Members of the Fort Myers Beach Board of Fire Commissioners discussed proposed illegalities in the selection process of their recently appointed fire chief and his contract negotiations as well as a filed complaint by one of the fire district's employees about an alleged Sunshine Law violation on Tuesday, Nov. 20.
Regarding FMB Fire Chief Darren White's contract process, the fire commissioners addressed concerns that the process was not done correctly and that White does not meet the job requirements required to be a chief.
In what Beach Fire Chairman David Brower called a "bizarre argument," there was no closure to the discussion that involved fire control district bylaws, job descriptions and job contracts for the past and current fire chief.
"This started in August. There was no complaint in August and September, and it took longer to prepare the contract than anticipated," he said.
On Aug. 21, the fire commissioners approved appointing White to chief by modifying White's job title from "acting chief" to "chief" by a slim 3-2 count. White had been assuming both assistant chief and acting chief roles since former Beach Fire Chief Mike Becker officially resigned on March 6. The contract was sent out to the fire commissioners on Oct. 10.
One of the discussion problems was stated to be related to procedural reasons.
Commissioner Carol Morris expressed her dissatisfaction centered on her belief there should have been at least one workshop to discuss position descriptions and qualifications for both chief and assistant chief before any assignment. She also thought the process was rushed and thus consequences arose afterwards.
"I did not realize that Chief White did not qualify for the job description until I started reading through the details of the contract, which was written to work around the fact that Chief White did not qualify for the job description for this particular position," said Morris. "I don't think it sets a good example for this department when you start out and put someone into a position by circumventing all the rules and regulations that are out there."
Morris claims the contract was changed to allow White to meet the job qualifications needed. Not having an undergraduate degree, allowance of time to acquire one and not having enough supervision years were some of the qualifications that Morris listed.
"There were a number of things in the job position that he did not meet," she said. "We didn't have time to talk about it."
Commissioner Ted Schindler, the other dissenter to approving White's appointment, wanted to delay the procedure.
"I think it's not ethical what we did," he said. "A workshop is an environment to discuss these things. I wanted to move this to a workshop and then comply with our own bylaws. We would then be able to amend the bylaws or job description."
FMB Fire Board Attorney Richard Pringle was unhappy with the "disparaging" remarks made toward him. He stated he has not been a part of anything inappropriate.
"I do not represent the chief, I represent the district. I even said in discussions with the chief that he had an opportunity to hire his own lawyer," he said. "The direction of the chairman, if I understood the motion, was to prepare a contract and bring it back to the board. What I have done is the job I was asked to do."
Pringle stated the chief contract has provisions in it to protect the district.
"Ask the chief, he will tell you that there were things he wanted that I said 'no' to because they were not in the best interests of the district," he said.
Consultant Libbey Anderson gave a presentation at an April 3 workshop during one of three phases in leadership training. She was hired to write job descriptions for Beach Fire personnel. The task was not completed before the chief negotiations and has not yet been completed.
Since taking the chief role, White has helped the Beach Fire District through impasse procedures with the fire employee union and the recent budget process.
Alleged Sunshine Law violation
It was reported that Beach Fire District Information Technology Administrator Joe LaCroix filed a complaint with the Lee County Sheriff's Office about a recent violation of the Sunshine Law.
Commissioner Ted Schindler said the public records matter went beyond company emails and dealt with personal call records on his cell phone.
"It seemed a little personal on the infringement nature and beyond the public records request," he said.
Commissioner Carol Morris stated the public records request was only sent to Schindler and herself as far as fire board members.
"The request that I received asked for email communications from district and personal accounts, but not limited to emails sent and received from any other accounts (interdepartmental, governmental agencies, citizens) directed to district employees with the exception of blanket emails from Miss Tammy Peacock and phone records, cell or otherwise, received from personnel, etc., etc., etc," she said.
"This particular document that was sent out to us was very offensive."
Morris believed the reason for the request began with an "innocuous" email containing files of chief executive contract 2011, bylaws, fire chief job description and a proposed White employee agreement. The email occurred after both Morris and Schindler were outspoken about disliking the fire chief contract.
"It was that email that was seen by Joe LaCroix," she said. "He should have gone back to the public records person to see if the original document violated the public request law. I don't think Chief White had anything to do with it, but maybe somehow Joe LaCroix was protecting Chief White. I think it borders on intimidation."
White was asked and said he and LaCroix had not discussed the issue before the complaint was sent out.
Schindler, who was growing angrier as he spoke about the matter, stated he picked up a copy of the police report.
"It said Mr. LaCroix has prepared a sworn statement and signed and desire to prosecute," he said. "If anybody wants to prosecute me, come and see me. I didn't sign on for this crap. I signed on to help this community and do it the right way by spending money judiciously and prudently."
The fire commissioners decided to bring the matter up during a future workshop, possibly Tuesday, Dec. 4, when cooler heads may prevail.