Almost two years old, the battle between Flagler Beach and two firefighters it fired over a couple of sips of home-made alcohol–wrongly fired, by the city’s admission–is over.
Ex-Flagler Beach firefighters Jake Bissonnette and Shane Wood have settled their whistle-blower suit with the city. They signed the settlement on Sept. 30. The city has paid each former firefighter $80,000, plus costs of mediation, and retracted their firing. Bissonnette and Wood have been allowed instead to submit resignation letters. The city did not pay the two men’s attorney’s fees and other costs. (They were represented by Flagler Beach attorney Dennis Bayer.) They agreed to dismiss all claims on the city.
Flagler Beach also agreed to remove all documentation related to what led to their dismissal, including “investigation and involuntary termination” documents, according to the settlement agreement, keeping those documents in a segregated file in compliance with Florida’s public record law.
The mediated settlement was drafted by hand on legal paper and signed by Wood, Bissonnette, the attorneys for each side and Flagler Beach’s Elizabeth Mathis. It appears to end a long and tortuous chapter in the city fire department’s history after the department lost its then-chief Martin Roberts and the two firefighters in February 2013.
“I am happy we were all able to reach an agreement without dragging it out further,” Bissonnette said in an email this evening. “I am looking forward to having the chance to restore my career; but the city’s decision(s) on how they handled the situation made my life very difficult.” He said he is hoping to resume his career as a firefighter, now that he can apply to other agencies “without the proverbial ‘black eye’ that was placed in my file.”
Open conflict began the previous December when Roberts and then-Fire Police Captain Steve Wood had been seen drinking at a department Christmas party, then responding to a house fire on State Road A1A, during which Wood operated a tower truck. Both were investigated and eventually fired.
Bissonnette and and Shane Wood were not involved in that matter. But on Christmas eve they were seen taking a sip of home-made alcohol they’d just bought from an off-duty sheriff’s deputy (who’s no longer with the agency). They were off the clock. But they were on city property, at the fire station. Bobby Pace, who would subsequently become the fire chief (as fire captain) reported the infraction, following which the two men were put on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Bissonnette and Wood charged in their lawsuit that the suspension and eventual firing was in retaliation for Bissonnette looking into an allegation that Pace had fabricated hours worked by a probationer for the city fire department. (That probationer was eventually returned to state prison.) The charge against Pace was filed but eventually reduced to obstruction of justice, then dropped after Pace agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement.
Bissonnette and Wood also claimed that the city had a double standard, since it allowed Pace, who has a drunk driving conviction on his record, to allegedly lie on his application, by not disclosing the infraction, and only later being allowed to go back into his personnel record and alter it to reflect the DUI history.
The various cases as they intersected unraveled a department deeply dysfunctional, an assessment also made by a private investigator hired by City Manager Bruce Campbell, at a cost of $22,000, to lay the groundwork for the firefighters’ firing. Campbell had been in conflict with Roberts since early in Campbell’s tenure as manager, and had been positioning Pace for the top job soon after Roberts’s firing. Campbell has since announced his intention to resign, though he is staying with the city until the city commission finds a replacement.
The fire department has been quieter since going through convulsions two years ago.