Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito, whose relationship with County Administrator Jerry Cameron and others in county government has been rocky since Hurricane Dorian last September, was placed on paid administrative leave this morning pending the resolution of allegations of discrimination and retaliation.
“Effective this morning I’ve placed Fire Chief Don Petito on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a complaint of discrimination and retaliation,” Cameron wrote county commissioners We have hired an outside attorney to conduct the investigation, hopefully it’ll be concluded in an expedient manner with an outcome that serves the best interest of the county.”
Contacted this afternoon, Cameron said by text that he had “no comment on any personnel issues,” and did not respond to questions about the fire department in Petito’s absence. Joe King is the deputy fire chief who would be in charge in petito’s absence.
Petito did not return a call, though he is under a gag order from Cameron: “You are not to have any contact with any Fire Department Personnel or discussion of any departmental issues with anyone other than those approved by Administration while on Administrative Leave,” Cameron wrote him in a June 23 memo. “However, you are expected to be available by phone or otherwise for department business.” (The gag order as written is likely unenforceable, though Petito could pay a price if he violates it and Cameron were to find out.)
The issue is more complicated than the complaint Cameron referred to in his communication with commissioners.
Last September Petito was in a verbal confrontation with Cameron (what Cameron described as a “blow up” at the time) and clashed with Jarrod Shupe, the county’s chief information officer (as in technology, not public information) over the allocation of emergency communication channels during the Hurricane Dorian emergency. The clash was a boiling-over of a recurring conflict between Shupe and Petito and a reflection of Petito’s more tenuous stance in the county since the departure of former administrator Craig Coffey. Both Petito and Shupe were counseled and Petito was placed under a performance plan. At the time, Petito had spoken of retiring last February. He then changed his mind.
Since then, other issues developed, according to people familier with the matter. Petito found himself at the receiving end of a discrimination complaint, which was referred to the county’s insurer. The nature of the complaint is not clear. The county hired an independent lawyer to look into the matter and uncovered various issues. The county then retained an employment lawyer to examine Petito’s employment record. Cameron submitted the resulting reports to Petito so they could discuss them at a later date. The retaliation issue appears to be an allegation resulting from potential interference by the fire chief with an employee who had filed the original complaint. Petito himself is countering with claims of his own.
The county had not responded before this article initially published to public record requests for the documents Cameron referred to in his communication to commissioners, nor with the names of attorneys and firms involved in the Petito case. On Wednesday, the county’s Human Resources director said the attorney handling the case is Cindy Townsend of Bell and Roper, and provided Cameron’s memo to Petito, but not the previous documents investigating his conduct. The director cited a public record exemption that covers ongoing internal investigations. A similar exemption applies to ongoing police or school district investigations. Once the investigation closes, the documents become public records.
According to realtor.com, the E-Section house in Palm Coast Petito and his wife, Heidi Petito–director of general services in the county and at one time one of the directors Cameron considered as his deputy–bought in 2005 was put up for sale before the weekend, and now indicates a pending sale.