An internal investigation of Deerfield Beach Fire-Rescue's involvement in the city's March municipal election found that six employees committed ethical violations. But those violations -- storing political material in the fire station and wearing their work pants on the campaign trail -- weren't serious enough to cost the employees their jobs. Instead, they'll be given counseling.
That's the determination of Robert Weech, the assistant fire chief who investigated the allegations and whose one-page memo to Chief Anthony Stravino is -- according to the city manager's office -- the only public record the department generated from its investigation, which consisted of interviews with 22 firefighters.
Deerfield Beach was still in the throes of the region's nastiest municipal campaign when, in early March, blogger Bett Willett gave a firsthand report of what appeared to be an improper bit of multitasking on the part of the city's firefighters.
Soon thereafter, attorney Tom Connick fired off an email to City Manager Mike Mahaney (I posted it here) containing his observations from a stakeout of the fire station. Both painted pictures in which the firefighters on the job were mingling and virtually indistinguishable from the ones who were campaigning. The station -- which ethically must be neutral ground -- appeared to be the politically charged base of vigorous campaigners touting Joe Miller for City Commission and Peggy Noland (whose husband is a firefighter) for mayor. Both candidates won their races.
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Connick's email prompted the city manager's office to open an investigation, which it entrusted to the fire department. This afternoon, Connick expressed disappointment with the outcome.
"My feeling is that that's very inadequate," he says, speaking of the department's ruling that the offending firefighters go to counseling. "How is that going to prevent this activity in the future when you have it treated as being so insignificant?"
In Deerfield Beach, it seems, the firefighters have learned that political investments bring handsome returns, like a pension plan so generous it could potentially capsize the city's future budget. "When you have these firefighters so involved in campaigns, this is why the public has so little faith in government," says Connick. "They're justified in thinking that the firefighters are going to be treated better than they ought to be because of their political activity."
Connick stopped short of questioning the integrity of the investigation, but he says that in the past, including this particular episode, he's found Chief Stravino to be "highly protective" of Deerfield firefighters. Around the same time as the station house campaigning, another firefighter, Noland's own son Thomas Noland, was caught in an act of campaign sabotage, destroying the signs of his mother's rivals. The department ordered him to pay a $250 fine and write a letter of apology.