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Southern Manatee fire chief resigns

MANATEE -- Facing formal charges stemming from an investigation, Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue District Chief Foster Gover chose to voluntarily resign, effective May 1, under terms of a deal with the district.

He will be relieved of duty immediately, and Parrish Fire Chief Michael Johnson, who led the investigation, will fill in at the district until a new leader can be hired, the board of fire commissioners decided.

Beginning today, Gover will be put on administrative leave with full pay and benefits, in accordance with his four-year employment contract, until May 1.

On May 1, he will resign, and the district will pay him a lump sum of approximately $192,000 to partially buy out the remainder of his contract.

Johnson said in a memo to commissioners that formal charges were brought against Gover Dec. 10.

Johnson concluded that Gover had used district computers to send and receive sexually-explicit/inappropriate materials from 2005-09, all but one before he was chief, when he was fire marshal.

Johnson said the chief had engaged in occasional inappropriate sexual banter prior to becoming chief.

And Gover had inaccurately told the board a laptop computer gifted to former Fire Chief Thomas F. Hennessy was “old and worn” when it was relatively new, and worth $2,300.

Johnson decided that 18 other allegations lodged against Gover, one accusing him of subjecting female employees to sexual harassment, could not be substantiated.

Commissioners were told that Johnson is continuing with the investigation, and plans to report more results in January.

Gover left the meeting immediately after adjournment, declining comment. But Kendra Presswood, Gover’s attorney, said afterward, “I think he’s all right with the outcome.”

Attorneys for the district listed a variety of options for the board, everything from Gover’s firing to a vote that would clear him entirely. But ultimately, the board voted 3-2 for the partial buy-out and resignation plan.

Commissioners voting in favor were Anthony C. Evans, Mark D. Ruben and Charles Durant, while Robert A. Kulchar, Jr. and John J. Barry III voted against the plan.

Kulchar and Barry said they favored a lesser penalty, such as suspension.

Barry said he would like to see Gover suspended for at least a month to send a message to everyone in the department as well as taxpayers that such behavior would not be tolerated.

Kulchar said he would favor disciplinary action rather than the partial buyout of Gover’s contract.

Ruben said that, with the allegations brought against the chief, “we owe it to our district and to the taxpayers” to accept Gover’s resignation.

The board also differed on who should lead the fire department once Gover departs, with some advocating in-house personnel and others favoring the original plan in which Johnson would be the interim chief.

The chief’s base pay under his contract is $115,000 annually, but with benefits added, the employment package is worth close to $200,000 a year, officials told the board. And since Gover is still in the first of a four-year contract, a full buy-out would have cost close to $700,000, they said.

Commissioners were also concerned that the chief would sue, and that the terms of his contract language, would pose a sticky legal problem down the road.

“Depending on your point of view, it’s arguably a very reasonable partial payout of his contract in order to avoid the threat and uncertainty of litigation,” said district counsel John M. Hament after the meeting.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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