SEMINOLE – Two Seminole Fire Rescue staff members were reprimanded following an investigation of a complaint that on-duty firefighters driving a city fire truck attended a campaign event hosted by current Seminole City Council candidate Kelly Wissing.
The complaint was made by Dan Hester, who is also running for council. He contacted City Manager Ann Toney-Deal by phone Sept. 17 alerting her that he had seen a fire truck from Fire Station 29 at Wissing’s Sept. 16 event, which ran from 3 to 5 p.m. at Lake Seminole Park. He met with Toney-Deal in person two days later.
Toney-Deal said that before launching an official investigation, she ensured that there were no emergency calls to park Sept. 16.
In a previous interview with the Beacon, she said, “I had reason to believe that an infraction may have occurred.”
Chief Heather Burford took over the investigation the afternoon of Sept. 24 after the Beacon alerted her of the allegations by asking her for a comment about them.
Burford said she and Erica Ottman, the city’s human resources director, met with Hester at the recreation center Oct. 2. He showed them a 22-second video time stamped at 2:52 p.m. on Sept. 16, as well as three photographs, she said.
The video and images were taken by Hester as he sat in his car, she added, and the video clearly showed the on-duty Seminole Fire Rescue truck. The photographs showed signs from Wissing’s campaign and a Seminole Professional Fire Fighters Union International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2896 trailer. Neither the videos nor the photographs included images of “identifiable people,” she said.
The union has endorsed Wissing and incumbent City Council candidate Trish Springer this election. There were several off-duty firefighters at the event, as well, Burford said.
During the investigation, Burford determined that District Chief Matthew Seib gave Lt. Eric Fayad, who was assigned to Engine 29 with two crew members Sept. 16, permission to stop by Lake Seminole Park while Wissing was setting up for her campaign event. Seib told the trio to leave the park before the event actually started at 3 p.m.
In his statement provided during the investigation, Fayad wrote that the crew operating Engine 29 stopped by the park before Wissing’s event began after answering a call around 2 p.m. in the Bay Pines area. Prior to this, he asked Seib for permission to visit the park that afternoon.
“I had a desire to try to go by prior to (the event) starting, but was unsure if that was appropriate,” he wrote. “I went to DC Matt Seib and spoke with him about it and wanted to know his thoughts. I cannot quote what was said, but by the end of the conversation I was told it was ok to swing by the event, but not to be there long and (to) be gone before the start time.”
In his written statement for the investigation, Seib wrote that “at no time was I made aware that the event was a fundraiser of any kind.”
He added, “I am fully aware that negotiations, fundraisers, and almost all other union business is forbidden while on duty. However, it was presented to me as a little thing in the park for Kelly by Lt. Fayad. At the time, I did not even know who Kelly was. Once it was explained to me who she was, I immediately told Lt. Fayad that he could have nothing to do with the event and that he needed to stay away from the park altogether while it was going on. He said that he understood, but asked if he could do a drive by to see who was setting up. He (alluded) to a quick pop in to touch base, but not to interact with Kelly or provide support or aid in any way.”
Fayad wrote in his statement that while waiting for off-duty union firefighters to arrive at the park before the event began, he “chatted with Wissing exclusively.” Once the union trailer arrived and was unloaded, he wrote, he “got in the trailer to check a couple of the things for the next Friday Music in the Park.” He and his crew left the park about five minutes before Wissing’s event began at 3 p.m., he wrote.
Firefighter Justin Clynes, Engine 29’s driver that day, wrote in his statement that he was directed to drive to Lake Seminole Park.
James R. King, Jr., the medic assigned to the truck, wrote, “We went to the park with the off-duty personnel to help set up the trailer for the cooking event being done by the union. I didn’t make any decisions on going. I was told by Lt. Fayad that the engine was going to help.”
Burford said Leib and Fayad violated city policies and procedures for employees regarding conflicts of interest.
“They should not have been there. There’s no doubt about it,” she said.
She added, “This ended up just being a lapse in good judgment. They’re truly good officers who make good decisions daily…I’m pleased that they’re remorseful and contemplative about the decisions they made.”
Both Leib and Fayad received, respectively, Level 1 and Level 2 first-time offense letters of written reprimand that will be added to their files. Clynes and King were not reprimanded because they “did not have decision-making capabilities” and “were just following orders,” Burford said.