Fla. Fire Board Severs Contract With Firefighters

March 27, 2013
The Key Largo board created to oversee the community's volunteer-based fire department may need to assemble a new department in two months.

March 27--The Key Largo board created to oversee the community's volunteer-based fire department may need to assemble a new department in two months.

In a 3-2 decision Monday night, elected members of the Key Largo Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District voted to terminate its contract with the Key Largo Fire-Rescue Department Inc., consisting mostly of volunteers the past five decades.

No reasons were publicly offered in the crowded special meeting that lasted less than 30 minutes.

The without-cause resolution "just says the district didn't want to fight about the reasons," district attorney Dirk Smits said. "Just that it's over."

Three board members voting to end the contract indicated they want to replace the agreement with a new pact during a 60-day mediation period before the formal relationship with the volunteer group "terminates."

If mediation doesn't work, the board would ask the Tavernier and Islamorada fire departments for fire protection, at least on an interim basis.

Acting to force mediation "seriously needs to be done," said Marilyn Beyer, an elected district board member since the special taxing district was created in 2005.

"Hopefully this will trigger changes," said Beyer, who voted to end the contract. "No one wants to get rid of the fire department."

Russ Yagel, an attorney representing the volunteer organization, said "the awful truth" of the decision's intent is to "get rid of Chief Sergio Garcia."

Garcia, a 30-year fire department volunteer and chief since 1999, attended the district meeting but did not speak.

"I'm obviously disappointed with the way the vote went," Garcia said later. "They didn't make a single point that we're doing anything wrong. We're good people doing good work that the citizens of Key Largo appreciate."

District board member Bob Thomas, who ran unopposed in November to win his first term, said the volunteer department needs more "transparency" and a greater separation of powers for training and scheduling.

Thomas said he wants the district board to approve the selection of fire chief, now decided by an election of the firefighters.

"The position has to be answerable to some other body," Thomas said. "Now [Garcia] is answerable only to the firefighters that he controls.... It's about the position, not about Sergio."

District board member George Mirabella, a volunteer fireman who voted to end the contract as "a motion to start healing," said the department's corporate board "had a long time to care for [problems] on their own but nothing was done."

Frank Conklin, corporate president of the volunteer group, asked the district "to save what we have, not scrap it and start all over."

Voting against the motion were board Chairwoman Jennifer Miller and newly elected Tony Allen, also a volunteer firefighter.

"There's no reason for us to do this," Allen said. "Not a single person [from the public] came in here and asked us to get rid of the fire department. That speaks volumes."

Miller said she was "not comfortable making a hasty decision based on nothing.... I think a lot of the history [between the district and volunteers] is emotion-based. We need to run it like a business."

Thomas said firefighters will continue to receive reimbursements and shifts during the next 60 days. Yagel said the department members do not plan to stage "strikes or walkouts," but he feared some district board members have "a fantasy of a new department."

The district board called a special meeting for 6 p.m. April 1 at the Key Largo fire station to discuss issues to be raised during mediation.

The Key Largo Fire-Rescue Department has about three dozen volunteer firefighters and seven paid firefighters. Since the department has more volunteer firefighters than other Florida Keys areas, local fire-rescue taxes are notably lower in Key Largo.

Copyright 2013 - Florida Keys Keynoter, (Marathon, Fla.)

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