An internal investigation conducted by the West Manatee Fire Rescue District Commission dismissed a complaint by Holmes Beach Commissioner Al Robinson that his constitutional right to free speech and assembly were violated by WMFR Chief Andy Price and Deputy Chief Brett Pollock.
Board member Larry Tyler was appointed by WMFR District Commission Chair John Rigney to conduct the investigation of the incident, which occurred at WMFR’s Sept. 8 stakeholders meeting at the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church. The meeting was open to the public and some invited guests, and all were asked to provide input on the district.
Tyler did not attend the stakeholder’s meeting and had no prior knowledge of the events.
Robinson alleged he did not receive an invitation to the stakeholder’s meeting and was “insulted” by this oversight because of his continuing interest in WMFR. However, he attended the meeting and reportedly spoke to attendees about WMFR during a presentation. He allegedly passed out a lengthy letter to those who attended about wasteful spending by the WMFR, and said in a loud voice that he “wasn’t invited” and questioned why he did not get an invitation, according to the Tyler report.
Robinson claimed Price and Pollock tried to prevent him from passing out his literature and denied him the opportunity to speak to people during the meeting. He alleged that Pollock told him that if he were there to cause trouble “We’ll have you put out of here.”
Tyler said he interviewed all people involved under oath, including Robinson, Pollock and Price. He also interviewed one volunteer worker.
He spoke with several attendees in an effort to “find out if anyone else had a complaint (against Price and Pollock), but I didn’t find any,” Tyler said.
Everyone at the Sept. 8 meeting was asked to put issues and comments in writing on a form provided by the district, Tyler reported. Those comments were reviewed at the meeting. Attendees were given the opportunity to speak and provide input. Tyler’s investigation determined that Robinson was allowed to attend. He did not fill out a form and did not ask openly to speak at the meeting.
Tyler presented a 70-page report and concluded there was no evidence to substantiate Robinson’s allegations and, therefore, no viable complaint.
Board member Randy Cooper said Robinson’s actions were “regrettable,” and the only apparent reason for Robinson to attend the meeting was to disrupt the proceedings.
“You should have been thrown out. You declined to participate in the meeting and you disrupted it by handing out your literature,” Cooper said.
After reading Tyler’s report, Cooper acknowledged that Pollock and Price acted with “professionalism” and “patience” in a situation where it was clear Robinson was attempting to be disruptive.
Following Tyler’s presentation, the board voted unanimously to reject Robinson’s complaint.
Robinson has been a critic of the WMFR since before his election to the Holmes Beach commission and was once escorted by police from a WMFR district commission meeting for disruptive behavior.
At the WMFR Oct. 20 meeting, Robinson was given the standard three minutes of public time to speak on any issue.
He declined to talk about the investigation, and said he was not there to “attack people” but to discuss unfounded pension mandates. He had a large volume of information that he said would take longer than three minutes to present.
“The pension system is broken. The system will bankrupt” the WMFR, he alleged.
That was a claim that Price, who had previously been under a gag order not to address Robinson’s complaint, rejected.
“Our pension fund is totally funded and there is no unfunded liability and there has never been,” Price said. “This is nonsense about any unfunded pension.”
He suggested Robinson get his facts correct before passing out literature with incorrect financial information.
Holmes Beach resident Pat McConnell also spoke, offering a suggestion that board members appeared to favor. McConnell said the WMFR should keep its website updated to better inform people of meeting dates, locations and other pertinent data regarding the WMFR.
Cooper and Tyler agreed, and suggested that once the WMFR administration staff moves to its new facility, Price ensure the computer staff keep the website updated on a regular basis.
Moving from Station No. 1
Price said the new administration facility off 65th Street in Bradenton is about 80 percent completed and he anticipated the next board meeting would be held there, not at the Holmes Beach station. The new building will consolidate all WMFR administrators into a central location.
He said construction costs are still “below the maximum contracted price,” and furniture, equipment, cabinets and computers should all be in place by the November meeting.
Once all WMFR staff are located at the new facility, remodeling of Station No. 1 in Holmes Beach will begin, he said.
In other business, the board approved the second reading of a change to the pension fund that will allow WMFR to obtain more state funds for the pension plan at no cost to the WMFR plan.
Price also mentioned that the issue of consolidating all county fire districts has been revived and county officials have been discussing the matter at the monthly council of government officials meeting.
Consolidation has been around for the past 25 years, he observed, and it’s never moved beyond discussion.
“Until we get an unbiased study done, nothing is going to be accomplished,” Price said. The problem is who will pay for the study, he asked.