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Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Transfer of power?
Dept. names son VP, readies for legal fight

KEY LARGO -- Some powers of Key Largo Fire Chief Sergio Garcia will be handed over to the department's governing board.

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department's board of directors will now confirm hirings, firings and demotions in the department, authority that has historically belonged to the chief.

The decision came during a February meeting on the advice of the department's pro bono attorney Andy Tobin, who says the board of directors needs to have more power over the chief.

Tobin and Garcia plan to offer the board specific language on the power switch.

"The community needs to know you have responsibility and some oversight," Tobin said. "That's all the [Key Largo Fire-EMS District] wants."

The taxing district, which has a board elected by registered voters, contracts with the fire department and the Key Largo Ambulance Corps for services.

But during the same meeting, Frank Conklin, president of the fire department's board, tapped Sergio Garcia Jr., the fire chief's son, to serve as vice president.

Garcia Jr. will perform all of the duties of the president in Conklin's absence, including signing checks and overseeing his father's monthly spending account.

The appointment raised a red flag for Fire-EMS District Board member George Mirabella, who asked Conklin about a possible conflict of interest in that arrangement.

Conklin responded that small volunteer fire departments are usually made up of family members. He added that he needs someone to help with the administrative parts of the position.

With members of the Fire-EMS District Board again questioning the department's internal actions, the elder Garcia urged the department board to be prepared to play defense if the district begins considering canceling its contract with the fire department.

On the chief's recommendation, the department board agreed to sign a contract with Tavernier attorney Russ Yagel to back up Tobin in his duties.

Garcia reminded the department that Yagel helped when the district's 2009 forensic audit of the department found accounting and management problems and drew the attention of then-State Attorney Dennis Ward.

Before the board agreed to sign on Yagel, who is expected to be paid only when he works, Tobin pointed out that the department paid Yagel $11,000 for his audit defense, which did not require legal briefs, motions or court appearances. He said about $7,000 of the cost was reimbursed to the fire chief.

Tobin advised the department that hiring Yagel would not be beneficial if they were just looking for "handholding" at district meetings to deal with aggressive board members.

"You're not being sued," Tobin said. "... You're being questioned and criticized."

Still, the department board opted to retain Yagel. Conklin and Garcia Jr. will have the authority to call Yagel for assistance when needed.

In other business, fire department officials are expected to meet with Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District Clerk Carol Walker, who will help the department set up an upgraded records retention policy.

The department board also created a committee to draft new qualifications for members who wish to run for fire chief, changes that will have to be approved by the department's membership. Garcia was re-elected to a two-year term as chief in January.

The next Fire-EMS District meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday, March 11, at Key Largo Station 24.

jgore@keysnews.com

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