.

    After weeks of the mayor not returning calls or emails, Eyewitness News came to Tuesday's council meeting to ask the mayor about the active state investigation centered on him as well as a series of internal memos written by the city manager detailing the mayor's repeated calls to fire city staff, conduct internal investigations, and even orders to city staff telling them they were no longer allowed walk the 30 feet from city hall to Hardees to get breakfast, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money.

    "Did not say that," Gearhart said.

    "You never said that?" Heath asked.

    "No I did not," Gearhart said.

    "So the city manager is making that up?" Heath asked.

    "Yes sir," Gearhart said.

    "Those are actual reports from employees, particularly the Hardees incident came from our CRA director and others," Oppelaar said.

    City Manager Sam Oppelaar defended the internal memos, obtained by Eyewitness News, saying as late as July the mayor called for the firing of specific city staff, a clear violation of the city charter.

    Since the first of the year, four department heads, including the police chief, have resigned in Groveland, many making allegations of a hostile work environment.

    These allegations supported by internal memos, but dismissed by the mayor.

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