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With Fire Chief’s Job Teetering, Flagler Beach Commission Splits Over Ethics and Dysfunction

| July 10, 2012

The Flagler Beach Fire Department got the city commission’s authorization to replace one of its trucks in March, prompting trips that are now in question on ethical grounds. Fire department personnel parked a different truck in front of city hall during Tuesday’s meeting. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler Beach Fire Chief Martin Roberts still has a job–for now. But City Manager Bruce Campbell said he is “close” to making a decision on the fire chief’s fate, which will be his alone: the city commission is not involved, even though the commission held a special meeting Tuesday as a direct result of the clash that has unfolded, publicly, between Campbell and Roberts since mid-June.

That meeting was contentious and at times confusing, revealing as much dysfunction between commissioners as within some of the city’s administrative channels. And commissioners differed markedly about their understanding of ethical responsibilities. But commissioners agreed, with their attorney’s frequent encouragement, to clarify their guidelines and make more explict their rules controlling gifts –or “anything of value”–public employees may receive in the conduct of their job.

Commissioner Steve Settle called the special meeting and made the proposal about ethics rules. He also wants the commission to add language to the city’s ordinances that would compel commissioners to report to the city manager any improprieties of note that they hear about. That proposal was not as easily accepted, especially by Commissioners Marshall Shupe and Jane Mealy, the commission chairman. Mealy said she didn’t want to chill her relations with city employees to the point of silence for fear of saying something they may feel they shoudln’t. “I can vote no when it comes up,” she said of the proposal.

In short, Shupe and Mealy don’t want to turn into whistle-blowers, preferring to leave administrative issues to the administration.

“It’s none of my business,” Shupe said at one point.

“It has to be, Marshall,” Commissioner Kim Carney said. (Coommissioner Joy McGrew is on vacation for two weeks, and was absent.)

The commission never addressed the elephant in the room: Roberts’s job, and what led to the controversy that triggered the special meeting in the first place: two trips that the fire chief or other employees took out of state in June to examine fire trucks for potential buys, without informing the city manager about the trips, although the commission–with the manager present–had officially green-lighted the shopping trips at a March meeting. The trips were paid for by the companies the employees were visiting.

The trips raised two issues, one ethical, one administrative. The ethical issue has to do with public employees receiving “gifts”–trips, meals, entertainment–which may entail city business. Settle’s new rule would require employees to get written authorization from the city manager before accepting such “gifts.” The manager would himself be authorized to ask the state Commission on Ethics or the city attorney for guidance.

The administrative issue is about communications: who should tell what to whom, how often, or how clearly.

“This whole thing could have been avoided if the city manager had done what he should have done,” Mealy said, to groans from the audience that prompted an admonishing “excuse me” from her. “Any time the city manager believes there’s something wrong, it’s the city manager’s job to deal with it.” Campbell is contending that he did not know that the fire chief was taking the trips for city business, though there’s a serrated history between Cambell and Roberts. The city manager had already warned him, in March, not to go around him to speak to commissioners about such things as truck purchases.

There has never been a question of improprieties or kick-backs in this case. Employees at the fire department were using their own time to investigate fire trucks on behalf of the city. They were not benefiting themselves. And it is common practice for fire departments to accept just such all-expenses-paid trips from manufacturers. Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito and two other Flagler County firefighters were at the same manufacturers’ plant a week before Flagler Beach’s personnel showed up, inspecting a truck Flagler is about to take possession of. (The difference: that trip’s cost is included in the price of the truck they were inspecting, thus eliminating the suggestion of a favor or gift.)

Still, there’s no question that the trips were conducted on the truck manufacturers’ dime, knowing that one of those manufacturers could score a deal with the city for a new or used truck. That’s not what’s endangering Roberts’s job. The chief’s silence about the trips is, though it appeared at times as if the entire city government knew about the trips, while Campbell did not. That may point to a deeper issue with more long-term consequences: the manager’s isolation from his ranks.

Shane Wood, the fire department’s second in command, spoke before the commission in a spirited defense of the department as Roberts sat to the left of the dais. (Roberts never spojke during the meeting.) After the meeting, Wood said: “I agree wholeheartedly that there was a breakdown in communication. That’s what it’s boiling down to, a breakdown in communications.” But there were no illusions among the many firefighters at the meeting: the chief’s job is in serious jeopardy.

Settle’s proposals didn’t make it to the city attorney’s drafting table unscathed. Marshall Shupe, sounding at times bitter and describing himself as resentful of Settle’s suggestions (that Shupe and Mealy were aware of the trips all along), repeatedly took issue with Settle, addressing him directly. “I think you’re grabbing at straws. I understand your concern. To me this is a knee jerk reaction that we’re going to go into our ordinances,” Shupe said. “I think reading between the lines that there’s another motive behind this but at the same time this is not an ordinance that needs to be changed the way you want it to be changed. I think this is a condition that exists between the department heads and the city manager.”

Shupe, a volunteer fireman who works with the Flagler Beach Fire Department, said even if he knew of improprieties, he would not have interfered to tell the city manager. “It’s my assumption that he would already know. It’s not my job to tell him,” Shupe said, before criticizing Settle for even implying that there were improprieties. “I resent that,” Shupe said. Settle had conducted his own investigation into the fire truck issue, making public record requests for emails and other documents. Doing so, Settle said, doesn’t imply wrong-doing, but merely enables someone to acquire records.

The matter isn’t over. Besides Roberts’s fate, the commission will have to give hearing to any ordinance changes proposed by Settle–twice, assuming the proposed ordinance survives its first reading.

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11 Responses for “With Fire Chief’s Job Teetering, Flagler Beach Commission Splits Over Ethics and Dysfunction”

  1. Joe A. says:

    So let me get this straight…..

    These guys used their own vacation time. They visited fire truck manufacturer’s to gain knowledge about the apparatus. They cost the tax payers absolutely NO money. So in return we are out to screw these guys???

    Folks… wake up!!

    These guys deserve a medal! How many employees in the private or public sector do you know that would spend their vacation time, (time earned for relaxation) for the benefit of their employer?

    One thing that was not mentioned at all that should be. What happens on someone’s vacation is NO ONES DAMN BUSINESS! I for one would of picked a better destination then a Truck Manufacture, perhaps maybe a Yarn Factory, or something a little less exciting.

    The reality is.. Once again POLITICIANS are attacking the Public Employees. The attack continues nation wide as public employees who work high risk jobs are being forced to work minimum wage. The attack being lead by FAT politicians who have caused our financial dilemmas.

    As far as the Fire Chief goes. If there was an error in communication, should a job be terminated? I think if any ethical violation is found, maybe censure of some sort. A week without pay or something like that.

    For Christ Sake, Bill Clinton was impeached and never removed for office for lying under oath. This is just small town politics with a City Commissioner with high aspirations.

    • FRANK DILIBERTO says:

      Ok, time to stop the witch hunt. Revise your policys and procedures, advise the chief about future communications and move on. There was no wrong doing , no intent to do anything underhanded. This method has been used by manufacturer’s with career and volunteer fire departments for 100 year’s. These trips are very, very important (your not buying a lawn mower) fire apparatus is very specialized and, custom tailored to each department. Visits tp plants during the design stage, pre-build, and final inspection are critical to the process of purchasing a new truck. Give all the truck committee members a pat on the back, thank them for there help and interest in the community and
      lets move forward.

      PS: THANK YOU TO ALL FIRST RESPONDERS FOR WHAT YOU DO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. John Smith says:

    Well the question I have is that if it is all over GIFTS and ethics then who is the city employees to go to when the CITY MANAGER gives out a gift to a resident by having the city employees do something that is in CLEAR VIOLATION to the city ordinances that the commission put into effect because he does do this, OR is he exempt from the ETHICS RULE.
    As usual the Art Woosley group does there part in showing disrespect to anyone who speaks against them by jeering and catcalling to those at the that podium speaking or from the commission such class this group has. They have there city manager so they can get there gifts so I guess they are happy now at the expense of people who want equality among everyone. If the City employees have to report a gift given then shall the city manager that is the QUESTION.

  3. FB Insider says:

    First of all let me clarify, that is not the truck needing replacement. The truck needing replacement is significantly older, the truck above is the newer truck. Second, what a joke of a meeting. Public outbursts left and right, and Commissioner Settles couldn’t seem to take the issue by the horns and discuss it. Instead he called the meeting legislative. I wonder what off of Campbell’s chronies are gonna say when they find out he DID know. I also find it ironic that Settles sat up on his soap box preaching ethics when he hasn’t disclosed all of HIS emails for public record, and the emails he did provide are CROPPED and/or INCOMPLETE.

    Oh and did I mention those are PERSONAL EMAILS?! You preach ethics yet CONDUCT CITY BUSINESS ON PERSONAL EMAIL?!

  4. palmcoaster says:

    To soften and brighten our day and revive our classics, I think we all need to take a break and watch something like this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=GBaHPND2QJg&feature=youtu.be

  5. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    ” although the commission–with the manager present–had officially green-lighted the shopping trips at a March meeting” Is this accurate? I recall from reading other articles on the subject that the commission approved 1 trip to NY in March but not the subsequent trips that are the subject of the current dust up…

    And it would seem to me that Flagler Beach need not update it’s ordinances, as State ethics laws should already prohibit the Chief and other city employees from accepting meals, hotels, air fair or anything else from a vendor attempting to do business with the city.

    • FB Insider says:

      http://records.cityofflaglerbeach.com./weblink8/0/doc/47571/Page1.aspx

      Read page 7 (of 11)

      Settle: “The start looking but let’s appropriate the funds in the budget.”

      So Johnny, how is the fire department supposed to “start looking” without exploring every possible option to make an educated purchasing decision for the city? Also, on page 7 I find it ironic that Settle stated “Why don’t we wait until we have a full Commission?”. So basically, it is ok for Mr. Settle to request a full commission to try to sway things his way but when we knows Joy McGrew will be out of town for last night’s meeting, it is ok to have the meeting without her? I guess when you have the support of Art Woosely and the entire “CCOFB” there, it is ok then right?

  6. Flagler Citizen says:

    I too attended the meeting last night and feel that all in attendance believe that communication is something that needs continual work to avoid situations like that that which we currently have here. Fire Chief’s job “Teetering?”. Do you know something that none of the other Flagler Beach residents are aware of? It was made very clear in last night’s meeting that the resolution of the situation is between Bruce Campbell and Chief Roberts. Is the Chief’s job “Teetering?”

  7. question says:

    palmcoaster,

    Thank You…5:41 of 100% Pure Flash JOY!

  8. JL says:

    No wonder the County is such a hurt. This is the kind of crap they sit around all day fighting about? I say vote them all out next time. All of them.
    The Fire Chief didn’t do anything illegal, or grossly negligent. He used his own time. Now answer me this one question: If the Dept. needs to purchase a fire truck. Would you rather he visit the places on company time and have the county pay for his travel, hotel, expenses? Is that what you’re telling us?
    I say he did the County a favor. He can’t go and buy a truck without the County’s approval. I’m sure he would turn in several options and make recommendations. So it’s NOT like they really gave the Fire Chief gifts.
    Can we worry about more serious issues? Jobs, taxes, crime…..

  9. K says:

    I believe there are ethical issues involved in trips like these and other freebies. Something about disclosure needs to be on the books so there is a proper procedure to follow in the future. I also think the fire chief needs to be counseled on who he works for and sanctioned for not clearing a trip like this with his boss.

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