A workers’ compensation judge looking over 22 sheriff’s employees’ cases today ordered the “preservation” of the Flagler County Sheriff’s troubled and evacuated Operations Center, though the order does not apply to the county, which is not a party to workers’ compensation issues.
The order may derail or at least suspend whatever plan the sheriff and the County Commission may have devised after today’s presentation to the commission of a new report on the building’s air safety. That, plus a visit by the Centers for Disease Control next week and the election in three months is adding to a state of suspended animation as far as the sheriff’s exile from the Operations Center is concerned.
There’s no plan to reoccupy the building for at least the next several months. Sheriff’s personnel has been scattered between its old administrative office, the courthouse and other locations since the evacuation. But the sheriff said today that situation is “untenable,” and must be addressed with a “mid-term solution” until the county figures out whether and how to reoccupy the building.
The sheriff said that may mean doing what the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office did a couple of decades ago when faced with a similar situation: bringing in double-wide trailers, and consolidating the operation in one location. Staly proposed just such a solution in June, just before evacuating the building. County Administrator Craig Coffey did not want to go that route: the expense and the timing were an issue, and at the time the evacuation was seen as temporary.
Now it’s turning into a matter of semi-permanence, again changing the dynamics of the discussion and the politics surrounding it: while figuring out the illnesses of two dozen employees is n abeyance, figuring out the logistics of Sheriff’s operations is not: Staly wants a ready solution soon, and today asked the county commission to put the matter on its next agenda and direct County Administrator Craig Coffey to execute a solution that would presumably be reached between sheriff’s officials, Coffey and commissioners.
The latest report on the building’s interiors was commissioned by Staly, in response to a report commissioned by the county that found the building safe to reoccupy. The new report, by Robert Sweeney, a specialist in air quality who retired in Flagler Beach, disputes the previous report, saying the building had to be evacuated and mold was likely present within.
“I wouldn’t hire them,” Sweeney said of Engineering Systems Inc. (ESi), the company the county hired to do the previous testing. That was his most explosive statement of the afternoon. He realized it was and quickly softened it, saying the company just “missed the boat. I don’t want to knock the company.”
Sweeney was recommending a series of steps to try to fix the problem at the Operations Center. Those steps cannot be taken for now. And the CDC team’s findings, following its walk-through the building next week and meetings with sheriff’s employees, may not be disclosed for “three months to a year,” according to Staly.
All of that added more fog than clarity to an issue that has created serious tensions between the sheriff and the county administration, that may have played a significant role in the defeat of County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin in this week’s primary, that will play a central role in County Commissioner Greg Hansen’s contest with challenger Dennis McDonald, and that has made the sheriff’s office’s operations less effective, according to Staly.
It’s been three month since the sheriff evacuated its building in June, decentralizing its operations. Local agencies have cooperated, but “there really hasn’t been a solid plan forward.” Today the sheriff for the first time described what the nomadic past three months have been like.
The Records Department is in a cramped space without any ability to store records. It’s working out of bankers’ boxes. Physical evidence from crime scenes is still at the Operations Center: it can’t just be picked up and moved out of a secure facility. “There’s just frankly no place to move it to,” Staly said. New evidence is in the old evidence room at the old administration building, with gym lockers being used for storage.
“Narcotics being held for evidence can often be smelled throughout the building,” the sheriff said, with visitors at the jail, who conduct video calls with inmates through a big room at the old administration building, joking about the smell. The only place to process a vehicle used in a crime is at the Operations Center. Training is now limited, with sheriff’s personnel at the mercy of generally smaller classroom space in other agencies’ buildings. “The relocation has totally disrupted the smooth and ongoing process of training new employees,” he said. Detectives have no interview rooms. They’ve been using those at the Flagler Beach Police Department. Face-to-face interaction has diminished between staffers, when people aren’t “playing hunt and seek” The sheriff himself, whose office is ensconced at the county courthouse, has been far less accessible to people than he would rather be.
“We need to look for a better mid-term solution, certainly as we figure out what the long term is,” Staly said. “Despite all this, no interruption of our service to the community has occurred.”
The Sheriff’s Office has lost one employee so far to a resignation tied to the building issue. Staly says more will resign, and many will do so if the building is reintegrated.
Staly earlier this month had said that if it were up to him, he’d never return to the building. But he was referring to a comment by County Commission Chairman Greg Hensen, who’d told the sheriff that it would be entirely up to him whether to return there or not. Hansen had either worded his statement poorly or made it without his fellow-commissioners’ consent: it is not Staly’s sole decision. The building remains a county responsibility, and Staly remains a tenant of the county. So today Staly re-opened the door, if only slightly, to the possibility that he could see a way back in there.
“Reoccupying is not my sole decision,” Staly said today, giving Hansen a lifeline. “I know what he was trying to say at the last meeting, we’re in this together.” But current working conditions are not tenable, he said.
His revelations and his request to the county for a semi-permanent solution to his agency’s exile displaced the importance of the Sweeney report, mushc of which had been previewed in local media anyway.
Several people addressed the commission during the public comment period. But the haze surrounding the meeting’s disparate issues left those commenting mostly with reiteration of previous statements. With one or two exceptions, there was less anger this time. Those who spoke included attorneys, sheriff’s employees, family members of sheriff’s employees–who were more emotional than their partners–all of them, aside from the attorneys, reiterating the need for transparency, working away from “covering butts,” helping the agency to be more effective, and continuing to find a solution to the employees’ health.
Most were thankful for Sweeney’s report, but mostly because it confirmed their predisposition to doubt the county’s approach. Whether the report would stand the test of peer reviews is an open question, soi whatever its scientific validity, its political weight was clear: it validated the position the sheriff and his employees have adopted.
At the beginning of the meeting, Staly joined his introduction of Sweeney by asking him a series of questions that established that Sweney had not been given a pre-determined conclusion or that anyone from the Sheriff’s Office interfered with his analysis beyond his being hired to carry it out (for $5,000 from the sheriff’s budget).
Sweeney then presented his findings, previously reported here. In sum, he said the previous tests did not take into account fragmentary mold that could be carriers of mycotoxins, and could have been causing illness among sheriff’s employees.
He said the Operations Center was contaminated by mold fragments that entered the building through four “make-up ports,” resulting in illnesses. “I don’t think they originated from inside the building. They were brought in.” But that conclusion was in startling contrast with any findings or assumptions to date: previous testing in November had discovered mold in at least two rooms. The county addressed those findings, or thought it addressed them. Since then, the assumption among employees has been that the source of mold is persisting, but has not been uncovered–and that the source was likely to be from within the building. The sheriff has been pressing the county for months to drill behind certain walls or ceilings to put to rest (or verify) a fear that rotten wood isn’t the culprit.
Sweeney is putting the blame for mold on the air conditioning system and the ultraviolet light intended to demolish mold spores when air enters the building: spores are being captured and fractured, before being pulled into the Operations Center’s air. He proposed reconfigurations of the system and a testing regimen stretched over 34 days to have more accurate samples. “Concentrate on the spaces that were a problem,” he said. If testing shows reduced fragments within norms, “reoccupation of the building could be considered,” he said.
“In my opinion Dr. Sweeney has outlined a good plan,” Sheriff Rick Staly said, but only after the air conditioning system has been “upgraded or adjusted.” That may not be possible just yet.
“We are prohibited from doing anything or inducing anything that would modify the building at this point,” Kayla Hathaway, the sheriff’s attorney, said. That means no one can change out air conditioning filters, knock down walls or do anything else that alters the present state of the building.
Annie Conrad, a sheriff’s detective and one of the more severely affected employees, asked Sweeney about how those who have already been exposed to mold may have had their sensitivity to mold heightened, making a return to a previously affected building more difficult. Sweeney said that “even with their high sensitivity,” people could return to a building that had previously made them sick as long a sit’s been cleaned properly–a finding that seemed to clash with Conrad’s–a detective who does her research, after all–who said individuals so affected have been found to need a year or two before their immune system can handle even normal mold levels.
The workshop adjourned in something of a fishtail ending after just 80 minutes.
A note about missing comments: While switching this story from its lead position to the left column, we committed a stupid by costly error, briefly trashing the story instead of slating it for the local column. The story itself was easily restored, but the momentary trashing caused several comments to be lost, one of them by Dennis McDonald. We have asked him to send it back in. We are asking anyone whose comment was lost to please resubmit. Our apologies: the error was entirely at our end, but there was nothing conspiratorial about it. It was mere carelessness.