ORLANDO SENTINEL

Orlando fire leadership inadequate, draft says

By Beth Kassab | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 23, 2003




Email this story to a friend
Printer friendly version









The Orlando Fire Department is plagued by inadequate leadership, poor budget oversight and a reputation for being "difficult" to deal with among other city departments, according to drafts of Mayor Buddy Dyer's transition team report.

Fire Chief Charlie Walker said Thursday he is making plans to retire but wouldn't say when.

He insisted the recent decision had nothing to do with criticism of his leadership or department.

A review of e-mails and other documents circulated among the transition-team members assigned to evaluate the Fire Department shows a dozen findings that detail a troubled administration.

"City administrative staff have repeatedly commented on the difficulty of dealing with the department on a variety of problems, resulting in an almost total lack of confidence in material flowing from the department leadership," states an e-mail from former Orange County Administrator Jim Harris to retired firefighter Peter Flentke, both members of the transition team.

Walker, who is generally well-liked by the rank and file but has had a rocky relationship with city officials during his four-year tenure as chief, said he had not seen the drafts and did not want to comment.

"I'd have to look at where it's coming from and who said it," said Walker, who has worked for the department more than 32 years. "I'd rather not even discuss it."

The draft report indicates that the Fire Department lacks focus and direction, leaving it "without a clear road map for providing future stations, equipment or personnel during a time of major annexations and internal growth," including the Lake Nona and Baldwin Park developments.

So far safety has not been compromised, but the report states that the department is verging on a diminished quality of service.

"The department continues to provide excellent service to the citizens in a tactical sense -- however -- if the present situation continues a deterioration of this service is probable and immediate attention needs to be given to the leadership and staff inadequacies of the department," the draft states.

Walker, the city's first black fire chief in the department's 117-year history, was criticized during the city's recent budget crisis.

A lot of blame was heaped on the department for overspending its overtime budget, which contributed to last year's nearly $12 million deficit and a projected $23.6 million deficit this year.

After drastic cuts, the city was back in the black in March.

In 2001, 13 firefighters sued the city claiming that doctors at the city's medical clinic failed to alert them about symptoms of potentially fatal conditions that showed up in routine exams.

In 2002, the city rehired former fire Chief Robert Bowman as a consultant to help plan for expansion.

At the time, Chief Administrative Officer Richard Levey denied the move was designed to force Walker to retire.

Harris, now an executive at Busch Properties, could not be reached Thursday.

Flentke and Ax the Tax leader Doug Guetzloe, the third team member assigned to evaluate the Fire Department, referred all questions about the drafts to transition-team leader Wayne Rich, who also refused to comment.

Dyer said he would make the final transition-team report available to the public Tuesday after city lawyers have time to comb through its 600 pages to look for information that may be private under Florida's public records law.

Until then, the mayor said he would not comment on the report.

Steve Clelland, president of the firefighters union, said the chief is popular with most firefighters.

"If he leaves he'll go out with our admiration and our gratitude," Clelland said.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.