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At Flagler’s Emergency Operations, Key Employee’s Firing Exposes Broader Turmoil

| October 31, 2016

The Emergency Operations Center about a day and a half before Hurricane Matthew's arrival offshore. (© FlaglerLive)

The Emergency Operations Center about a day and a half before Hurricane Matthew’s arrival offshore. (© FlaglerLive)

Even as Gov. Rick Scott was arriving for a surprise visit to Flagler County’s Emergency Operations Center to hear how the Hurricane Matthew crisis was handled and how things could be improved, a key member of Flagler County’s emergency management team had just gone through a hearing in the building next door after learning that she was being fired.

Jennifer Stagg, 38, is the senior planner of preparedness who’s worked for three emergency managers at Flagler County’s Emergency Management division going back to July 2010. Last week Steve Garten, the current emergency services manager, told her he was firing her. The causes against her include alleged tardiness and absenteeism (the list is not short), inappropriate language in the presence of  incident management team members and insubordination.

Stagg’s only comment for this article was one line: “I love my job. I love my county.” Like county officials, she said the matter is pending, so she won’t address it publicly.

Garten would not address the Stagg issue, either. “That hearing is ongoing right now so it won’t be talked about,” he said. Asked about Stagg’s service, he said he could not speak about it.

People familiar with her case say she doesn’t dispute occasional tardiness and some absenteeism but calls them neither unexcused nor unjustified (she’s had medical issues, some of them apparently caused by overwork). They say she considers the rest of the charges against her unsubstantiated and unjustified, if not trumped up, in the context of a career devoted to emergency management locally and a history of acclaim from colleagues and supervisors and other members in the community, including Community Emergency Response Team members she was responsible for training in Planation Bay and Grand Haven.

Stagg’s firing has been causing an uproar, organized in large part by her former supervisor, Kevin Guthrie, who had been Flagler’s emergency services manager until he took the emergency manager’s job in Pasco County in February. Guthrie’s tenure in Flagler was universally highly regarded, and county commissioners, the sheriff and municipal officials saw his departure as a loss, though the staff he left behind remained intact—until Stagg’s firing.

Jennifer Stagg.

Jennifer Stagg.

Guthrie drew on that capital to bring attention to Stagg’s firing, which he says, based on his experience, is unjustified and damaging to the county’s ability to handle emergencies. Guthrie unequivocally says that the county would have been worse off had Stagg not been at the heart of the Hurricane Matthew management team (she was, for example, responsible for securing an incident management team from elsewhere in the state to come to the county’s aide when the hurricane was expected to unleash a direct hit on the county.)

He called the firing “the most shocking news I have heard in probably 27 years of public safety.” Guthrie Saturday took to Facebook—a medium he’d mostly ignored until then—not only to speak his outrage at the treatment of his former employee but to mobilize support on her behalf.

“I don’t live in Flagler anymore but ladies and gentlemen who live in Flagler county, enough is enough,” Guthrie wrote. “There is not a single EM [emergency management] staff member who works for Flagler county EM who has more response and preparedness experience than Jennifer Stagg – including the Director. If Jennifer Stagg did something to ensure your safety during Hurricane Matthew I implore you to show up for her disciplinary hearing” this morning, before Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman.

Thirty-one people did, including several members of the emergency response teams at Plantation Bay and Grand Haven, and including Guthrie, who took time off from his job across the state, to testify on Stagg’s behalf. County Administrator Craig Coffey this afternoon described the campaign as “a circus” organized by Guthrie.

Starting just before 11 a.m. today Stagg went through a so-called “pre-disciplinary hearing for intent to terminate.” The hearing started almost an hour late because the county administration had never been faced with an employee turning up to defend herself with that many witnesses. And when it did start, Garten spent almost an hour reading line for line the allegations against Stagg—an attempt, Guthrie said in an interview this evening, “to filibuster so that many of the community members that came out to support Jennifer during this time became frustrated with the process and went to a point where they were going to write their statement and email them in to the hearing officer and [County Human Resources Director] Joe Mayer because they were not going to have the opportunity to stay around all day long. They still have a life.”

It worked: several people left, writing statements instead, while the hearing itself was stopped before 2 p.m., with the governor approaching. Sherman said it would resume Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. and extend just 90 minutes—an inappropriate limitation, Guthrie said, when a person’s job is on the line. He’d been in the middle of his own testimony when the hearing was continued.

kevin guthrie resignation

Kevin guthrie. (© FlaglerLive)

County Administrator Craig Coffey would not discuss the Stagg firing today. “It’s normal employee procedure,” Coffey said. “We don’t typically talk about employee-disciplinary actions.” He said she will get to appeal the hearing’s outcome to him if she so chooses, but her next avenue of appeal would not be the county commission, but court.

But the Stagg issue appears to be only a small part of a larger problem at emergency management, where Garten tried to fire at least one other employee a few weeks ago, and was rebuffed by Mayer, and where Garten himself has been counseled by Mayer to tone down his apparently abrasive manner with employees—women in particular—in one of the county’s smallest departments: what anyone says there reverberates loudly.

One of the division’s employees spoke up on her own Facebook page Sunday in yet another unusual move: “For the first time in my life I’ve complained to a commissioner in writing,” Laura Nelson, an emergency planner who secured over $1 million in grants for the county just last year, wrote. “The things that have gone on in the last 6 months really pretty inexcusable in my book. I’m tired… Like so, so tired… both physically and mentally. If something doesn’t change soon the boss will get his wish and all the women under him will find new jobs.”

Guthrie in the interview this evening acknowledged that he’d had to verbally warn Stagg about her issue with lateness, but that subsequently worked on a schedule that best enabled her success at work, and never again had an issue with her punctuality. He saw the sick leave issue as contrived against her.

When other witnesses heard the list of allegations against Stagg this morning at the hearing, many gaped, and some did not wait their turn at the hearing to respond publicly, including Sally Gillies, a member of the Plantation Bay emergency response team.

“I was just shocked,” Gilles said. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of. I was a small business owner for 14 years. I would have loved to have had 10 employees like Jennifer. She is a rare find, totally dedicated, smart, she likes to plan ahead, she’s really good with the people like us. We’re just volunteers, but she has a great working relationship with the fire department and the police department and everybody is coordinated.” Gillies, who is retired, has no relationship with Stagg other than as a  member of the emergency response team.

“To me, as a small business owner,” Gillies continued, “the idea of a manager doing something like this to a very valuable employee makes me wonder about the character of the manager. Is he afraid because she is so well qualified and she knows how to do all these things? Does he dislike women intensely? Does he not want any of them around? There’s all kinds of reasons.” Gillies did not get to testify. She ended up writing an email to Sherman, echoing some of the statements she’d made in the interview.

Guthrie said that while a time limit on Wednesday would be a problem, Sherman had been conducting “a fair hearing, and I’m confident that she can remain objective and listen to both sides of the argument.”

But, he said as an example of how Stagg’s loss could cost the county, he said her presence at emergency management is critical to ensure that the county gets fully reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Administration following Hurricane Matthew. “To get rid of her at this critical point will cause the county to lose reimbursement funds that they expended during the response,” he said. “Why now, at such a pivotal point in the history of Flagler County do they want to make this case against her? I think it’s a bad idea. She has the most experience and knowledge than any other person in emergency management to include the director.” He added: “There are those in administration who don’t understand the value of employees.”

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20 Responses for “At Flagler’s Emergency Operations, Key Employee’s Firing Exposes Broader Turmoil”

  1. FlaglerLive says:

    [A comment posted here within hours of the story publishing, claiming to be written by a former county employee who was critical of the human resources director and the county administrator, was removed: the employee by that name hasn’t worked for the county in 16 years and never worked under the current administration, which indicates that likely partisans in this issue stole his identity to fabricate a story damaging to the administration to buttress their own. Such malicious manipulations of the comment section by trolls can’t be entirely policed, but isn’t tolerated when uncovered.–FL]

  2. Robert Lewis says:

    Once again Flagler County has proven it is untrustworthy in times of despair. We should never have allowed this to come this far. The problem needs to be fixed. The problem extends to the county commissioners. Because of this I will vote out every incumbent because they have put our community at risk.

    Shame on Craig Coffey
    Shame on Steve Garten
    Shame on Flagler Commissioners

  3. Concerned Citizen says:

    Jennifer Stagg has done an excellent job over the years in EM. She is a hard worker and is there a lot of times after everyone else has gone home.

    She has a dedication to her job and her passion for her county and to the volunteers of this area amazes me.

    I am glad to see Kevin Guthrie and others stand up for her. It will be a very bad decision on the new EM Chief’s part if he has her terminated.

    Firing someone just because you might not like them is not very professional. If you have issues with female staff then you need to learn how to grow a pair man up and learn to work with them. If you are unable to do that you don’t belong in Public Safety.

    Don’t fire them because they know the job better than you.

    Thank you Flagler Live for bringing this to the public’s attention. This county often has no shame in rail roading good employees and letting them go.

    I’m not surprised that Kevin Guthrie chose to dedicate time standing up for her. It shows far more character and integrity than her current boss has.

  4. Index Finger says:

    All I know is I couldn’t reach(emergency center) these clowns the night before Hurricane Matthew was supposed to hit. After many unsuccessful try’s I called the FCSO to find out where the mandatory evacs were taking place, where they spoke in zones not sections and military time both of which I wasn’t too familiar with until recently.

  5. r&r says:

    Her firing sounds justified. We don’t need employees who are tardy and absent on a regular basis.

  6. Sw says:

    Welcome to real life politics. Cant just go fire people these days. Sounds like chunk of $$ is going to be paid out from taxpayers in Flagler County. What a complete and total disaster this place is lmao. Everyday a little worse …….

  7. footballen says:

    Trouble is brewing in Salem, I mean Palm Coast.

  8. Bartholomew says:

    Unbelievable. These are trumped up reasons. Why is the director out to get her? We lost a lot when Kevin left, but to lose her too….ugh!

  9. palmcoaster says:

    The county unfair network at work…is time for Coffey and his associates to go. The only thing we need now is also taxpayers funds to have to be used in more legal fees to defend maybe against sex discrimination on the job. Enough that Coffey is currently wasting our tax funds in his several lawsuits now one more against former SOE Weeks trying to pin her as an individual to destroy her financially, when at the time she complain to the ethic commission against cover ups by some commissioners and county attorney of trying to influence the canvassing board and elections she was the SOE. As such she is to be defended also by county provided lawyer aka our tax payers funds. Now when the current SOE uses Attorney Labasky to defend and advise her on her errors currently committed in the mosquito control race and maybe from expert SOE assistant Dorleen lawsuit for being fired after a medical leave, the FCBOCC and Coffey don’t raise Holy Hell now and keep it as quite as possible?Bias and shenanigans plague this good old boy county management! A real shame that waste taxpayers funds in legal fees other than needed community services and capital projects. Our county and city elected ones forget that we do not elect them to sue us but instead to govern and manage our taxpayers hard earned funds with responsibility and honesty.

  10. Wait a minute says:

    Didn’t Kevin highly recommend the new EM when he left. It’s there is so many problems since he took over. Maybe he’s the one that needs to go !!

  11. Layla says:

    It’s time to change the management of Flagler County. I think we all understand that. Has there been any attempt to straighten out these issues prior to this hearing?

  12. Robjr says:

    The reality is that the employee loses in most cases and management prevails.

    Florida is a right to fire state.
    She will more than likely have to spend money on an attorney and take her case to the for profit justice system.

  13. Shaking My Head says:

    These hearings are a joke, the final decision is made well before the hearings. I have never seen one of these hearings ending in favor of the employee. There is a policy adopted by the County Commission, but it is constantly circumvented. The County Manager routinely makes HR decisions without following the correct or appropriate processes. Ask all of the employees that have been “laid off” over the last couple of years. People who do nothing wrong and cannot be fired are “laid off”. Just ask the previous IT Manager. He was told if he didn’t keep quiet they would not pay his severance after 20 plus years. Jennifer Stagg could have 500 people show up and it won’t save her job. Welcome to Flagler County where there are zero advocates for the employees.

  14. orangeatan says:

    Would love to know how many hours a week she actually worked. I wonder if she was ever there after 5pm, checked company email or voicemail after hours, worked weekends, made business related calls after hours, researched county issues in the evenings from home, etc. I would bet she worked well over a 40 hour week and maybe her boss felt threatened by this. Maybe even felt it made him look lazy compared to her. On the days that she was late or didn’t come in, how many hours had she worked the day before, or that week. We are not seeing the full picture here. Some men just don’t care for strong women. hummm…that sounds familiar….DT

  15. palmcoaster says:

    is a real shame in this county and the blame should be pointed at the FCBOCC regarding the wide difference in pay form the low tier employees versus management.
    I know a 50’s year old that he works for this county just for “the medical benefits” as the pay is “nothing”
    Of course his wife works in another field for private businesses so they can make ends meet.
    But we should all be shamed that a 50’s hard and good working handy man works for his medical benefits only in this laughable “Right to work state” were the reality should read “Right to be a screwed worker state” were still the good old boys rule.
    These southern Reps make impossible for workers to survive in a decent pay around here while the top managers make millionaire pays and the utilities and developers keep depleting our pockets with increases and given tax exceptions approved with flying colors by the crooks we seat in office.

  16. TJ says:

    It looks like Kevin Guthrie did not run a tight ship for Flagler EM and the next guy was stuck taking care of all the problems that he created. Shame on you Mr. Guthrie. Jennifer Stagg lost her job because you were a poor manager and let her form bad habits.

    It also sounds like Kevin Guthrie, the former Flagler emergency manager, wants the County Manager’s Job!!!

  17. Layla says:

    We have an election coming up and the opportunity to seat an entirely new Commission. Get out and vote.

  18. Flagler County Watch says:

    This whole mess created by the county administrator and emergency operations manager is nuts. I have worked with this employee for 5 years now and can say that since the departure of Kevin Guthrie, she is the only one in the EOC who knows anything about disaster policy and preparedness. As a private citizen and resident, we were lucky to have her on duty during Hurricane Matthew. If the county leadership lets her go as they did Kevin Guthrie, emergency operations in Flagler will really unravel. Rather than picking on a female planner for performance, maybe the citizens should clean house starting with the commissioners on down.

  19. MM says:

    My experience with Ms Stagg has been nothing but positive. As a volunteer, I could see that she was a dedicated, county employs and a hard worker. She always presented professionally, worked after hours and off the “clock”. Something is amiss here that deserves attention by an unbiased party.

  20. SPM PB CERT says:

    As a member of the Plantation Bay CERT team I want to add my unqualified support for Jennifer Stagg. She has always been available for us to help in our training and resource requirements. She was always available for our group after hours and weekends. It is clear that she processes an in depth knowledge of the inter workings of the emergency management process and organizations on a local, state and federal level. Her team work and support of Kevin Guthrie made for an exceptional team and was instrumental in the development of the county wide training exercise that we had at the high school last year. I would hope that that Jennifer’s knowledge and dedication to Flagler County can continue in a constructive and supportive environment.

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