Southwest Florida official under fire as local district settles lawsuit

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

Complaints of gender discrimination and harassing comments, all said to be happening within a public organization, have come to light.

A WINK News investigation discovered those claims from a southwest Florida lawsuit settlement.

In February 2022, Jennifer Nelson, the former executive director at the Captiva Erosion Prevention District, filed a formal complaint with the district. The group operates on taxpayer dollars, maintaining Captiva’s natural beauty.  

Nelson noted several issues with Commissioner Rene Miville, and it started with money. Documents show a consultant recommended raises for Nelson and a male counterpart, also claiming Miville didn’t want to honor Nelson’s raise but approved the raise for the male employee.

Nelson also claimed Miville asked “which female is hotter” in regards to interviewing job candidates and that he made instructions to Nelson to contact other commissioners about upcoming votes – a violation of the Sunshine Law.

Less than four months after that internal complaint was filed against him, Miville added a late agenda item to the board’s meeting in June. A vote passed 4-1 and Jennifer Nelson was terminated without cause.

The Lawsuit

Just 24 days later, Nelson sued the district, citing gender discrimination. WINK News asked Miville about her lawsuit.

“She was clever enough to dig stuff and turn it around. Good for her,” Miville said before a Captiva Erosion Prevention District meeting. “This was basically a bureaucratic play by someone who knew their days were numbered, based on ridiculously poor performance.”

But a review of Nelson’s performance evaluations shows she scored well. WINK News requested every evaluation she received while at CEPD. In her only “annual performance appraisal” she was rated “excellent” in 7 of 8 categories, and “good” in the 8th.

The only negative entry in Nelson’s personnel file is a two-page letter, written by Miville. In it, he lists “skills needing improvement” such as “paying attention” and “productive supervision.”

But Miville ends the letter by stating he will not object to keeping Nelson with CEPD and giving her a cost of living raise. WINK News confirmed with CEPD’s current executive director that no other documentation of negative performance exists in Nelson’s file.

Miville insisted gender discrimination did not occur.

“The number two guy was doing all the work. All the achievements, everything,” Miville explained. “And so, we didn’t need the number one when the number two was doing all the work.”

Investigative reporter Peter Fleischer also asked whether or not Miville or anyone with CEPD judged potential job candidates by “how hot they are” as mentioned in the lawsuit.

“The how hot commentary: that was hearsay,” Miville clarified. “It was a joke that took place between two people.”

Court documents show former CEPD CEO Ryan Orgera did not enjoy the joke. Orgera explains how Miville asked him “which candidate was hotter” – claiming after the comment, Miville doubled down, telling Orgera he “needed some eye candy.”

Lawsuit Settled

Nothing ever came of those comments and Nelson’s suit never played out in court.

Records show she settled earlier this year and CEPD’s insurance company paid out $75,000.

WINK asked Miville why the lawsuit was settled if no wrongdoing occurred.

“It’s a big insurance company,” he said. “They figured, eh, let’s move on.”

Work on Captiva’s stunning beaches continues today but no changes to leadership or district policy have been made since the settlement.

WINK News tried to ask CEPD Chairman Bob Warren about the current culture, but he refused to answer questions. And Miville is still a commissioner. He’s been involved with CEPD for over 20 years.

When contacted for this story, Nelson’s attorney sent a statement:

      It is disturbing that Mr. Miville continues to spew his angst toward Ms. Nelson many months after the Captiva Erosion District settled Ms. Nelson’s federal lawsuit. Ms. Nelson’s allegations were largely supported by third-party witnesses and a multitude of documents. We believe that Mr. Miville’s behavior continues to be unbecoming of a public official and we will evaluate all legal remedies, including possible defamation claims against Mr. Miville personally.  

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