NAples Daily News

Former Collier EMS director testifies in lawsuit against county
By LARRY HANNAN, ljhannan@naplesnews.com
December 9, 2003

Monday afternoon was an emotional roller-coaster ride for Diane Flagg.

Flagg, former director of emergency medical services for Collier County, testified about losing her job to the seven-member jury that will render a verdict in the sexual discrimination lawsuit she has filed against Collier County.

Fighting back tears, Flagg spent an afternoon talking about all aspects of her case, including what it was like to be assigned to another position after she was removed as EMS director.

"Going to work after losing my job was like being in prison," Flagg said. "None of the commanders were allowed to talk to me. Some of the (women she worked with) would call me up and ask to meet me in the bathroom because they were afraid to talk to me everywhere else."

Flagg testified during the first day of the trial in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers. She will return today to continue her testimony, when county attorneys cross-examine her.

In April 2001, then-County Manager Tom Olliff gave Flagg's job to Jeff Page, her underling. He made Flagg director of EMS administration, and Page director of operations.

Under her new position, Flagg lacked the ability to approve purchases, had few employees, no budget and little to do. County officials claimed the transfer was a lateral move, but Flagg considered it a demotion with Page the real head of EMS.

During her testimony Monday, Flagg alternated between sadness, anger, confusion and frustration depending on what she was talking about. She said she felt betrayed by her employers.

"When all these county commissioners started getting arrested (County Manager) Tom Olliff kept talking about how we needed to rebuild trust in Collier County government," Flagg said. "I kept comparing that to what was happening to me. What happened (to her) was wrong and it was based on lies that the county made up."

Three county commissioners have been arrested in the last five years on public corruption charges.

After she was removed from her post, Flagg sued the county in federal court, alleging sexual discrimination. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and asks for her old job back.

Flagg's lawsuit alleges that her gender was a motivating factor in her not being selected as Emergency Services Administrator in both 1998 and 2000, and in her removal as EMS director in 2001.

Flagg was removed from her position as part of an EMS reorganization drawn up by former County Manager Tom Olliff, former Assistant County Manager Mike McNees, and former Emergency Services Administrator Tom Storrar. All three are expected to testify in the trial.

In September 2002, County Manager Jim Mudd, who replaced Olliff, moved Flagg out of EMS to the newly created position of director of alternative transportation. In this position, which she still holds, Flagg oversees the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which works with the county's long-range road planning agency.

The EMS administration position was eliminated at that time and Page became the unquestioned head of EMS.

During the time Flagg was director of EMS, the agency was recognized as among the best in the state and country. In 2000, Collier EMS was named the nation's EMS Paramedic Service of the Year by the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. Flagg was also inducted into the Florida Department of Health EMS Hall of Fame in 2002 and was named the paramedic administrator of the year in 1998 by the Florida Association of Counties.

On Monday Flagg Attorney Robert Weisberg highlighted eight years of performance reviews grading Flagg's work. All of the performance reviews gave her the highest positive rating a county employee could receive.

According to Flagg, in the months leading up to her removal as EMS director, friends and associates were repeatedly hearing rumors that she was about to lose her job.

"I kept trying to believe (the rumors) weren't true," she said.

She repeatedly went to Storrar, her immediate supervisor, and inquired whether he had any problems with her performance, and each time Storrar said no, Flagg said.

"Each time I heard a rumor I would go to Storrar and ask if I was doing something wrong," Flagg said. "Each time he told me I was doing fine."

Flagg alleges Storrar, who was her immediate supervisor, was out to get her after he got the division administrator position and made demands of her he didn't make of male department heads. For example, she claims Storrar demanded to see copies of all of her e-mail correspondence but didn't make that demand of others.

Flagg wanted Storrar's job before he was hired. In 1998, Robert Fernandez, who was then county manager, created the new public safety division with a new emergency services administrator to oversee it.

Flagg, who was then EMS chief, applied for the division administrator position but didn't get it. The County Commission refused to appoint the out-of-state candidate Fernandez recommended for the administrator job. Commissioner Pam Mac'Kie said she didn't understand why Flagg wasn't getting it.

The administrator position was vacant for two years after that until 2000, when Olliff, who had replaced Fernandez as county manager, hired Storrar for the position.

Flagg said she wanted to apply for the job again in 2000 but Olliff told her not to because he didn't think the five members of the Collier County Commission would unanimously approve the appointment.

"Olliff told me he wanted 100 percent consensus and he didn't think he could get that with me," Flagg said. "He asked me not to apply, so I did what he asked me to do."

The problem was that John Norris, who was then a Collier County Commissioner, was hostile to her, Flagg said.

"If I met with Norris and I brought one of my command staff he'd turn his back to me and only talk to them," Flagg said. "He'd do the same thing if he saw me in the hallway."

Norris was one of the three commissioners arrested on public corruption charges. He will go to trial in 2004.

County officials claim that Flagg was removed because she disobeyed orders and undermined her supervisors. They also claim Flagg attempted to consolidate fire services under EMS despite being ordered not to pursue that action. There are multiple independent fire districts in Collier County not controlled by county government.

At the end of testimony Monday, Weisberg asked Flagg about a long list of reasons the county had given for removing Flagg. Most of the reasons involved being insubordinate to Storrar or pushing for fire consolidation.

Flagg denied ever being insubordinate to Storrar and said she repeatedly asked him if he had any problems with her, and he never told her of any trouble.

Flagg and Dr. Robert Tober, the EMS medical director, had been advocates of creating more fire partnerships, to cut duplication of services and reduce the number of vehicles responding to medical calls.

But Collier's independent districts resisted entering the partnerships and several refused to go along with the EMS standards and protocols for basic medical care. This situation created resentment of Flagg among the fire districts.

Flagg's critics allege that she was pushing for the county to take over the independent fire districts and put all under county control. Flagg denies this charge and said she was trying to find ways to get EMS and the fire districts to work more closely together.

"I was never in favor of fire consolidation," Flagg said. "I just wanted to form partnerships with the fire departments."

Opening statements occurred before Flagg testified Monday. Attorney Mark Levitt, who is representing Collier County in the lawsuit, said the facts would show Flagg was removed from her job for reasons that had nothing to do with her gender.

Flagg couldn't get along with the fire chiefs and was buying fire equipment and pushing for consolidation even though she'd been told not to go in that direction, Levitt said.

"Eventually something had to be done," Levitt said. "(Flagg's) evaluations didn't cover the issues that Olliff and Storrar were dealing with."

Levitt urged jurors not to reach any conclusions in the case until they heard all the evidence, and told them they would hearing testimony from multiple fire chiefs detailing the problems they had with Flagg.

"These were real problems that didn't exist because (Flagg) was a woman," Levitt said. "What is undisputed is that there were very serious tensions between EMS and the fire districts."