Edgewater, former firefighters settle civil suit

By CINDY F. CRAWFORD
Staff Writer

Last update: 30 July 2003


EDGEWATER -- The city settled a controversial civil lawsuit filed by three former firefighters who claimed gross mismanagement within the fire department.

In an agreement made last week, firefighters Donald Jones, Anthony Shuta and James Castetter received $35,000 to drop the suit that accused Fire Chief Tracey Barlow of using favoritism and making inappropriate decisions for the department.

City Manager Ken Hooper called the settlement a business decision, saying it would cost at least $45,000 to take the issue to court. Neither party admitted guilt in the agreement that was determined through mediation.

"We didn't want to settle, but this is more cost-effective," he said.

Jones also expressed disappointment with the outcome. The firefighters, who resigned in February 2002 claiming their "whistle blowing" resulted in a hostile workplace, had hoped to get their jobs back. However, in the settlement, they can never work for Edgewater again.

"We sacrificed our careers for what we felt was the right thing to do," Jones said Wednesday.

The firefighters made 29 accusations against Barlow, saying the chief ignored drug use by a department supervisor, drove a city-issued vehicle for personal use, persecuted Castetter for an action which happened outside of work and engaged in sexual liaisons with female Fire Department employees in the firehouse several years ago.

An internal investigation found no wrongdoing, but the firefighters continued to pursue it. They filed a complaint with the state Commission on Ethics and a civil lawsuit in October.

The ethics commission investigated charges Barlow allowed his father to sell T-shirts and hats on city property and he failed to discipline his twin brother, also a firefighter, for head-butting a 12-year-old at a party in 2001. In May, the commission dropped the complaints, saying there was no evidence to back the charges.

Barlow said he is glad the allegations have been cleared and the lawsuit is closed.

"Now I can focus on providing fire and rescue services to the community," Barlow said.

Of the $35,000 settlement, the city will pay $5,000 from the general fund as a deductible for the insurance company, which will pay $30,000. Each year, the city pays an insurance company about $200,000 to handle lawsuits like this one, Hooper said.

As for the firefighters, they must give 40 percent to their attorney, Tobe Lev of Orlando, and they will split the remaining $21,000. After taxes, each one will receive $5,000.

Jones said the group had not filed the case to make money.

"We were standing up for what we believed was right," he said.

In 1998, Jones filed a similar lawsuit against Volusia County Fire Services and received an undisclosed settlement. No guilt was determined in the case where he claimed he was forced to resign from volunteer work at the Bethune Beach fire station after he pointed out problems there.

Jones has considered applying for another firefighter job elsewhere. But for now, he and Shuta run an Internet equipment sales company called FireStoreOnline.com.

Castetter moved from the area and now works as a firefighter for a community outside of Fort Lauderdale.

cindy.crawford@news-jrnl.com