Commissioners caught off guard by $130,000 spent on LPD sex scandal damage control

City manager hired firm to control city's image

LAKELAND, Fla. - The City of Lakeland's public relations problem only seems to get worse.

Commissioners expressed surprise and disappointment during a meeting Monday about the $130,000 the city spent on a firm to handle damage control last year during the headline-making LPD sex scandal.

City Manager Doug Thomas hired the Tampa-based PR firm to craft the press conferences and to control the city's response to the scandal with the hopes of closing the door to a lawsuit down the road with Sue Eberle, the woman at the center of it.

David Linesch, Eberle's lawyer, blasted the city's move last week.

"It's about trying to spin a tale, a tale that's obviously defensive," he said.

Commissioners are partially to blame, since the majority agreed to allow Thomas to hire the firm. But nobody asked how much it would cost.

"I probably should have, but I did not," said Commissioner Don Selvage. "It's really hard to quantify whether it was well spent or not. We have to trust his judgment."

Some commissioners admit they regret not following up with Thomas to ensure costs didn't get out of control as the scandal evolved over several months last year.

Others wish the city manager was more forthcoming.

"I don't think we got our money's worth, number one. And number two, we spent far more money than I think any of us would have approved had they brought it back to us," Mayor Howard Wiggs said.

Commissioners discussed putting a cap on future spending to avoid another controversy down the road because now the firm hired to control the city's image is creating a PR problem itself.

"To me, he spends money like a drunken sailor," one Lakeland taxpayer said about Thomas during the public comment portion of Monday's meeting.

Thomas couldn't defend himself because he's on medical leave, recovering from hip surgery. But Commissioner Keith Merritt defended him, saying Thomas tried to save the city from even more legal trouble.

"The truth is, I think we could have been better informed," he said. "But it's one of those things where you make a judgment call and hope that it's a good one."

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