Flagler Beach Fire Chief Martin Roberts Faces Firing on Insubordination Charge
FlaglerLive | July 16, 2012
Last Updated: 2:09 p.m.
Flagler Beach Fire Chief Martin Roberts was placed on administrative leave on July 12 and told he would be fired pending a pre-disciplinary hearing with City Manager Bruce Campell on Tuesday at 10 a.m., in Campbell’s office. As of Monday, Roberts no longer had access to city computers, and his passwords were changed.
“I have attempted to correct your repeated insubordination, violation of chain of command, and incompetency or negligence in the performance of your duties. All efforts have failed,” Campbell wrote Roberts in a hand-delivered three-page memo dated July 12.
Bobby Pace, a firefighter in the department, is the interim chief.
“I’m not happy about it but it’s not my job to get involved,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, said this afternoon. “I don’t think that the fire chief was insubordinate or those things—I don’t believe all those charges.” Mealy had gone to city hall on unrelated business when Campbell saw her there and took her aside to inform her of his decision. “I’ve only known for about an hour, so I haven’t totally processed this whole thing yet. I was kind of taken aback.”
In his termination letter to Roberts, Campbell was referring to the controversy that engulfed the fire department and the city following a series of unauthorized trips Roberts and other fire department employees took out of state to examine fire trucks. In March, however, Roberts had appeared before the city commission and received an explicit go-ahead to conduct a trip to New York to examine a truck, and even put down a $500 deposit if necessary. The city authorized the deposit, but did not authorize any other spending, such as air fares and hotels, nor did commissioners ask how the trip would be paid for, though it appeared that several commissioners already knew: the company making the offer of a truck would underwrite the trip, as is common in the industry.
Roberts had spoken with commissioners, including Joy McGrew and Jane Mealy, about the possible truck buy before that March meeting. He had not spoken to Campbell about his meetings with commissioners. Campbell took that as an affront, since department heads are not supposed to circumvent the city manager and go directly to commissioners on city business. Campbell severely reprimanded Roberts after that meeting, serving him notice that it was his last warning.
In June, Roberts went to South Dakota and Minnesota with two firefighters to inspect trucks, without telling Campbell. (That was one trip: South Dakota one day, Minnesota the next.) Roberts took vacation time to do the trip, which was underwritten by the fire truck company. Art Woosley, a retired fire official from South Florida who’s very active in Flagler Beach politics behind the scene, and who led an effort to elevate Campbell to city manager, emailed the manager with information about the trips, prompting Campbell to investigate. That, in turn, led City Commission member Steve b Settle to question how the trips could have taken place without the city commission’s knowledge, though other commissioners–Mealy and Marshall Shupe, a volunteer in the city’s fire department–said it was a matter between the fire chief and the manager, and that the city commission should steer clear. Nevertheless, at a special meeting prompted by Settle, commissioners agreed to consider adding language to the city’s ordinances regarding commission ethics and oversight responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Campbell was conducting his investigation, knowing that, his own March meeting with Roberts having become public, he had little choice but to make good on his disciplinary promise should a similar issue recurred. In Campbell’s view, it did do–even after the issue became public. The July 12 memo to Roberts reveal what until now had not been known: that, in the memo’s wording to Roberts, “After being reprimanded for your actions, you authorized a member of your Department to take a third out-of-state trip on City business without the knowledge of, or approval from, the City Manager. You have therefore committed three offenses of insubordination, have been counseled and reprimanded, and are subject to discharge.”
The events threw the city commission in turmoil for weeks.
“Of course we’ve gone through this conversations and accusations for weeks, longer, and the longer it went the worse it got, but it’s our form of government, that’s what happens,” Commissioner Marshall Shupe said. “It’s Bruce’s obligation to not only us and the city and the residents, he needs to do his job. If something like this occurs nobody is happy with anything that’s a negative in the city for sure, and it is what it is. I think everybody down at that fire station is still going to be pulling for the primary interest and responsibility, and that is keeping our city safe with a good fire department.”
Campbell was asked on Friday by a reporter whether there had been any developments regarding Martin’s fate. Campbell said no and to check back later, though clearly Campbell had acted, as of Thursday, with that memo, which minced no words.
Campbell cites three sets of reasons for firing Roberts: insubordination, incompetence or negligence in the performance of duties, and receiving gifts of value from a concern potentially doing business with the city.
“Either the City’s Manager was intentionally circumvented in the decision making about the inspection trips or it did not occur to you that the City Manager should be involved in this decision making,” Campbell wrote. “If the former, the offense is insubordination (see above). If the latter, you were either incompetent or negligent in the performance of your duty as Fire Chief.”
The memo also notes the March 23 reprimand meeting: “On March 23, 2012, I met with you and communicated to you about your failure to follow the proper chain of command by speaking with Commission members about a fire truck replacement without approval from or discussion with the City Manager,” Campbell wrote. “I warned you that such conduct fell below the desirable level of the behavior and performance expected of a department director and would not be tolerated in the future. At that meeting, you made no mention of any future activities or out-of-state trips to visit fire truck manufacturing plants to pursue a replacement truck.”
With the fire chief absent, Shane Wood, the second in command, is normally in charge of the department. But Wood is taking a personal trip with his family Tuesday and won’t return to work until July 30. Contacted on Monday, Wood said he had not spoken with Campbell, nor was he fully aware of the situation, but was hoping to know more later in the day. In his and the chief’s absence, he said, Pace had been in charge in the past, as he was last Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Roberts could not be reached. The 65-year-old fire chief was hired in Flagler Beach in 2005, after three fire chiefs had held the position in the previous three years (Robbie Creal, Jon Macdonald and Charles Burnett). He was hired to bring stability to the department. He’d spent his career in Radford, Va., where he served 18 years as assistant fire chief and six as chief.
Full text of the July 12 Letter to Martin Roberts
Dear Chief Roberts:
This will serve as the City’s notice of intent to dismiss you from your employment as Fire Chief for the City of Flagler Beach. On Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10:00 a.m, a pre-disciplinary hearing will be held in my office pursuant to Section 2-269 of the Code of Ordinance, and I will render a final decision within one working day. The hearing will be audiotaped and subsequently made a part of the City’s public record. As an at will employee of the City, you are entitled to resign your employment with or without cause at any time. Effective immediately you are being placed on paid administrative leave pending my final decision.
Below are the facts upon which the City relies when drawing the conclusion that dismissal of your employment is required.
(1) Prior to the March 22, 2012, Commission meeting, you communicated directly to commissioners without my knowledge, advocating that the City pursue the purchase of a replacement fire truck. The topic and your communications were raised at the March 22 Commission meeting.
(2) On March 23, 2012, I met with you and communicated to you about your failure to follow the proper chain of command by speaking with Commission members about a fire truck replacement without approval from or discussion with the City Manager. I warned you that such conduct fell below the desirable level of the behavior and performance expected of a department director and would not be tolerated in the future. At that meeting, you made no mention of any future activities or out-of-state trips to visit fire truck manufacturing plants to pursue a replacement truck.
3) In June, you and two firefighters visited two fire truck manufacturing plants in Minnesota and South Dakota to view the plants and assembly procedures. You neither informed nor obtained permission from the City Manager regarding the trips even though the trips related to City business. You were not given permission to act on the City’s behalf on these trips by either the City Manager or the City Commission.
(4) On June 25, 2012, after the inspection trips had been brought to my attention, I told you that it was inappropriate for you to take have taken the trips without knowledge or approval of the City Manager. At that time, you made no mention that a third trip was to be taken by a member of the Fire Department to inspect a third manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, which occurred on or about June 26, 2012. The third trip was taken without knowledge or approval of the City Manager.
(5) The fire truck manufacturers paid for all expenses, including transportation, meals, and lodging.
Based on the above, dismissal is warranted as direct violations of the following offenses:
A. Insubordination by refusing to perform work assigned or to comply with written or verbal instructions of a supervisor as long as the written or verbal instruction is not in violation of any federal, state or local law [Sec. 2-270, Group III Offenses, (7)]
On March 23, the City Manager gave you verbal instructions regarding the proper chain of command. Thereafter, you took an out-of-state trip, and authorized members in your Department to take the trip with you, on City business without the knowledge of, or approval from, the City Manager. After being reprimanded for your actions, you authorized a member of your Department to take a third out-of-state trip on City business without the knowledge of, or approval from, the City Manager. You have therefore committed three offenses of insubordination, have been counseled and reprimanded, and are subject to discharge.
B. Incompetence, inefficiency, or negligence in the performance of duty. [Sees. 2-262(b)(3) and 2-270, Group III Offenses, (14)]
Either the City’s Manager was intentionally circumvented in the decision making about the inspection trips or it did not occur to you that the City Manager should be involved in this decision making. If the former, the offense is insubordination (see above). If the latter, you were either incompetent or negligent in the performance of your duty as Fire Chief.
C. Receiving from any person, or participating in any fee, gift or other valuable thing in the course of work, when such fee, gift or other valuable thing is given in the hope or expectation of receiving a favor of better treatment than that accorded other persons. [Sec. 2-270, Group III Offenses, (3)]
The fact that the trips were paid for by private corporations which could benefit from the payments presents a potential violation of this prohibition. The payments for travel, food and lodging were received directly by you. Even though it is unknown whether such expenses were paid for with the expectation of receiving better treatment than that accorded-other. corporations or individuals, there is an appearance that such intent may have existed. Had proper approval of the City Manager been sought prior to the inspection trip being taken, the potential pitfalls of this possible violation could have been addressed.
I have attempted to correct your repeated insubordination, violation of chain of command, and incompetency or negligence in the performance of your duties. All efforts have failed.
Bruce C. Campbell