Stopping short of conceding that there is a widespread problem at the Sheriff’s Operations Center absent further proof, the Flagler County administration this afternoon responded to Sheriff Rick Staly’s letter from the day before regarding concerns of a sick building and an increasing number of affected employees. But the relatively brief statement did little more than say: We’ll get back to you.
The statement, written with a hint of pique at the sheriff’s approach, says the county had been working on the issue with the sheriff, and that its efforts were progressing before the sheriff issued his letter. The county says it was at its recommendation that the sheriff got referred to an independent physician who could analyze the issue, while the county itself in mid-May had decided to hire an environmental expert of its own, with whom it will now schedule a workshop with the county commission. The sheriff will be invited to that workshop.
“We are as concerned as the Sheriff about the health and well-being of everyone who works in the Sheriff’s Operation Center, as well as any other Flagler County facility,” the county states. “Flagler County takes seriously any, and all, potentially harmful conditions at the Sheriff’s Operation Center and has done so from the time of the acquisition of the former hospital to the present.”
Nevertheless it was not County Administrator Craig Coffey who issued the statement, which was unsigned, but Julie Murphy, the county’s chief spokesperson–a breach in protocol that, while likely more clumsy than intentional on Coffey’s part, could be perceived as lacking respect for one of the county’s chief elected officials. (An elected official’s letter is not usually answered by the public information office.) On the other hand, the statement was presented as a place-holder: Coffey gave the five-page letter he received to Murphy today and asked her to formulate a response that sums up what the county had been working on. Coffey himself was preparing to take leave of the county for two days to attend the annual conference of the Florida County and City Managers Association, which started in Orlando today. Because of that, “A formal response to the Sheriff’s letter will be forthcoming sometime next week,” the statement concluded.
But the approach lacks the sort of urgency the sheriff and his employees have been asking for and may underscore the sheriff’s claim: that the county has not been on the ball. On top of that, the sheriff received the statement at 5:51 p.m., according to the email’s time-stamp, 40 minutes after it was received by local media.
Chief Mark Strobridge, who’s been the sheriff’s point man on the building matter, did not see much of substance in the statement other than that further testing at the operations center will be conducted in June.
In essence, the sheriff and the county are taking up positions, each side protecting its own by mildly, not bluntly, pointing fingers the other way while trying to project a committed response for employees’ sake. If the two agencies’ approach reflects a measure of posturing, both agencies are still attempting to preserve workable communication lines since in the end the sheriff is in this case almost entirely dependent on the county: the sheriff by law is a tenant and the county is the landlord, or at least the facilities manager, responsible for all facility-related issues. Any solution to the problem would have to be enacted by the county, at the county’s expense.
Meanwhile uncertainty about the breadth of the problem is dictating both sides’ approaches. On Tuesday, the sheriff spoke openly of the possibility–however remote–that the building may not be salvageable, and requested from the county that an alternate space be made available for affected employees, thus raising the stakes considerably.
“Flagler County has started exploring options to accommodate the sheriff’s request for alternative office space,” the county’s statement said at the end of its two pages today.
Staly issued two letters Tuesday: one to his staff, one to Coffey. The letters point to a turn-around in the sheriff’s handling of the potential of a sick-building syndrome. His administration had been guardedly skeptical about a widespread problem when three or four employees reported health problems last fall. The employees were assigned out of the building, though when some of them returned problems re-emerged, and more than two dozen employees subsequently reported health issues this spring, particularly in the last few weeks–coincident with the rainiest May since 2009, according to Bob Pickering, Flagler Emergency Management’s weather specialist. And that was before today’s deluge. (Mold and moisture in the building is believed to be a chief culprit of the problem.) The administration then pledged to employees that it would do what was necessary to ensure their safety while pressuring the county to act.
The sheriff’s letter suggested the county had been dragging its feet. The county disagrees. “It has been communicated to the Sheriff on many occasions that if there is a problem, we want to identify it and do what is necessary to correct the matter,” the statement says.
Strobridge doesn’t disagree with the statement, but doesn’t see the statement as reflecting current anxieties. “Take politics out of it, take everything else out of it, it is about people feeling safe coming to work, and he knows they do not,” Strobridge said of Staly.
The county’s statement summarizes the various steps the county took last year–at a cost of $29,000, not the $65,000 figure the sheriff listed in his letter, Murphy specified in the letter and in an interview, but it had not actually been a mistake by the sheriff: “apparently the county gave the 65K number in casual conversation without the benefit of research/confirmation,” Murphy later clarified in an email.
“As a second round of precautionary measures,” the county’s statement continued, “the County engaged an environmental engineer earlier this month out of an abundance of caution to address new issued raised by employees at the Sheriff’s Operation Center. This was done working with the Sheriff’s Office more than a week before he chose to issue a letter.”
Staly in his letter said the engineer was hired at his insistence and that of County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen. “I have been in conversations with the county manager and I have said we have to support the sheriff,” Hansen said this afternoon. “I have told him that time and time and time again,” noting that he’s been pushing for the engineer for three months. “In my view he was hanging out to dry,” Hansen said of Staly.
The county today held a kick-off meeting with Zdenek Hejzlar, a senior managing consultant with ESi, or Engineering Systems Inc, with more than 27 years of experience in premises and occupational safety and various aspects of the environmental and toxic health fields, the county states. “Hejzlar will perform a broader and more scientific scope of analysis to address the evolving set of concerns raised” and will meet with commissioners in a workshop “sooner rather than later,” Murphy said.
Sheriff’s employees affected by the building would not be part of the workshop, Murphy said, “but if they wanted to ask questions they’d get their three minutes like everybody else.” The workshop is intended to be educational about plans moving forward.
None of those arrangements had been discussed with commissioners previously, and at least the workshop, if not Wednesday’s meeting with Hejzlar, appear to be in direct response to the sheriff’s letter.
“Despite whatever everybody else has been saying about it,” Strobridge said, “the sheriff has been working on this for quite some time and feels like there has not been quite enough fast movement.”