August 22, 2018

KEY LARGO — Tensions continued to rise last week between two Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services commissioners who are seeking re-election to separate seats in November.

The board denied approval of the recorded minutes from the July 23 meeting documenting a discussion on what ramifications could be imposed upon a commissioner for not following the board’s unity policy.

“All discussion items, in the future, should not include individual comments,” said Commissioner Kay Cullen, referencing a decision made last March by the board to strike all preamble discussion from the minutes.

Commissioner George Mirabella, however, wanted comments from that July discussion on the record, as they pertain to an effort by Cullen and other board members to sanction him for allegedly not complying with the unity policy.

Previously, Fire Chief Don Bock described a phone call he received from Mirabella as “threatening,” in which the commissioner purportedly told Bock to take a fire truck that had been leaking water at Station 24 out of service. The phone call was made after the district board decided it was the chief’s decision on what to do about the truck.

Chairman Tony Allen said that documenting accurate meeting minutes has been an ongoing issue as it shouldn’t be up to the district clerk’s discretion which side of a discussion to record.

“Anyone can request the audio file,” he said, and that in doing so would allay any misinterpretation or confusion into a matter.

The board voted 3-1 to amend the July 23 district meeting minutes to strike individual comment regarding ethics and alleged policy violations. Mirabella dissented. Commissioner Bob Thomas was absent.

Ramifications

to be determined

Gaelan Jones, legal counsel for the district, drafted an amended unity resolution as directed by the board in July to include ramifications if commissioners violate the terms.

The proposed amendment clarified board unity on its decisions but was left intentionally ambiguous, according to Jones, as each violation should be carefully considered.

The resolution penalty options are limited to public censure and reprimand and a vote of no confidence by a supermajority vote, which would be recorded in the minutes.

“Anything beyond that would have to brought forward to the [Florida] Commission on Ethics or the governor’s office,” Jones said.

The amended resolution reads, “Commissioners as individuals do not separately possess the power that resides in the district board,” but “Commissioners may express personal positions on board issues.”

“We all know why we put this resolution in place,” Cullen said. “We all know that we still need it. This resolution should survive the five of us and be available for boards down the road, however, we did not put in enforcement. How many do you rack up before it’s necessary to go further to the ethics commission? I don’t want to have another incomplete document.”

Jones said that enforcement is up to the board.

Cullen called for a number of violations to be specific in the policy.

Chairman Tony Allen said the policy needs to remain ambiguous as it’s up to the board’s discretion, but added that Mirabella’s actions directly violated the policy.

Mirabella asked for examples of ethics violations. He said that not taking a leaking fire truck out of service was inappropriate and dangerous.

“I’m not going to allow firefighters to get hurt or run out of water while on duty. Besides, the fact is that the truck was leaking and it failed the pump test,” he said. “I just don’t understand why we have to be vetted by our contractor. This all goes into place to protect them if they’re not working properly and doing the right thing. Why does a commissioner have to get penalized for bringing it to their attention? Basically, that’s what this is about. They don’t want to hear what they’re doing wrong and have a commissioner be able to knock it down.”

The district contracts with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department and Key Largo Ambulance Corps to provide service to Key Largo.

Mirabella said that he’d do his best to understand the policy in the future but remains concerned for the safety of personnel and taxpayers.

Jones said that he’d outline guidelines that would not limit a commissioner from being involved in departmental issues if directed so by the board. The district does not have any direct employees, so Jones said it’s incumbent for someone to be appointed as liaison for staff.

“That person should be someone that the board has confidence in. It should be a neutral party,” he said.

Mirabella said his previous request was on behalf of firefighter personnel who prefer to remain anonymous out of fear of a backlash. Other commissioners were dubious.

“It’s really hard for someone to believe that things are really happening if it’s only being reported to you, and that the chief is unaware of,” Cullen said.

“There is a lot of stuff going on. If they’re complaining about the chief or Scott [Robinson, who is vice president of both contracted organizations] then who do they go to?” Jones said.

Allen recommended installing a secure complaint box at each station.

Other commissioners felt doing that, or hiring a human resource manager or appointing anyone directly, undermined the chief.

“To me, this is pretty clear,” Robinson said. “This is a fast track to give someone validity for their personal opinion, and there’s no room for that here. To me, all this is doing is giving someone an avenue to vent their own personal opinion.”

Allen said that it’s not the resolution that needs guidelines, it’s the district board.

The amended resolution will be brought to the next meeting for approval.

The next Key Largo Fire Rescue and Emergency Services District meeting is tentatively scheduled the beginning of September. A copy of the agenda will be available beforehand at klfirerescueems.com.

tjava@keysnews.com