Fla. fire dept. postpones bullying investigation

The fire department has come under fire recently for poor morale as firefighters quit


The Florida Times-Union

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — A proposal to have an independent investigation done into the Fernandina Beach Fire Department was put on the back burner this week by a divided City Commission because of concerns that it might interfere with a lawsuit that touches on some of the same issues.

On a 3-2 vote Tuesday the commission postponed an investigation it had unanimously proposed two weeks earlier after advice from City Attorney Tammi Bach.

Robin Marley filed the Nov. 18 lawsuit after she was fired as the city’s human resources director, saying her dismissal violated Florida’s Whistleblower’s Act and came only after she voiced concerns over problems in the fire department.

On Feb. 3 the commission unanimously approved a motion to have the city attorney coordinate an investigation of the department’s command structure, staffing and operational efficiency by an independent consultant or retired fire professional. Bach said the city’s labor counsel then suggested an investigation could reveal personnel issues that will be part of Marley’s lawsuit when it comes to trial in about a year.

“There is no attorney-client privilege, and that’s what I told the commission,” Bach said. “... Our outside counsel, and I agree with him, said it would affect the city’s defense of this whistleblower case. Some of the same witnesses would be included in the investigation, and when you are defending a lawsuit, an unknown is not good,”

But when International Association of Firefighters Local 2836 President Chett Lyncker spoke to the commission Tuesday, he said the investigation should be conducted “without delay in the interest in public safety.”

“For the commission not to proceed with the investigation because it would have an impact on the city’s defense of a pending whistleblower lawsuit would be in stark contrast to the desire and urgency that was expressed by the commission to seek the truth and address any issues immediately to ensure public safety,” he said. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Former fire Capt. Tommy Spicer, who retired in August after a 30-year career, said the commission appeared to be “stalling for whatever reason.”

“This is an attempt to stall the investigation because the truth is coming out one way or another,” Spicer said.

The fire department, headed by Chief Jason Higginbotham, has come under fire recently for poor morale as firefighters quit. City police conducted a September investigation into the department after one firefighter's complaints of bullying and harassment. The investigation concluded most of the complaints were unfounded or unsustained. But it stated some issues are causing unease among employees and also found a problem with training documentation.

Marley wrote to City Manager Joe Gerrity that she had concerns with the city's fire department investigation. She said she was being targeted because of her release of public records and a discussion she had with a newly hired deputy fire chief about problems. Her letter added that her job is not to stand by when the fire department was being "grossly mismanaged."

Gerrity's Oct. 22 response said her comments to the deputy chief "appear to have been inappropriate" and put her on paid leave.

The commission did request that the investigation issue be brought back for its review on April 21.

Copyright 2015 The Florida Times-Union
All Rights Reserved

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