The Sheriff’s Office’s Operations Center has begun what will end up being a full evacuation of the building’s 68 employees, including the top administrative staff, as the sheriff and the county seek to determine whether the structure is safe to work in.
Sheriff’s personnel will for the most part be distributed between the old sheriff’s administration building on Justice Lane, near the jail, and the Flagler County courthouse. The length of that temporary arrangement is not known for now. The county administration, which is effectively the landlord for all those government properties, is just now re-launching a series of tests in the building, whose interiors more than two dozen sheriff’s employees are blaming for making them sick.
Sheriff Rick Staly and Chief Mark Strobridge met with County Administrator Craig Coffey and Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, along with IT staff and union leadership, this afternoon to discuss immediate relocation plans, and walk through the courthouse. Solid plans should be in place by Friday as to who is relocating where.
Staly has asked the county administration to be transparent and inclusive of those concerned with all its deliberations. Late in the workday today he issued an email to all his employees to update them.
“Our staffs are now working on developing a relocation plan by section/unit and a relocation schedule,” the sheriff wrote. “I have directed that sections and units be moved as intact groups if at all possible and that we start with areas located in the east end of the building.” In reference to the old administration building, he added, “Today I also authorized the emergency relocation of a few people to the Detention Administration building while the relocation plans are being finalized. I am hopefully that a final plan will be available late tomorrow (Thursday) and a move out schedule with coordinating IT issues by late Friday. We will likely be spread out among three floors and some sections/units will also be relocated to the Detention Administration building.”
The 68 sheriff’s employees include the command staff but don’t include up to half a dozen county employees. The aim of the relocation is to keep the sheriff’s operations as cohesive as possible.
“It’s not as much a complete evacuation as it is unity of command,” Strobridge said. “It’s about being a unified sheriff’s office not a fragmented sheriff’s office.”
“We’re just pitching in however we can help, we understand it’s probably a good idea for the sheriff to vacate his building for a while” while testing takes place, Bexley said. Additional sheriff’s employees will be welcome to work out of the courthouse “for as long as needed,” he said. (A contingent of sheriff’s employees already work there, including bailiffs and civilian employees.)
“The sheriff’s priority is to get those affected most by this building out first, and in that team concept,” Strobridge said. “For example, he doesn’t want to leave one person behind in a unit.” While the top administrative staff will–like officers on a sinking ship–be last to leave, some have already been relocated, including sworn and non-sworn employees.
The move out of the building is the result of a series of unfortunate events that have yet to play out. The building was once a hospital then a disused relic for more than a decade when it accumulated mold, detritus and battalions of unknown organisms. The county bought the structure in 2013, demolished much of it but kept the shell and rebuilt it as a sheriff’s operations center for occupancy in 2015. Then-Sheriff Manfre, in a brief history of his involvement published here Tuesday, said he opposed the building all along–his public pronouncements at the time, documented in several articles, paint a more nuanced picture–and that odor issues were almost immediate. Sheriff’s employees working in two particular rooms developed health issues last November. The employees were moved to other locations, the county tested the rooms, mold was discovered, remediation took place, and the all-clear was given, only for many more employees developing health issues several weeks ago. Concerns mounted quickly and Staly, characterizing the county as slow-moving in response, prompted renewed testing and asked the county for alternative space meanwhile.
A county workshop on the issue earlier this week shed little additional light but showed Coffey, the county administrator, relatively isolated, with a majority of commissioners adopting the sheriff’s come-what-may approach in defense of employees. Two of the commissioners are running in this year’s election, including Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, the only member of the commission still on it who voted to approve the purchase of the building in 2013 (when concerns were raised about the structure even then). Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, the other member of the panel who was a commissioner then, voted against the purchase.
Coffey meanwhile is attempting to balance the sheriff’s and his employees’ concerns with evidence, and with a $7 million taxpayer investment and his own reputation in the balance. He’s hired an environmental engineer who spoke to the commission and the sheriff at the workshop Monday, after taking his first look at the building earlier that day, and who will be conducting the new round of testing.
A memo by Zdenek Hejzlar, the environmental engineer the county hired to do further testing, wrote County Engineer Faith Al-Khatib today, was not entirely reassuring as it repeatedly sought caution against expectations of black and white answers ahead. “There is little that the investigation may accomplish to change the perceptions of the building of some of the people,” Hejzlar said.
He went on: “During the workshop, I explained the importance of having a medical professional evaluate the employees and see if any medical evaluation can point to a particular set of potential causal agents that can cause the reaction in the affected employees. If we had that information today, we may be able to focus the investigation in a particular direction. We do not have that information and Sheriff Staly was not very confident that we can get that information quickly. Thus, if we decide to test further at this point, we will have to do it without the benefit of the medical evaluation. Trying to prove a negative is not scientifically defensible. Even with negative results, I cannot say that nothing in the building is causing the symptoms. I can only say that the levels of the contaminants that we tested are at X levels which is below/above accepted standard (when defined) and/or below/above levels that individuals would be exposed to in a typical home or comparable workplace environment.”
The engineer put the price of coming tests at just under $18,000. That includes 20 hours’ drive-travel time for two, at $2,800. He plans to make the five-hour drive from his office on June 14, start testing that day, and wrap-up the next.
Staly directed his affected staff to make relevant medical records available to the engineering company and the physician Staly hired independently. “Remember, we can only determine with is going on with cooperation by all and our goal is to get to the bottom of it for a solution,” Staly wrote.
Meanwhile the courthouse and the old administration building will be the primary temporary locations “for the entire team,” Strobridge said.
When the county built the courthouse 10 years ago, it did so with the understanding that all its agencies–the Clerk of Court, the Public Defender, the State Attorney’s Office, court administration and its judges–would grow over 30 years. That means there’s space there. “We probably have 15 work spaces that we can make available to the sheriff on an interim basis that we’ll potentially use in future years,” Bexley said. That’s building-wide. “It’s kind of spread out, that’s the problem.” So it’ll end up being something along the lines of “sticking five here, five there.”
“The really good part about this is after doing some internal discovery about computers and networking and telephones,” Bexley said, “it looks like the majority of this is going to be done at no additional cost to the taxpayers.”
Strobridge was asked how long officials expect the relocation to last. “I wish there was a way to know,” he said. “These issues were years in the making. Many times a law enforcement officer arrives on a scene and spends a very short amount of time to solve family problems, relationship problems that have been years in the making. We are so limited based on what we do on those scenes. It’s kind of like when you start peeling back the onion. It’s layers at a time. The unfortunate thing in law enforcement is, we don’t always get to peel back every layer.”
The environmental engineer’s memo to the county today echoed a similar caution.