There was more heat than light, more anger than answers at today’s much-anticipated workshop on the results of air testing inside the troubled and currently evacuated Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell.
At the beginning of the meeting, Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said everyone around the table–the commission, the county administration, the sheriff and his employees–were part of a single team, with the safety of employees everyone’s priority.
But that hope was belied by the rest of a meeting in turns tense, questioning, combative, threatening and personally revealing (when employees spoke of their own health issues). It started with a lengthy introduction to the discussion–not by Hansen, the sheriff, scientists or someone who might speak for all of them collectively in a reflection of unity, but by the county attorney. The usually voluble Craig Coffey, the county administrator, sat silent throughout. The hope for comity was further belied by Sheriff Rick Staly’s response to the report, which questioned the county’s motive to speed it along and questioned its scope: “Do we really know that the appropriate testing was done?” the sheriff asked.
And it was belied by the aggressively adversarial statements of by Geoffrey Bichler, the attorney the sheriff’s employees hired to represent them, who in minutes questioned the county’s attorney grasp of the law, accused him of wanting to send employees back into a sick building, and threatened negligence litigation.
Others questioned the validity of the report at the heart of today’s discussion or the sincerity of county government’s pledge to look out for employees’ welfare. One sheriff’s employee spoke of her own experiences with health issues that flared whenever she was in the building and subsided the moment she’d be out of it. “This is not just a little rash, as some may think,” she said.
“I have made unbelievable improvements since I left that building,” Annie Conrad, another employee–a detective who’s as been at the forefront of the controversy because of the severity of her symptoms–told commissioners. Joe Costello, another detective, said he saw any sense of unity on the issue deteriorating, not improving. “I question whether we’re truly working together here even more than before,” Costello said.
Hadeed described the current situation as “a holding pattern,” with the sheriff seeking further testing and analysis and the county commission unclear on what step to take next. County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said testing options have not been exhausted and giving a move-in date for employees evacuated from the building last month was “premature and ill-advised.”
And in fact commissioners made no decision at the end of the nearly three-hour meeting.
Staly in his statement sought to balance severe criticism with hope for further analysis. “Our actions and results need to be deliberate and methodical. Just like a criminal case, no investigation should be rushed,” the sheriff said, on two occasions suggesting that the testing has been rushed. He also alluded to the legal posturing taking place behind the scenes: “We now have four attorneys involved representing all perspectives and sides to this issue, and it just takes time,” he said. (See Staly’s full statement here.)
In the most critical words he’s used to date on the controversy, Staly said the report implied that his employees were to some extent at fault for the health issues they were suffering–the sort of blame, Staly says, he sees in domestic violence situations, when the victim is blamed. Staly said he would not tolerate such an approach, again questioning the accuracy of the report and its numerous “outstanding questions.”
He urged the County Commission to delay accepting the report, drawing applause from a crowd of several dozens, a third of it made up of sheriff’s employees, including many of the affected employees.
County Attorney Al Hadeed in his introduction said he was going to “set the platform for the discussion we’re now going to have” before the environmental engineer hired to test the Operations Center’s interiors presented a report on recent testing.
Hadeed’s preface defended the fact that the report was written in the absence of any medical information regarding the 30-some employees affected by health problems at the Operations Center. He did not downplay the importance of those records by any means. But he said “what our expert did was to proceed in a way so as to make the submittal of the employees’ medical records and more importantly their evaluation… to be moot.” It was likely not the best choice of word to describe records he had himself just spent several minutes describing as usually integral to any complete analysis of a potentially sick building.
Rather, he said, the report is now “going to significantly contribute to the effort of the occupational physician” the sheriff hired to evaluate employees’ complaints. But that did not explain why the county administrator had seemed to give the all-clear for a move back into the building, since Hadeed was clearly signaling that there was more analysis ahead.
Hadeed then defended the fact that testing was limited to certain toxins, mold and dust. “We cannot be put onto this treadmill of constantly going down and checking every thought that everyone has,” he said, without citing examples. Dennis McDonald, a candidate for the county commission, has been critical of the testing’s limited scope, saying the building’s slab is not up to code and citing a few other issues he said the testing did not address. Hadeed also defended the county’s approach that led to the hiring of the Zdenek Hejzlar at Fort Myers-based Engineering Systems Inc. for the testing, noting that the county did not want to hire a company it had previously worked with so as not to send the wrong message. As an endorsement of Hejzlar’s work, he added: “Those who slant their reports, they’re not going to continue to be hired.”
Only then Hejzlar presented a summary of his own executive summary to a more-than-thousand-page report County Administrator Craig Coffey released last week. It was a brief presentation that summarized what’s been previously reported–that the building does not have a mold problem, nor a toxin problem, nor a slab problem. In other words, that the building is not sick. (Paul Pavlik of the Bureau of Radiation Control and Suzanne LeViseur, a mechanical engineer who addressed the building’s air-conditioning system, also spoke, one to say the building has no radiation issues, the other to caution against a revamp of the air-conditioning system as unnecessary overkill.)
Staly spoke after Hejzlar, reading from a lengthy statement that questioned the speed of the analysis and its incompleteness, and described his employees’ personal experiences with health issues, including the way some of their own initiative discovered mold infestations in parts of the building. “My team and I have no confidence in this building,” he said. But, he later added, “I want us to work together.”
“This commission supports you 100 percent,” Hansen, the commission chairman, said.
Hejzlar said he’d not been given a deadline to produce the report, but in the days leading up to the testing it was clear there was urgency from all side for action, since the sheriff had ordered the building evacuated and was not thrilled at having his ranks split between the county courthouse and the old sheriff’s administration building.
Gabe Fuentes, a sheriff’s detective who represents the sheriff’s employees’ union, spoke in the public portion of the meeting and questioned why the county forbade Hejzlar to speak with sheriff’s employees, undermining the county’s claims of transparency. “The picture that we’re not cooperating is ridiculous and it’s not right to be painted that way,” Fuentes said, referring to the numerous occasions when the county and Hejzlar’s report have blamed employees for not making medical information available.
“If you guys think the building is fine, are you willing to occupy the building?” Fuentes asked the commission.
“We may go with a civil negligence claim, that’s another option,” Geoffrey Bichler, the employees’ attorney, said. “We are communicating with defense counsel, we are giving defense counsel the medical records, so if there is any confusion about that I would recommend talking to the defense attorney that’s been hired in this case.” (Later in the meeting Hadeed countered, regarding the threat of civil litigation: “Unless we go off the rails in some unusual way I don’t see that we have that concern.”)
Jane Gentile-Youd, long a critic of the building and a candidate for the county commission, had one prescription for the building, drawing applause: “Please, tear this piece of crap down.”
Toward the end of the meeting commissioners weighed in, with McLaughlin insisting, despite the 140 previous minutes’ evidence to the contrary, that any suggestion of finger-pointing or blaming was false. Moments later Abby Romaine, another candidate for the commission, spoke of the meeting reflecting a “sad day” of “rancor” and the hurt of employees, and pressing for “a more exhaustive analysis” of contaminants “so we don;t have to have our employees feel like they have to move out of the building and find a job elsewhere” rather than move back into the building, or have the feeling of being “revictimized.”
Commissioners Dave Sullivan and Don O’Brien qualified the ongoing discussion in less cheerleading terms. “If fixing it means tearing the building down, that’s what we’re going to do,” Hansen said.