By Steve Reilly
ENGLEWOOD, Fla. — The Englewood Fire Control District board could decide Wednesday whether to pay Fire Commissioner Robert Bacon more than $2,400 for attorney's fees.
In September, Bacon presented the fire commission a $485 bill for Englewood attorney R. Earl Warren and a $1,980 bill for Tampa attorney Greg Hearing. He hired the attorneys in response to firefighters union accusations in April that he acted inappropriately during contract negotiations.
'Enclosed is the total spent to defend myself in reference to the letter presented by the union,' Bacon wrote in a letter addressed to Fire Chief Brian Gorski and presented to fire commissioners in September.
Bacon was observing contract negotiations and, like the other fire commissioners, had selected Gorski as the district's sole negotiator with the union representatives. The union letter to which Bacon refers was sent to the fire commissioners by James Brantley, a firefighters union attorney, in April. Brantley notified the fire district its members were upset and accused Bacon of taping union members with a hidden recorder, although the negotiation meeting was allowed to be recorded. Brantley also accused Bacon of inappropriately discussing negotiations with firefighters.
The union took no further action against Bacon, but the letter suggested the union would consider approaching the State Attorney's Office in the future for any actions it deemed questionable.
At the July 11 meeting, fire commissioners scheduled a discussion of the union's complaint. Bacon told commissioners he'd hired an attorney. Suggesting he was following his attorney's advice, Bacon said if the commission went forward with its scheduled discussion, he 'would be obligated to file a lawsuit' against the individual fire commissioners, the fire district and firefighters union. Commissioners voted unanimously to withdraw the discussion from the agenda.
Fire District attorney Lori Wellbaum Emery provided fire commissioners with state statutes and case law for the reimbursement to elected officials of attorney fees. Summarizing them, Wellbaum Emery wrote in an email in September to fire commissioners, 'It is my opinion that the board will need to decide if Mr. Bacon's situation meets the two-prong test.'
According to this test, she said attorney fees will be paid to defend legal actions where an official is, first, acting in accordance with his or her duties, and, second, that the actions taken are for public, not private, purposes.
According to state statutes, 'an agency is authorized to provide an attorney to defend any civil action arising from a complaint of damages, or injury suffered as a result of any act or omission of action of any of its officers arising out of and in the scope of his or her employment or function,' Wellbaum Emery said.
She gave as an example the case of Tampa City Councilwoman Helen Chavez vs the City Tampa where Chavez, who applied for a city liquor license, voted on the issue even though it was a conflict of interest. A complaint was filed against Chavez with the Florida Commission on Ethics, which she successfully defended.
However, courts decided she could not be reimbursed for legal fees because she only met one requirement of the two-prong test. Though she was acting as a elected official, her actions 'directly advanced her own private pecuniary interests,' Wellbaum Emery wrote.
Copyright 2012 Englewood Sun
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