Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
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Talks fail; Corps to take over

KEY LARGO -- A five-hour mediation session Monday was not enough to save the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department.

The Key Largo Fire-EMS District canceled its contract with the fire department last month without cause. That three-year contract would have expired in April 2014. The district collects taxes from Key Largo property owners and uses those funds to pay for fire and emergency management services, respectively, from the fire department and the Key Largo Ambulance Corps.

Mediation, which was required under the contract, was held behind closed doors, and all parties agreed not to speak publicly about any issues discussed. Frank Conklin, the department's president, and district board member Bob Thomas, accompanied by their attorneys, met with a mediator who was unable to offer a solution.

"We were at an impasse," Thomas said.

Prior to mediation, Thomas told the Free Press the change he needed to see was the resignation or removal of Fire Chief Sergio Garcia. He also wanted two people from outside the department added to its board of directors and to have the new chief answerable to that board. In the department's current makeup, the chief is answerable only to the rank-and-file members of the department who elect him by secret ballot.

Last Saturday, the Ambulance Corps held a special meeting where it approved a resolution to take over fire services effective May 27. That agreement was also approved by the district's board Monday night in a 3-2 vote, though chairwoman Jennifer Miller refused to sign the resolution.

"I'm not going to sign it," she said.

"With all due respect, that's not how it works," said Dirk Smits, the district's counsel. Smits said he would seek a signature from Thomas, if Miller continued to refuse.

The district's legal team had already worked out some alternatives for fire protection prior to Monday's meeting. Smits provided a letter from Monroe County Fire Chief Jim Callahan, which said the county would provide services, if needed, during any transition period.

Ron Miller, a Key Largo activist and member of the Monroe County Planning Commission, was one of several public speakers who disagreed with the district board's actions.

"I think these men are capable of selecting their own leaders," Miller told the board. "What is important is that these men are happy in their jobs."

The likely incoming fire chief said there won't be a dramatic change in personnel.

"Ideally, we'll have the same ones in place stay in place," Ambulance Corps Chief Don Bock said. Bock is also a member of the Tavernier Fire-Rescue Department.

Smits also chastised the fire department for its public records retention process, including that of Deputy Chief Ike Beal, who has not provided any emails to the district's public records request.

According to Smits, Beale deletes an email as soon as he reads it -- a practice Smits calls illegal. Smits also said he has received no response to a public records request to Garcia for emails. Smits said he needed the emails prior to mediation.

Yagel said the documents were available after Monday night's meeting.

When Jennifer Miller questioned why Smits requested the documents, an irritated Smits told Miller he would convene a special meeting if his request was not fulfilled. Smits also advised the district board to not delete any of its emails.

"To suggest we're not producing everything is not a true statement," Yagel said.

Relationships with district board and Garcia broke down following a 2009 district audit that called for accounting and management changes in the department. Until recently, the department had written off that audit as biased and inaccurate. The department more recently was a year overdue on submitting its 2011 annual report to the district and several months behind in its financial reports.

Tensions worsened earlier this year when Garcia sent an email to the governor criticizing the qualifications of district board members and alleging conflicts of interest.

The fire department was to hold a meeting Tuesday, April 23, to discuss any last effort to save itself and what to do with its finances. Results of that meeting were not known at press time.

"We have reached out repeatedly," Yagel said at the end of Monday's meeting. "It is what it is."

jgore@keysnews.com

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