KEY LARGO -- The president of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department's board of directors says he reviews every expense of Fire Chief Sergio Garcia.
This review process by Frank Conklin was put into place following an October 2009 audit, which recommended, among other changes, a check on the fire chief's spending to ensure against personal or non-departmental expenses.
Before the audit, Station Manager Linda Newman was responsible for reviewing expenses. Because Newman reports directly to the chief, Conklin said there needed to be another layer of review.
"He's never even bought a pair of sunglasses," Conklin said last Friday of the chief's spending.
Recently, some members of the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, which has a contract for service with the department, have questioned the chief's spending practices. A Free Press report last week found that donations collected by the department are regularly spent by the chief at local restaurants. Garcia says he buys meals for firefighters for recruiting and retention purposes.
Garcia said neither he nor the department recognize the 2009 audit, which was paid for by the district, as factual or having merit.
"It was a waste of money," he said.
Some of the audit's allegations and recommendations were based on the comments of anonymous personnel, Garcia noted.
"I can't defend myself against anonymous people," Garcia said.
Conklin also described the audit as "hearsay."
"He wouldn't [serve as chief] if he didn't have to," Conklin said, suggesting a lack of interest keeps the department membership from running for chief.
Garcia, however, was challenged for the post last month by former department President Mike Jenkins, who Garcia at first tried to have disqualified for not meeting new eligibility requirements. The department's board, however, allowed Jenkins to run after no evidence could be found that any change in qualifications had been adopted. Jenkins ultimately lost to Garcia in the secret ballot vote.
Bill Andersen, former chairman of the district, last week defended the audit questioning departmental policy.
Andersen said he believes the fire department needs to be restructured so the chief is elected by the its board of directors and not by the rank-and-file firefighters. The Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps has such a system, Andersen said.
The fire department membership in 2010 voted against giving the board authority to elect the chief.
"The system we have is working," Conklin said.