Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito’s 15 years, the last 14 as fire chief, will end by February, if not sooner. County Manager Jerry Cameron said he expects Petito to give him a retirement date by the end of the year. Petito said he will provide that date pending his success as he looks for work elsewhere in the region.
That’s part of the fallout from a serious clash–“a blow-up,” in Cameron’s words–between Petito and Jarrod Shupe, the county’s chief information officer, which led Cameron to call a “Board of Inquiry” to look into the issue. The blow-up took place in the middle of the Hurricane Dorian emergency in September. Petito, losing his temper in front of employees, including Cameron, disagreed with the way Shupe had assigned radio communication channels to Palm Coast government without consulting him. Cameron agreed that Shupe’s method was wrong.
Shupe was counseled about it and cited in writing for “conduct unbecoming of a public employee,” a violation of county personnel policies.
Petito was verbally counseled and offered a choice that, he thought, was no choice but to leave by next year. Retelling what he told Cameron, Petito said he saw it as an ultimatum: “That’s the way I felt when I was sitting in your office, that if you take this deal nothing goes in your file, and your tenure is untarnished. But if you don’t, we’ll put it in your file.” He didn’t know what would go in his file. “That to me is you’re forcing me out. You’re telling me you take the deal or we’re coming after you.”
Cameron is adamant it’s no such thing, that it would be a “fabrication” if the story was conveyed that way, and that he would not keep on an employee he was forcing out. “If Petito feels he’s being pushed out he needs to come talk to me, because that’s simply not the case.” But Petito’s statements, and even some of Cameron’s, say otherwise.
When Cameron was read some of Petito’s own statements, he said, “that’s not what he told me. He told me I’ve had a good run here, it’s time for me to move on.”
There appears to have been some scrambling between Cameron and Petito once they had word of this story. After a conversation with Cameron around noon, Petito, not one bit hiding how incredulous he was at what he was saying, said of Cameron: “I totally misunderstood, according to what he’s telling me.” Petito said he’d not been misunderstood in an earlier interview: his quotes were accurate: he did feel he was being pushed out. But apparently what Cameron had told him was not what Cameron had told him. “After talking to Jerry today he said I could stay if I want to,” Petito said. “Apparently I misunderstood everything and I’m not being forced out, so I guess I’m not leaving but I am going to be seeking other employment, get the hell out of here.”
Cameron said Petito had told him he planned to retire in February long before the trouble with Shupe. Petito said not exactly: he’d given word of his 55th birthday next February, and he said that if his wife, Facilities Director Heidi Petito, would become deputy administrator, he would leave, since he couldn’t be in a position to report to her. But after returning from vacation this week, he’d decided he wanted to stay: he still needs three years to reach a milestone in the Florida Retirement System. Then came the meeting with Cameron and the ultimatum that, apparently, was not an ultimatum at all.Spun whichever way it is, the fact remains that the clash between Petito and Shupe was only the culmination of long-standing animosity between Petito and Shupe, pitting the set ways of a chief “cut out of the old school cloth,” in Cameron’s words, against the sharply ambitious ways of Shupe, who doesn’t hide his hopes of becoming county administrator some day. The sharpest of directors, Shupe can be heavy handed, though in this case both he and Petito were. They both dueled in public with thick sets of memos, documentations, recriminations and counter-recriminations. Petito at one point sought out the help of Palm Coast City Council member Jack Howell to get rid of Shupe. (“I just dismissed it, it was just idle talk, and Jarrod really doesn’t have anything to do with us per se,” Howell said, and Palm Coast Fire Chief “Jerry Forte thinks a lot of him, so as long as Jerry is happy I’m happy.”)
Anonymous emails written with clear knowledge of internal protocols and language circulated about Petito, making accusations about his behavior on the job, as did public record requests for his goings and comings and those of his wife and Chet Lagana in the maintenance department (the trio is known for epic lunches at Terra Nova in Bunnell, but none of the three has ever been known to neglect duties). The machinations angered and frustrated Cameron.
“This was just a personnel issue and it never should have become a public issue,” Cameron said. (He doesn’t think any of this, including the clash during the emergency, should have been public.) “That was a concern to me. This is the kind of thing we do on a routine basis, is resolve personnel issues.”
But there was nothing routine about the clash between Petito and Shupe, nor was it private, nor was it outside the public’s right, and need, to know, because it directly entailed public safety and how the county and its largest city were preparing to address a potential disaster.
“I had two directors that were involved in an incident that created a large blow-up in the middle of a declared emergency. I can’t have that,” Cameron said in a September interview, when discussing his decision to convene the Board of Inquiry. He acknowledged the strained relationship between Petito and Shupe, but “when people reach the level of director, they should be able to resolve things among themselves. I shouldn’t have to referee. I’m not asking you to go to dinner together, I’m asking you to work synergistically to the benefit of Flagler County.” He noted the danger of the clash: “It could have had serious consequences had conditions lined up correctly.”
Even internally, the clash was a reflection of a changing culture at the county that Petito recognizes, and Cameron speaks of openly. Petito, Cameron said in September, “has not bought into team work to the degree I would like to see.” Ironically, it was Shupe’s lack of teamwork that triggered the September incident, though Cameron sees it as overzealousness that was easily counseled, adjusted. “Jarrod is considerably different,” Cameron said of Shupe. “Jarrod is looking for some mentoring, and he’s in an upward trajectory. Don is getting ready to retire.”
The issue with Petito hasn’t left Shupe unscathed by any means: it resulted in what Cameron described as a “memorandum of counseling”–actually, a “Performance Improvement Plan” over violating personnel policy–placed in Shupe’s file, and he’s on notice to work cooperatively in the future. Cameron downplayed the document. “It happens all the time,” he said. An employee with great ambitions would not see any document blotching his record as something that happens all the time. And the most detailed criticism of Shupe, in that memorandum, amounts to a muzzling of largely public, not private information.“During the Board of Inquiry,” the memo to Shupe states, “it was noted that information was shared among employees and media sources that was unbecoming to both you and County employees. Workplace gossip is toxic and unproductive. It breeds resentment and becomes a roadblock for effective communication and collaboration by lowering morale and creating an unpleasant working environment.” The memo, itself thick on innuendo, makes no distinction between the entirely public documents Shupe shared and “gossip,” and directs him to refrain from disseminating personal information he’s privy to. It does not specify what personal information he disseminated.
“I can’t have any comment regarding the matter, the matter needs to be referred to county administration as well as HR,” Shupe said this morning, but he said he was “satisfied” by and “grateful” for the resolution. “I believe my side is appropriate and I look forward to continuing my employment, hopefully progressive employment, here in Flagler County.”
That no “Performance Improvement Plan” made it into Petito’s file was not to Petito’s benefit, as Petito saw it: it was a signal that his days in Flagler are over. “Particularly since Don will be retiring,” Cameron said, “a long-term counseling plan, that would be an exercise in futility. I shook hands with Don and we agreed we were going to overcome this and I’m satisfied with that.”
Petito had made clear in both interviews today, and indeed did so in an interview in September, after the issue with Shupe arose, that he has no intentions of stopping work, and would have liked to continue working in Flagler. He now sees that as impossible. “I’m 55, I’m still in good shape, I can go do another job,” he said. “The county is moving in another direction. I’ve been here 15 years and the life cycle of a fire chief is five to 10 years, so I’ll move on to another one.”
Cameron and Petito met twice this week: on Monday and again briefly on Wednesday. Cameron said Petito would let him know by year’s end when his “retirement” date that won’t actually be a retirement would be. Petito saw it as “nothing specific,” but said “when I apply for jobs and I get some sort of indication I’d have a start date somewhere, I’ll let them know.”
Joe King, his deputy, appears to be lined up to take his place. “He certainly would be considered for that position but I haven’t made a decision on how that will be handled,” Cameron said. The decision will depend on Petito’s dates, assuming he does leave–which is now again in question.
Morale at the fire department has been dismal, however, and King does not have the following that Petito has.
“The state of morale is very low in our department right now,” Stephen Palmer, who heads Flagler County Fire Rescue’s union, said. ““The morale is low, the union body, the membership and the leadership are unhappy with Petito leaving and we don’t feel there’s anybody qualified currently to take his position with the county.” Palmer, who’d had several conversations this week with Petito before and after his meetings with Cameron, was also under the impression that Petito had been given an ultimatum. That’s how Petito put it to him. “Last I talked to Don, he did not want to leave, when he came back from vacation” this week.
Cameron said he’s aware of low morale. “I’ve heard that it’s something I need to address and I’m going to do that, or am doing it.”
I’m leaving a comment here…or maybe I’m not leaving a comment here. There’s a comment box so it feels like I’m being forced to leave a comment although I may not want to leave a comment. I don’t have to leave a comment I guess and I may look at other places I can leave comments. I’m going to “get the hell out” of this comment box now.
Is your morale low?
Not quite sure if that was an ultimatum for me to read your comment
“I’m leaving a comment here…or maybe I’m not leaving a comment here. There’s a comment box so it feels like I’m being forced to leave a comment although I may not want to leave a comment. I don’t have to leave a comment I guess and I may look at other places I can leave comments. I’m going to “get the hell out” of this comment box now.
When we spoke you said you were retiring from making comments, there was never any ultimatum to make comments. Now after returning from vacation you said you aren’t retiring and looking for another place to make comments. Please let us know when you move on to another place to make comments so we can find a replacement. Because our staff doesn’t like the deputy comment chief.
Jane Gentile Youd says
Big mistake. Shupe not Petito needs to.go. Petito cares very much for Flagler residents. He is proud and doesn’t take crap. So maybe his political diplomacy isn’t the best but his heart is in the right place 24/7. I hope his staff convinces him to stay
I see an issue that th he county had an issue with… Chief Petito has the support of his personnel… county administrators hate that.
As far as the reason for the incident that started this debacle… the way I see it, Shupe overstepped his bounds and should have left the assignment of emergency radio channels to the public safety professionals.
FYI.. I am a retired Deputy Fire Chief and well versed in how the game is played.
Sounds pure like Petito, I’ve dealt with him in the past, and his buddy in fleet have gor to go. I hope he likes the taste of salt, and finally his self centered personality has gotten him. Petito need to LEAVE. Yes I’m a former employee under him, and yes I was fired of a workers comp injury, and if it wasnt for Petito, and his fleet buddy fabrication of facts, and some illegal, unethical doing on there part, I would have retired. Finally someone else can see thru the BS Petito really is. You’ve cost the county alot of money, and gotten away with alot of shit.
I don’t know either one of these people, but if you were fired over a worker’s comp injury then why haven’t you sought out legal ramifications? (if you haven’t done so already). If you haven’t and you’re gripping over that, then there’s something more to your firing…
Lots of Drama for a small Town.
Concerned Citizen says
Much ado about nothing but it still makes the papers.
It seems that Jarrod Shupe keeps popping up and not in very flattering ways. Why does a “Chief Information Officer” have so much pull over county officials? Is it because he has access to all their emails and other personal information? Seems people side with him first. Are they afraid?
I have met Mr. Shupe several times as a volunteer. And while I understand I am only a volunteer and insignificant I found Shupe to be very abrasive and condensending. I’m glad I don’t work for him.
Chief Petito on the other hand has always been gracious and professional. And coming from a retired Fire Rescue guy I know what the job entails.
Please don’t say that you’re “only” a volunteer and insignificant!! What you do is very important and appreciated while the pay remains low. Giving of your time is very generous and valuable and greatly needed to keep many areas functioning smoothly. I thank you👍
Awwww shucks…1 less fire command vehicle at Houligans everyday at lunch for 2 hours….
This happens at every employer. As February 2020 comes closer, there is no retirement date ? So he’s not leaving because this area has no equivalent nor better jobs ? They’re holding each other hostage over this. And it’s the same power struggle & drama they’ve always had. And they all aren’t willing to put what they said verbally in writing and on record beyond sound bites. Replace both of them is the best thing that can come of this.
Beach bum says
Was it a slow week of news or what, omg two guys get in an argument at work shocker, grow up and move on
Why in the hell is the Information Chief telling the Fire Chief what channels he is to use. Shouldn’t the Emergency Service Director be deciding. In my over 40 plus years as a Volunteer Firefighter, 7 as Chief, I never had an IT person tell me how to run an incident. He seems to think he is a God.
Happening now says
Everyone wants to be Chief when there are not enough Indians.
For The People says
So let me get this straight….Jarrod Shupe the Chief Information Officer is counseled for conduct unbecoming of a public employee. He is directed to refrain from disseminating personal information that he is privy to, because he has shared information and gossip which has lowered morale, created an unpleasant work environment which is toxic and unproductive. He is also placed on an improvement plan (which is standard and happens all the time, no BIG deal). However this employee is sharply ambitious and one of the sharpest directors on an upward trajectory. They don’t see his actions as a non-team player, but consider him to be overzealous and someone who can be easily counseled and adjusted. What is wrong with Flagler County? Is this really what they want in their leadership? Why is this guy still working here?
Reality alert says
Drama queens. Good luck finding another job now.
Petitto and Petitto, Shupe and Shupe and other alike sounds like Nepotism runs rampant in this county when none have the credentials or Masters degrees needed for the job…just pure connections appointing neophytes that run this county’s finances into the ground. Our hard earned taxes have become a great money making source for many in control while not providing the services we pay for like; safety, roads maintenance and sheriff traffic units, utilities, litter control and our quality of life.
Save Palm Coast says
Just like Sullivan, Mullins, and O’Brien. Another co-hart Cameron. You take them on and you are RIGHT – they turn around and stab you in the back. These men need to go. 2020 will here here soon – voting will have consequences.
Palm Coast take back your city
This is NOT a Palm Coast issue. this is County.
Ben Hogarth says
What I don’t understand is why a board of inquiry was summoned for one purpose, only for the results of that inquiry to be totally premised on another! That in itself signals to any professional or public servant that the entire inquiry was either a sham, or in vain.
In addition, if a member (or members) of staff, particularly at the director level, felt it prudent to go to the press to get results, what does that say of your Human Resources processes and ability to establish fair proceedings internally?
I worked with both Don and Heidi and I know them both to be professionals and trying to do what is best for the residents of Flagler. What I’m reading… what I’ve read these last few weeks is an example of poor judgement at the highest levels of management. If Don is being court-marshaled for trying to do the right thing, without any sense of due process, then I hope the residents of Flagler will do the right thing by opposing these decisions one way or another.
I wish I could speak more intelligently on the matter, but I’m honestly vexed by the decision to try and push Don out. Any intelligent person knows that when you have a repetition of problems, it’s time to look for the lowest common denominator… and it ain’t Don Petito.
Dedicated American says
Ben why not think about running in your district in 2020 for county commissioners.
Mr. Cameron, we the residents of Flagler County don’t need drama within our government.
Please get a handle of your job and clean house. Fire all those that make an issue at their job instead of just doing their job.
County ff says
Chief Petito has been a decent Chief for Flagler County and maybe this incident will be a wake up and he will be a great chief. There will be a mass exodus if Joe King becomes chief. He will want his side kick Jimmy Shaw as the deputy chief and the two of them will be cancer. They will destroy the department from the inside out and pat themselves on the back the entire time. I hope Cameron has better sense.
Dedicated American says
A few months ago I had a problem obtaining a public Records request. The request was
passed on to Jarrod Shupe. He replied back to me that some requests have to be scrubbed. Scrubbed I said. I then replied, that I am aware that anything personal (addresses, social security numbers or telephone numbers) would be scrubbed. But other information? Personally, Shupe should never have said that. After hearing how Shupe handled the situation with Don Petito, Shupe was totally wrong. I personally feel Jerry Cameron protected Shupe and went hard on Don Petito. Don Petito is a Dedicated and Honest employee of our county. More than I can say about some higher up employees still working for the county that supported Craig Coffey. Don please do not leave, Flagler County is in enough financial trouble. We need you, Don Petito, to continue the fine job you have done for the past fifteen years. You are still young and have many more years to come. Forget about retirement and going somewhere else.
Jerry Cameron support the Dedicated one, Don Petito.