Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Part 1: Fired Chiefs

A Cloud That Hangs Over City Hall
By Rick Outzen

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward is frustrated by the pushback that he has received for his termination of Fire Chief Matt Schmitt and Deputy Fire Chief Joe Glover. He is perplexed that Council members and citizens have questioned his fairness in his treatment of the city’s over 800 employees.

After all, the city charter gives him “the power to appoint, discipline and remove all officers and employees.”  The Florida Legislature repealed in 2013 the Civil Service Act that had established a board that reviewed and approved changes to city organization, pay classifications and disciplinary actions. Florida is an employment-at-will state, meaning employers can terminate their employees with or without cause and do not have to provide advance termination notice in most situations.

Mayor Hayward didn’t rush to his decision to fire the chiefs. He paid thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of dollars for one of the city’s two labor attorneys, Russell Van Sickle of Beggs & Lane, to investigate allegations made by his Chief Human Resource Officer against the chiefs. He also paid their salaries for over 90 days as Van Sickle expanded the investigation to cover their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints and other issues that arose.

When Van Sickle delivered his 132-page report, titled “2016 Investigative Report Into the Allegations Relating to the Pensacola Fire Department,” the mayor took two weeks to analyze its findings with the help of City Attorney Lysia Bowling. On May 10, he had Assistant City Administrator Keith Wilkins hand the men their termination notices.

A press announcement notified citizens of the decision. Mayor Hayward had dismissed Schmitt and Glover from their employment with the City due to “a loss of confidence in their ability to lead the Pensacola Fire Department.”

According to the release posted on the city’s website, the mayor determined that the findings were sufficient to warrant the dismissal of both individuals.

Mayor Hayward said, “These are never easy decisions to make, but I have the responsibility to ensure that the men and women of the Fire Department have leaders that can bring out the best in them and in the department.  I believe that my decision is a step in that direction.”

The mayor did not meet with Schmitt or Glover to discuss his decision. Wilkins did not hand the men copies of Van Sickle’s report when he gave them their “pink slips.”  Mayor Hayward did not hold a press conference to discuss the report and answer questions about the investigation and terminations.

Instead, Mayor Hayward did a handful of interviews. He offered few specifics but told the media and public to read the report and the supporting documents uploaded to the city’s website to understand his decision.

He told Will Isern of the News Journal, “Tough choices are bound to bring criticism, but it’s my responsibility to make them. I think after you read the report and the way they managed the office, you just lose confidence.” (PNJ, “Mayor dismisses fire chiefs,” May 11).

In an interview with Jacqueline Miles, Mayor Hayward said, “I think you’re a smart lady, once you see the report and read the report you’ll understand what’s in the report and you’ll have more questions.” (Pensacola Voice, “City Mayor Terminates Chief and Deputy Chief of the Fire Department,” May 13)

At the regular council meeting on May 10, the public voiced their disapproval of the mayor’s decision during the Boyd Forum. Mayor Hayward and City Administrator Eric Olson chose not to attend.

“The mayor, Mayor Hayward, is such a hypocrite in his statements, his poor lack of judgment, and his poor leadership,” said Jerry McIntosh. “He used his friend’s law firm to do the investigation. Something is wrong with that. Something is wrong with a leadership that doesn’t respect the rank and file of his people.”

Marilyn Brown addressed the mayor’s empty chair, “You had one goal in mind from the start: to do whatever it took to get something on Chief Glover and Chief Schmitt. This whole conspiracy was a one-sided, partial, subjective and biased process. But guess what? You still failed to find anything of substance, and everybody sees it.”

The Pensacola City Council approved calling a special meeting to discuss the investigation and termination of the fire chiefs after the council and public had more time to review Van Sickle’s report. Council President Charles Bare later set the meeting for Thursday, May 26.

A week before the special meeting, Mayor Hayward posted a statement on the city’s website, “An Open Letter to the People of Pensacola,” that tried to discourage the council from convening.

Mayor Hayward said that he would not attend the special meeting, because it was not aligned with his efforts to move Pensacola forward in a “constructive fashion.” He called out unnamed council members whom he believed had “persistently attempted to foster an atmosphere of discord in our City.”

He wrote that his decision to dismiss the Chiefs was “carefully and thoughtfully made.”

“I considered the report as I weighed whether it was in the best interests of the City, Fire Department employees and our citizens to continue with the existing leadership of the Fire Department or to select new leadership,” said Mayor Hayward. “It is an irrevocable decision—one that the Council cannot change, according to our Charter.”

He called the special meeting “ill-advised” and “a staged rally for the terminated employees. Instead, the mayor encouraged individual council members to ask him questions about his decision privately, and “I will answer to the best of my ability.”

He felt that the dispute over the investigation and termination of the fire chiefs was due to some council members balking at the strong-mayor form of government and trying to “second guess” his decision.

“It’s unfortunate that some Council members have attributed to me illicit, unfair or mean-spirited motives that do not exist and never will,” said Mayor Hayward.

The mayor wanted to move past this issue. He closed the letter, “Dissent is good, and vigorous disagreement is healthy to assure that the best decisions are made; created discord and divisiveness, however, are not, and the citizens do not like it and do not want it to continue.”

On Monday, May 23, Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker weighed in on the wisdom of the Council holding a special meeting. He sent a memo to Olson, who forwarded it on to the council.

Barker warned that should a claim arise from one or both of the fire chiefs, city officials cannot admit liability and must do nothing that may prejudice the insurer’s position. Otherwise, the insurance carrier may not cover the claims.

“In my 35-year career with the City of Pensacola, I do not recall any public meeting held to discuss employees dismissed by a City Manager or Mayor of the City of Pensacola,” wrote Barker. “Certainly, from a risk management perspective, it would be best to maintain the past practice of not publicly discussing employee-related matters. As the Chief Financial Officer of the City of Pensacola, it is important that you, the mayor and the city council be informed of the potential risks associated with this matter.”

Council President Bare was not deterred.

“I’m still planning on having the meeting,” said Bare on May 24. “I just think that the administration doesn’t want to talk about it, and the Council needs to give the public a chance to speak. I think the real risk is the mayor. Actually, I think he’s probably damaging our probability of having risk management insurance in the future more than the council is at this point.”

He said that the mayor had not reached out to him before or after he published his “open letter.”

“I have had three meetings with the mayor, all three I have asked for. He has never asked for a meeting with me, although he has said before he has an open door, sometimes it takes me a week or so to be able to meet with him,” said the council president. “It was not a surprise to me he wouldn’t attend this meeting because he hardly attends any meetings.”

Bare added, “The News Journal talks about how we need to cooperate, but if the mayor won’t come to our meetings and talk to us … He told us during a Council meeting he wasn’t going to sit there and debate with us. Well, what do you think we do here? That’s the point of these meetings is to debate, share ideas and opinions.”

Two councilmen, Larry Johnson and Andy Terhaar, chose not to attend the nearly two-hour special meeting on Thursday, May 26. Only City Attorney Bowling attended for the mayor’s office.

Schmitt addressed the council for the first since he had been placed on paid administrative leave on Feb. 2.  He didn’t argue for a reversal of the mayor’s decision. Instead, he beseeched the council to establish safeguards to protect the city employees not covered by the collective bargaining units.

“We have to take the lead to make sure that there is a process for the rest of the city employees,” said former Fire Chief Schmitt. “There has to be a process that they can rebuke or rebut any charges brought against them, and it has to ironclad.”

He added, “There has to be a process for those people (not covered by unions). Everybody should have their day in court. As it stands right now, the executive employees do not have that with the City of Pensacola.”

Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn echoed Schmitt’s concerns that few HR processes were in place to ensure city employees were treated equally and fairly.

Through public record requests, Inweekly had discovered that Mayor Hayward had discontinued annual written job performance evaluations of city employees in early 2012. He had never done written evaluations of any of his department heads, including Olson and Bowling, since he took office in January 2011.

“There is no evaluation system in place for all employees,” Cannada-Wynn said. “Some employees have even been given raises without an official evaluation. Others have not. It has been the source of issues. People whisper, ‘Why did this person get a $15,000 raise and I didn’t?’ Those are the things that have been going on, that have been festering.”

Councilwoman Sherri Myers brought up the abrupt termination of former Council Executive Lila Cox in June 2014. Myers alleged Cox was fired for helping the council work to amend the city charter.

Mayor Hayward fired Cox without any consultation with the council, even though he had committed earlier to them that they could choose whomever they wanted for the position. The termination led to citizens passing a charter amendment giving the council the power to hire their staff.

“I have witnessed intimidation and abuse of many employees, if not all employees,” Myers said.

Councilman Gerald Wingate dropped another bombshell. He said to former Deputy Chief Joe Glover as he stood at the dais, “When I first got into the office, I asked the Mayor if he was going to promote you to Chief since you were the best-qualified person, and he wouldn’t give me an answer.”

Wingate continued,  “Colleen Castile was the City Administrator at that time, and she said you wouldn’t be able to get the job because you had filed discrimination complaints in the past, which I thought was retaliation at that level.”

Councilmen P.C. Wu and Brian Spencer thanked the chiefs for their service to the city. Myers, Wingate, Cannada-Wynn and Bare promised to address concerns brought up in upcoming meetings.

The special council meeting didn’t set well with Mayor Hayward, especially the comments made by Myers and Wingate. On Saturday, May 28, he fired off a memo to the council attacking the veracity of their statements of discrimination and abuse of employees and explaining for the first time his reasons for firing the two fire chiefs.

“While I value your continued service to the citizens of our City and respect your right under the Charter ‘to express your views and to fully and freely discuss any and all matters’ with me, I strongly disagree with comments that some of you made at the meeting and to the media after it was over,” wrote the mayor.

He defended Van Sickle’s investigation. Mayor Hayward said, “It was a fair investigation conducted independently of City input. The investigation had no predetermined outcome.”

Mayor Hayward stated that the findings of the report demonstrated that Schmitt and Glover “improperly retaliated against a lower ranking firefighter (Edward Deas) merely for making a complaint about Glover.” The mayor said the chiefs did not provide Deas an investigation into his concerns and demoted him for reasons that Van Sickle stated were “unsupported” and “knowingly false.”

“The former chiefs’ unfair and severe retaliation toward the firefighter is behavior that will not be condoned by our Administration,” said Mayor Hayward. “Dismissing someone from their job is never an easy or pleasant task, but when behavior such as that demonstrated by the former chiefs is revealed, action must be taken for the benefit of all the firefighters.”

The mayor challenged the statements made by Myers and Wingate. He said if Myers’ statement that she “witnessed intimidation and abuse of many employees” were true, then she needed to come forward, “otherwise her comment is nothing more than an unsubstantiated allegation that breeds cynicism about public officials.”

He was surprised to hear Wingate allege that former City Administrator Colleen Castille had said Glover would never be promoted to Fire Chief because he filed discrimination complaints.

“If that had really happened, I would have hoped that he would have done something about it at the time,” said Hayward.

The mayor added that annual evaluations would have had no effect on the circumstances that were investigated.

“If the Council was truly concerned about retaliation and the failure to follow policies designed to ensure fairness, the Council would have fully supported the actions taken on May 10 to remove the former Interim and Deputy Fire Chiefs,” said Hayward. “Our Administration is going to do the right thing for the employees of the City, even when that means discharging management employees.”

Over the past four months, Inweekly has repeatedly tried to interview Mayor Hayward, Olson, Wilkins and Chief Human Resources Ed Sisson. Each request has been declined. However, the newspaper has continued to track the investigation and its aftermath.

The three-month investigation of the fire chiefs is unprecedented, particularly considering the both chiefs had active EEOC complaints against the city when they were placed on paid administrative leave.

The unintended consequence of Mayor Hayward’s decisions concerning the fire chiefs is that they have brought into question his leadership style and the overall work environment at city hall. Few question his power to terminate anyone on his staff, but many wonder why this costly melodrama was ever allowed to dominate city politics for the first half of his year.

In the following articles, Inweekly examines Van Sickle’s report and looks at the importance of job evaluations in creating a positive work environment.

Part 2: Inside the Report
Part 3: Top Employers Engage Employees