MANATEE — Southern Manatee Fire District commissioners Wednesday voted down a motion to suspend Chief Foster Gover with pay.
Gover is among those under investigation in connection with allegations of misuse of funds, pornographic material sent via e-mail and sexual harassment.
The board hired an outsider, Parrish Fire Control District Chief Michael Johnson, to do an investigation, which may take a month or more to complete, said district counsel Maggie D. Mooney-Portale during a meeting of the board. She said Johnson had interviewed 40 employees since the investigation began Sept. 1.
The board decided against suspending the chief after Mooney-Portale warned it risked a lawsuit because of terms in the chief’s contract, which states he could only be suspended as a result of criminal indictment. She also advised that a suspension would make the investigation more difficult to do, and would leave the district leaderless.
But a former employee, Jerry Bennett, who said he had been fired Aug. 10, complained that the chief was roaming around the building while interviews took place, which some found intimidating.
“It didn’t seem right to have him in the same area as people being questioned,” Bennett said.
“It’s about perception,” said Mervin Kennell, president of Local 2546 of the Suncoast Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics, representing 1,080 workers in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.
Board members decided investigator Johnson should move elsewhere to assure privacy.
Mooney-Portale urged that everyone be restricted from commenting publicly on anything connected to the investigation, saying, “Because it’s an internal investigation, anything relevant does not need to be vetted in a public forum or in the media.”
That drew a complaint from Southern Manatee Battalion Chief Pete Donchenko, who noted that Gover had been advised not to speak to news reporters, but did anyway.
“I welcome the investigation because I think the truth will come out,” Gover told the Herald in a story published Monday.
Donchenko wondered aloud if a worker did the same thing, if he would face retaliation.
Donchenko also questioned whether commissioners had become complacent.
“More needs to be done out in the open,” he said, urging the board to adopt a formal code of ethics.
He also urged commissioners to abandon a practice in which he said each commissioner would meet individually “behind closed doors” with Gover before a public meeting.
It may not technically be against the law, but violated the spirit of the state’s open meetings policy, Donchenko said.
Throughout Donchenko’s speech, Mooney-Portale repeatedly urged commissioners to limit any comments touching upon the investigation or employee grievances.
“I think Mr. Donchenko is out of order,” she said.
People in the audience of 50 or so applauded when Donchenko sat down.
The investigation began after Donchenko e-mailed two letters to all five Southern Manatee Fire District commissioners, claiming that, among other things, Gover had sent pornographic material via e-mail to a department employee. He also had contended that Gover had engaged in sexual harassment, according to Robert Kulchar, chairman of the board.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.