MANATEE — The investigation at the Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue District, which has involved more than 90 interviews so far, will wrap up in mid- to late-November, fire commission officials said Thursday.
Parrish Fire Control District Chief Michael Johnson reported via a memo about the district’s probe.
The investigation focuses on allegations that retired Fire Chief Thomas F. Hennessy was inappropriately awarded a $1.6 million retirement payout, and that current Chief Foster Gover sent pornographic material via e-mail to a department employee, and had engaged in sexual harassment, officials said.
District counsel Maggie D. Mooney-Portale told a crowd of about 30 that Johnson had spent more than six hours a day for several weeks, uncompensated, conducting the probe.
“It’s been this board’s position, which I commend, which is that anything related to this investigation should be directed to the investigator, and I would hope that this board will continue that practice,” she said.
In response to a question about whether Johnson’s final report would be made public, Fire Commissioner Robert A. Kulchar Jr. said he would ask Johnson, adding he assumed something would come out.
In response to a question about where Johnson was working, Mooney-Portale said he was continuing to work from the district administration building. The commissioners had previously decided to ask him to move elsewhere following a complaint that employees felt intimidated with Gover in the vicinity.
“I believe Chief Johnson has that choice to make,” said Kulchar.
Fire commissioners last month voted down a motion to suspend Gover with pay.
Also Thursday, Battalion Chief Pete Donchenko wanted to know how an appeal of a board decision might be filed, since the board doesn’t record its meetings and there are no official transcripts.
In response to the question from Donchenko, who made the allegations that the probe is designed to address, Kulchar said the board would ask its counsel to look into the question.
The board also discussed how it might conduct orderly meetings with reasonable restrictions on public comment.
The district’s firefighters have been told they would be fired if they made public comments on any aspect of the matter.
That subject was addressed by Mervin Kennell, president of Local 2546 of the Suncoast Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics, which represents the workers.
“I feel like you, the board, are in an unfortunate position because you’re getting advice from counsel not to speak about anything, and if you would speak about things, it eliminates the frustration of people looking for answers,” Kennell said.
“This is 2010, people aren’t used to being gagged. This is Florida. This is the home of the Sunshine State, the Sunshine Law, and we’re used to transparency, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Kennell said.
“There’s a lot of garbage being unearthed that’s been going on here for a long time, the papers are reporting on it, it’s embarrassing; I think if the district will start being more transparent, that a lot of this will settle down,” he said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.