Former Fire Chief White Sues District

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The Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District was served with a summons earlier this month informing them that the district had been named in a civil lawsuit brought by former Fire Chief Darren White alleging breach of contract.

The Complaint states that the District entered into a contract with White as Fire Chief in October 2012 that ran through September 30, 2015. The contract includes a section dealing with termination of the contract, which the suit claims was not followed. The complaint also claims that the District owes White 24 months salary upon termination without cause as specified in the contract. White is asking for damages, attorneys’ fees, court costs and “any further relief the Court deems just and proper.”

Darren White joined the Fort Myers Beach Fire District in May 1999 and was serving as Assistant Fire Chief when Chief Mike Becker resigned in March 2012 under a cloud of allegations involving union representatives, complaints of non-compliance with training standards and accusations of misconduct by the Chief. Becker later filed suit against the District. That suit was settled in April 2015 with the District’s insurance company agreeing to pay Becker $34,000 with no admission of wrongdoing.

White became permanent Fire Chief in August 2012. That vote was a split vote, with current Fire Board members Ted Schindler and Carol Morris voting against the move. In late 2014-early 2015, three of five Fire Board seats saw change as first Bob Raymond won an election over incumbent David Brower, then two long-time Board members resigned: John Scanlon on March 16, 2015 and Betty Goodacre on April 7, 2015. The remaining three Board members then selected two new members, John Pohland and Larry Wood on April 21, 2015.

In February 2015, the Board voted 3-1 to not renew White’s contract, due to expire September 30, 2015. Shortly afterward, the revamping of the Chief job description and a search for a new Fire Chief began. On August 18, 2015, the Board placed White on administrative leave and appointed Assistant Chief Tom May as Acting Fire Chief. The Board will interview candidate finalists and expects to make their selection for a new Fire Chief by mid-December.

When we spoke with District Chair of the Board of Fire Commissioners Carol Morris this week about the lawsuit, she said that the district’s attorney, Andrew Salzman, had already filed a Motion to Quash White’s complaint, though the district is unsure which attorney will handle the case.

“We are still talking to our insurance carrier, PRIA. We don’t know if they’ll cover the (legal) costs or not due to the nature of the complaint.”

Andrew Salzman of Unice Salzman Jensen, P.A. of Palm Harbor, FL (north of Tampa) was hired by the board at their October 6, 2015 meeting to serve as the district’s labor attorney. In early November, the board decided to engage just one attorney for both general and labor legal issues.

Morris told the Sand Paper that Salzman’s Motion to Quash told the court that the summons had been improperly filed.

“It has nothing to do with the content of the complaint-that’s a whole different issue – it’s that the legal filing was not done correctly.”

Salzman was the attorney who worked on the Becker case for the District’s insurance company, Morris explained and that reassures her that he understands the District’s position, though she is not willing to discuss the case in public meetings.

“I really don’t like too much to get out in public (about the lawsuit) because the moment we decide to respond in any other way (other than the Quash motion) this will be confidential because it’s litigation.

“I have nothing further to say except it’s under internal investigation with PRIA,” Morris concluded. “I think our lawyer is very capable and his letter will kill the summons.”

As per the Florida Sunshine Law relating to Open Meetings and Public Records [F.S. Section 286.011(8)], the Fire Board will be able to meet in executive (closed door) session to discuss strategy for responding to the lawsuit or settlement but the lawsuit and all filings with the court are public record. Executive sessions are also subject to public record once the case has been completed.

The Fire Board’s next meeting will be December 1, 2015 at 10am at Town Hall.

Missy Layfield