Deltona’s former interim City Manager is suing the city and accusing officials of conspiring to make sure he didn’t get the permanent job because of his race, according to a new federal lawsuit.
It’s the latest trouble for the Deltona city government, which is already dealing with litigation and a revolving door of City Managers.
Marc-Antonie Cooper, who is Black, also questioned the validity of his replacement John Peters III who won the permanent City Manager job with a 4-to-3 vote from the City Commission last year.
In his lawsuit, Cooper argued the city charter required a supermajority vote of at least 5-to-2 to replace Cooper. Cooper said he filed an appeal with the city — which he has the right to do if the vote isn’t unanimous, he said — but he never heard back from anyone, the lawsuit said.
“Here, an inadequate and unlawful charade of a vote was commenced to remove Dr. Cooper and terminate his position, and replace him with a White male, with no qualifications for the position … all motivated by dislike of his race and unlawful discriminatory intentions,” said the lawsuit filed Oct. 27 in U.S. District Court’s Orlando division. Cooper seeks unspecified damages, including back pay and attorneys’ fees.
Neither Cooper’s attorney nor the city of Deltona responded to a recent request for comment for this story.
Also suing Deltona is former human resources director Richard Adams who claimed he was fired in retaliation after he told Peters he was investigating him for sexual harassment and discrimination after getting several complaints. Adams is seeking back pay and other damages.
In that lawsuit, Adams said Peters made “discriminatory comments about minorities during a Directors’ Meeting. Specifically, Peters made comments suggesting that minorities do not have a lot to look forward to in life and do not take care of their homes which is why there is so much crime around rental buildings,” according to Adams’ Volusia County lawsuit filed in August. “In or about February 2021, Peters made sexually harassing comments toward another employee. Specifically, Peters made comments toward the employee suggesting that he is a product of incest.”
Deltona City Commissioners knew they were facing another lawsuit.
Cooper’s attorney had told them Cooper would accept “$250,000 in full and final settlement in lieu of litigation” as Cooper prepared to sue Deltona, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported in June.
Cooper’s lawsuit details how he got his start in the city in Volusia County and how his relationship soured within a few short years.
Cooper started working at Deltona in 2018 as assistant city manager and soon he was eventually promoted to Deputy City Manager, which he noted was historic because he was the first African American ever to serve in that role for the city, he said.
In January 2020, the City Commission appointed Cooper as interim City Manager after the previous leader had resigned. Cooper’s annual pay was set at $150,000, court documents showed. But Cooper said he was told he would never get the permanent title and officials “took actions to strip away (Cooper’s) authority and undermine his ability to perform his job duties and responsibilities.”
“Dr. Cooper was told that while he could apply for the position of City Manager, he was also told by Mayor (Heidi) Herzberg and Commissioner Dana McCool that no matter how well he was performing as the acting City Manager, he would never be offered the City Manager position,” Cooper’s lawsuit said. “Regardless of the fact that the City was in the process of conducting an alleged nationwide search for a new City Manager, (Cooper) was told very clearly that although he could apply for the position and should like everyone else, he would not be offered the City Manager position, regardless of how well he was doing as the Acting City Manager.”
Cooper argued he had no negative employee reviews or discipline issues to disqualify him from the permanent city manager job.
Cooper accused city officials of harboring “animosity” when he was appointed interim city manager. Some preferred Peters, who was then Deltona’s Public Works Director and the one who ultimately became the next permanent City Manager. Meanwhile, some privately reached out to Cooper, offering their praise for his work and their sympathies for the situation, the lawsuit said.
“Prior to this vote and prior to Peters being hired, Mayor Herzberg, unsolicited by (Cooper), approached (Cooper) and asked him essentially, ‘What do you want financially to leave your employment with the city?’” the lawsuit said. “(Cooper) expressed that he was not interested in resigning from his employment.”
With Peters named the new City Manager in November 2020, Cooper was demoted back to deputy City Manager.
“Peters took actions to strip away all of (Cooper’s) authority, and effectively put up roadblocks and procedures which effectively prevented Plaintiff from performing his job duties as Deputy City Manager,” the lawsuit said although it doesn’t provide many details on what those alleged roadblocks and procedures were.
Cooper’s rank sank even lower, the lawsuit said.
Peters demoted him to customer service manager in the water department. It was “essentially a call center manager position, another adverse employment action taken against him,” Cooper’s suit said, adding that forced Cooper to resign in March 2021.
After that, Cooper left Florida and is now the City Manager in Forest Park, a city of under 20,000 people located outside Atlanta, according to the Georgia city’s website.
Meanwhile, Peters has complained of City Commissioners interfering with his ability to do his job and threatened to resign this year, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported in June. For the time being, Peters has agreed to stay at the post, the paper said, noting at the time Peters was the third City Manager in the past 18 months.