KEY LARGO -- The fate of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department partly hinges on whether the current fire chief is willing to step down as mediation with the Fire-EMS District begins later this week.
In a 3-2 vote last month, the district's board canceled its contract with the fire department. That contract, which was set to expire in April 2014, provides taxpayer dollars to the department in return for fire services in Key Largo. The termination without cause has prompted a required mediation period.
The department will send Frank Conklin, president of its nonprofit board, and attorney Russ Yagel to the mediation proceedings to meet with district board member Bob Thomas and attorney Dirk Smits. Jennifer Miller, chair of the district board, told the Free Press she is also interested in attending.
The private mediation period is tentatively set for Monday, April 22, and will be before David Kirwin, a Marathon-based attorney and state-certified mediator. Unlike arbitration, mediation is nonbinding.
Thomas says he is taking the mediation process seriously, but has drawn a line in the sand over Fire Chief Sergio Garcia, who he says must resign.
"I'm surprised Chief Garcia hasn't stepped down," Thomas told the Free Press last Friday.
Under the current system, Garcia is answerable only to the rank-and-file members of the department who appoint him chief and not to the district's elected board.
Thomas said he wants the district to appoint an interim fire chief. That person, who Thomas suggests should be Key Largo Ambulance Chief Don Bock, would be responsible for putting together a new fire department board of directors, which should also include two people from outside the department. The new chief could retain the current department board members or choose new people, Thomas said.
Thomas said he wants to see a new scheduling officer and training officer. He also wants a grievance procedure formed. He added that his problem with the department lies with management, not with the firefighters.
"We have some really good firefighters," Thomas said.
Whether or not the fire department will go along with those demands remains to be seen.
Even if Conklin agrees to them, the changes would have to go before membership for a vote, which could take 30 days to organize with proper notice.
Relationships between Garcia and the fire district grew tense after a 2009 audit called for accounting and management changes in the department. Until its contract was terminated, the department and Garcia had for the most part written off the 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 reporting.
Yagel told the Free Press that he had hoped the rest of the district board members would have given him direction at an April 8 meeting when mediation points were expected to be discussed, but that did not occur.
At that meeting, Islamorada Fire Chief William Wagner III voiced his opposition to the district terminating the Key Largo department's contract, warning that changes might undermine mutual aid agreements between local departments. Wagner and Garcia work together for the Wagner family's fire training company.
The district also denied the fire department's request for $8,500 to send four firefighters to an out-of-state conference. Despite requests from the district, the department did not provide the names of those who were to go on the trip.