Don Petito, Flagler County’s fire chief for the last 15 years, announced his retirement today, according to a county news release issued this afternoon. But employees have been aware of Petito’s departure since last week. Three people closely familiar with the issue said County Administrator Jerry Cameron gave Petito an ultimatum: retire, resign or be fired. Petito chose to retire. He leaves a department in disarray.
Joe King, the deputy chief, has been the acting chief since late June. That has not changed, though he is not expected to be named chief in place of Petito, as he does not command strong loyalty among the rank and file in a department where morale is low, fire houses are understaffed and controversies have been frequent.
The release provides no explanation for Petito’s retirement, nor does it quote him–usually a signal that the person “retiring” is not doing so entirely willingly–focusing instead on his accomplishments and two send-off quotes from Administrator Jerry Cameron (“We are certain Don Petito will continue to make a positive contribution to the community in his future endeavors”).
The quotes are not likely to fool people familiar with Cameron’s relations with Petito, whose tenure with the county had been tenuous for the past year and a half after he’d clashed with Cameron, with Jared Shupe, the county’s technology director, and with other employees. Petito’s temper triggered a legal action from one of his rank-and-file firefighters (who has since left the organization). Petito’s most serious clashes with Cameron and Shupe took place in the middle of the Hurricane Dorian emergency, raising questions about his judgment and temperament in critical times. Petito did not have a congenial working relationship with the Palm Coast Fire Department, leaving King to handle those relations.
Last October, when Petito and Shupe were both facing a “board of inquiry” over their clash, which had become quite public, Petito said he was looking to “get the hell out” and either retire or take a job elsewhere (he’d been looking). He had claimed Cameron had given him an ultimatum then, but Cameron denied it vehemently, and Petito ended up reversing course after considering leaving at the time.
More recently, the former firefighter, Fadi Fattouh, had filed the complaint (involving Petito’s temper and chain of command issues), leading Cameron to place Petito on administrative leave pending the resolution of an investigation from a labor attorney hired for the purpose.
“The complaint was an EEOC complaint,” a county spokesperson said this afternoon in response to a request for the inquiries. “It was not specific to Don Petito. There is no written report as it became a moot issue. It was handled by an independent attorney. There was nothing in the investigation that would have led to Chief Petito’s removal.”
People who spoke with Petito and Cameron subsequently said Cameron was concerned about keeping Petito on and gave him the choice to retire or be fired–though the investigation found no actionable issue against Petito, at least not according to what Petito has been telling former colleagues. Petito did not respond to several texts and calls placed over the last few days.
The county news release cites Petito’s involvement in training “a world champion EMS Competition Team” that “took titles in the Czech Republic, as well as being three-time Florida State Champion, and championship titles in Georgia, Iowa, and New York,” his securing of several grants and the development of special teams, including the Marine Rescue Program for flood, marine, and ocean rescue and Urban Search and Rescue. The release lists several developments on his watch, such as the county’s transition to a new radio system (twice, in 2003 and this year), opening Station 16, consolidating the Bunnell Fire Department with the county, and developing the Fire Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School, one of the district’s more popular flagship programs.