Michael Burton

Fire Chief Mike Burton

LARGO — The president of the association representing Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue employees has lashed out in a lengthy letter at the fire chief over a variety of issues.

Eric Grantham, on behalf of the Pinellas Suncoast Professional Firefighters Association, wrote that it has “no choice but to inform the district's commissioners of Chief Michael Burton's overall poor leadership, judgment and actions."

In the March 31 letter, he urged the commission to promptly review the correspondence and if the commission deems it appropriate, to place Burton on administrative leave so that an investigation can occur.

Burton, who has been the district’s chief for the past 3½ years, said that Grantham's letter is "heavy on allegations, baseless claims, half-truths, opinions and innuendos but woefully short on the compete truth."

In his response, which Burton read at the fire district commission's meeting April 20, the chief said that it is clear that Grantham's intentions are to discredit him and disparage him personally.

Commissioners took no action and had little say at the meeting on the allegations, but the board's attorney, Jeff Albinson, defended the chief's actions in contacting the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office involving a labor practice called "shift swapping." Such practices, in general, occur when an employee requests one or more of their colleagues to work one of their shifts.

Grantham said the shift-swapping practice was the final act that prompted him to draft the correspondence.

He wrote that shift-swapping is not prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act, is widely used in the firefighting profession, and at worst is merely a district policy violation.

"The association and I believe this act also exemplifies the type of arbitrary and misappropriate overreaction Chief Burton makes when district personnel in association leadership positions are involved," Grantham wrote.

As facts became available from an informal inquiry and formal investigative inquiry into the "purported trade irregularities," Burton said he had concerns there may have been a criminal component to the situation that would paint the district in a negative light.

He shared his concerns with Albinson.

Albinson concluded that it would be in the district's best interest to report the matter to a law enforcement agency and let it determine if a crime took place, Burton said.

Based on his legal opinion, Burton contacted the Sheriff's Office and asked for a determination of any criminal elements.

He notified commission Chairman Joseph Bruni of the request and provided an email notice to Grantham of his actions.

As of April 5, the matter has been assigned to the Sheriff's Office economic crimes unit, he said.

"Mr. Grantham is not correct that in his claim that I filed a criminal complaint in that a criminal complaint is filed by the state of Florida, not by the person initiating a phone call to law enforcement," Burton said.

"Chief Burton is right," Albinson said. "All the person does is make a report of something that happened, and it's up to law enforcement to determine if something actually happened that may have broken the law."

Albinson said to imagine what would happen a couple of years from now if it was determined that "we so-called swept it under the rug," and the district was seeking funds from an agency.

The district would look awful, he said.

"So we are much better to let somebody outside this organization make the decision," Albinson said.

Grantham wrote that Burton's "decisions have a substantial and adverse economic impact on the department, its employees and the pubic and poses a substantial and specific danger to the health, safety and welfare of the public the district serves."

Burton replied that it "is such a substantial allegation, I urge Mr. Grantham to bring forward any evidence he has to support the claim," he said.

The fire district provides fire protection and emergency medical services for Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, and Indian Shores and an area of the unincorporated mainland that is slightly larger than the total of the municipalities.