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Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Takeover details emerging

KEY LARGO -- The local Ambulance Corps moved ahead Monday night with taking over fire-rescue services from the ousted volunteer department.

The new non-profit fire department's officers include Key Largo Ambulance Corps board members Ronnie Fell, Scott Robinson and Russ Cullen. Those officers named Ambulance Corps board member Jackie Harder as a fire department board member.

Also named to the board but not present at the meeting were Monroe County Sheriff's Office Capt. Corey Bryan, former Key Largo Fire-EMS District board member Mark Wheaton, Ambulance Corps member Kenny Edge and former Key Largo Fire Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department Chief Dave Gow.

Ambulance Corps Chief Don Bock is expected to serve as chief of the new department, but lacking a quorum Monday night, the new board was unable to formally install Bock or other officers.

The new department will assume firefighting duties May 27.

The Key Largo Fire-EMS District, which contracts with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department for service, canceled that agreement in March without cause. Last week, mediation between the two parties failed to resolve differences over the current department's management.

District board member Bob Thomas, who is spearheading the change, says Key Largo Fire Chief Sergio Garcia should have resigned or been removed by the department. He has also called for the department's board to add two members from outside the organization.

Both Garcia and Fire Department President Frank Conklin say they don't know what the district wants or why it wishes to dismantle an organization that's been around for half a century.

"We're just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks," Garcia said of the department's effort to appease the district.

Relationships between the district board and Garcia began to fall apart after a 2009 district audit 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.

Garcia has shied away from the press during the mediation process, but says it is time for him to speak up.

Garcia defended his letter to the governor as free speech.

He said he wants to square off with Thomas in a public forum and talk about the issues dividing the two entities.

"He wouldn't show up," Garcia said.

It is unlikely that Dirk Smits, counsel for the district, would advise board members to speak publicly about their decision to cancel the contract.

The contract was terminated by a 3-2 vote, with Jennifer Miller and Tony Allen dissenting, and a five-hour mediation session ended in an impasse with both sides agreeing not to discuss the details. According to Smits, the contract's requirement for termination has been met.

At a special meeting April 23, the fire department's board of directors proposed changes to appease the district.

The board agreed to allow the district to veto the selection of a fire chief with a 4-1 vote. It also agreed to allow the district to appoint two outside members to its board. The fire department also talked about working with the district to create a grievance policy.

The board can present these proposed changes to the district, but to enact them would require bylaw changes approved by the department's membership.

The department's pro bono attorney, Andy Tobin, advised the department to allow the district to hire and pay for a chief. That idea didn't gain much traction.

Meanwhile, Garcia says the Ambulance Corps' new fire department doesn't have the guidance it needs.

"Where's their [standard operating procedures]?" the chief asked.

The chief said he is worried that day-to-day operations will be lacking. He also described the contract cancellation as political suicide for district board members Thomas, Marilyn Beyer and George Mirabella.

jgore@keysnews.com

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