Forced Out or Not, Flagler Fire Chief Don Petito Is Looking to ‘Get the Hell Out’ in Fallout From Clash –

Posted: November 1, 2019 at 10:46 am

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Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petitos 15 years, the last 14 as fire chief, will end by February, if not sooner. County Manager Jerry Cameron said he expects Petito to give him a retirement date by the end of the year. Petito said he will provide that date pending his success as he looks for work elsewhere in the region.

Thats part of the fallout from a serious clasha blow-up, in Camerons wordsbetween Petito and Jarrod Shupe, the countys chief information officer, which led Cameron to call a Board of Inquiry to look into the issue. The blow-up took place in the middle of the Hurricane Dorian emergency in September. Petito, losing his temper in front of employees, including Cameron, disagreed with the way Shupe had assigned radio communication channels to Palm Coast government without consulting him. Cameron agreed that Shupes method was wrong.

Shupe was counseled about it and cited in writing for conduct unbecoming of a public employee, a violation of county personnel policies.

Petito was verbally counseled and offered a choice that, he thought, was no choice but to leave by next year. Retelling what he told Cameron, Petito said he saw it as an ultimatum: Thats the way I felt when I was sitting in your office, that if you take this deal nothing goes in your file, and your tenure is untarnished. But if you dont, well put it in your file. He didnt know what would go in his file. That to me is youre forcing me out. Youre telling me you take the deal or were coming after you.

Cameron is adamant its no such thing, that it would be a fabrication if the story was conveyed that way, and that he would not keep on an employee he was forcing out. If Petito feels hes being pushed out he needs to come talk to me, because thats simply not the case. But Petitos statements, and even some of Camerons, say otherwise.

When Cameron was read some of Petitos own statements, he said, thats not what he told me. He told me Ive had a good run here, its time for me to move on.

There appears to have been some scrambling between Cameron and Petito once they had word of this story. After a conversation with Cameron around noon, Petito, not one bit hiding how incredulous he was at what he was saying, said of Cameron: I totally misunderstood, according to what hes telling me. Petito said hed not been misunderstood in an earlier interview: his quotes were accurate: he did feel he was being pushed out. But apparently what Cameron had told him was not what Cameron had told him. After talking to Jerry today he said I could stay if I want to, Petito said. Apparently I misunderstood everything and Im not being forced out, so I guess Im not leaving but I am going to be seeking other employment, get the hell out of here.

Jarrod Shupe. ( FlaglerLive)Cameron said Petito had told him he planned to retire in February long before the trouble with Shupe. Petito said not exactly: hed given word of his 55th birthday next February, and he said that if his wife, Facilities Director Heidi Petito, would become deputy administrator, he would leave, since he couldnt be in a position to report to her. But after returning from vacation this week, hed decided he wanted to stay: he still needs three years to reach a milestone in the Florida Retirement System. Then came the meeting with Cameron and the ultimatum that, apparently, was not an ultimatum at all.

Spun whichever way it is, the fact remains that the clash between Petito and Shupe was only the culmination of long-standing animosity between Petito and Shupe, pitting the set ways of a chief cut out of the old school cloth, in Camerons words, against the sharply ambitious ways of Shupe, who doesnt hide his hopes of becoming county administrator some day. The sharpest of directors, Shupe can be heavy handed, though in this case both he and Petito were. They both dueled in public with thick sets of memos, documentations, recriminations and counter-recriminations. Petito at one point sought out the help of Palm Coast City Council member Jack Howell to get rid of Shupe. (I just dismissed it, it was just idle talk, and Jarrod really doesnt have anything to do with us per se, Howell said, and Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte thinks a lot of him, so as long as Jerry is happy Im happy.)

Anonymous emails written with clear knowledge of internal protocols and language circulated about Petito, making accusations about his behavior on the job, as did public record requests for his goings and comings and those of his wife and Chet Lagana in the maintenance department (the trio is known for epic lunches at Terra Nova in Bunnell, but none of the three has ever been known to neglect duties). The machinations angered and frustrated Cameron.

This was just a personnel issue and it never should have become a public issue, Camron said. (He doesnt think any of this, including the clash during the emergency, should have been public.) That was a concern to me. This is the kind of thing we do on a routine basis, is resolve personnel issues.

But there was nothing routine about the clash between Petito and Shupe, nor was it private, nor was it outside the publics right, and need, to know, because it directly entailed public safety and how the county and its largest city were preparing to address a potential disaster.

I had two directors that were involved in an incident that created a large blow-up in the middle of a declared emergency. I cant have that, Cameron said in a September interview, when discussing his decision to convene the Board of Inquiry. He acknowledged the strained relationship between Petito and Shupe, but when people reach the level of director, they should be able to resolve things among themselves. I shouldnt have to referee. Im not asking you to go to dinner together, Im asking you to work synergistically to the benefit of Flagler County. He noted the danger of the clash: It could have had serious consequences had conditions lined up correctly.

Even internally, the clash was a reflection of a changing culture at the county that Petito recognizes, and Cameron speaks of openly. Petito, Cameron said in September, has not bought into team work to the degree I would like to see. Ironically, it was Shupes lack of teamwork that triggered the September incident, though Cameron sees it as overzealousness that was easily counseled, adjusted. Jarrod is considerably different, Cameron said of Shupe. Jarrod is looking for some mentoring, and hes in an upward trajectory. Don is getting ready to retire.

Jerry Cameron, sitting, with Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief. ( FlaglerLive)The issue with Petito hasnt left Shupe unscathed by any means: it resulted in what Cameron described as a memorandum of counselingactually, a Performance Improvement Plan over violating personnel policyplaced in Shupes file, and hes on notice to work cooperatively in the future. Cameron downplayed the document. It happens all the time, he said. An employee with great ambitions would not see any document blotching his record as something that happens all the time. And the most detailed criticism of Shupe, in that memorandum, amounts to a muzzling of largely public, not private information.

During the Board of Inquiry, the memo to Shupe states, it was noted that information was shared among employees and media sources that was unbecoming to both you and County employees. Workplace gossip is toxic and unproductive. It breeds resentment and becomes a roadblock for effective communication and collaboration by lowering morale and creating an unpleasant working environment. The memo, itself thick on innuendo, makes no distinction between the entirely public documents Shupe shared and gossip, and directs him to refrain from disseminating personal information hes privy to. It does not specify what personal information he disseminated.

I cant have any comment regarding the matter, the matter needs to be referred to county administration as well as HR, Shupe said this morning, but he said he was satisfied by and grateful for the resolution. I believe my side is appropriate and I look forward to continuing my employment, hopefully progressive employment, here in Flagler County.

That no Performance Improvement Plan made it into Petitos file was not to Petitos benefit, as Petito saw it: it was a signal that his days in Flagler are over. Particularly since Don will be retiring, Cameron said, a long-term counseling plan, that would be an exercise in futility. I shook hands with Don and we agreed we were going to overcome this and Im satisfied with that.

Petito had made clear in both interviews today, and indeed did so in an interview in September, after the issue with Shupe arose, that he has no intentions of stopping work, and would have liked to continue working in Flagler. He now sees that as impossible. Im 55, Im still in good shape, I can go do another job, he said. The county is moving in another direction. Ive been here 15 years and the life cycle of a fire chief is five to 10 years, so Ill move on to another one.

Cameron and Petito met twice this week: on Monday and again briefly on Wednesday. Cameron said Petito would let him know by years end when his retirement date that wont actually be a retirement would be. Petito saw it as nothing specific, but said when I apply for jobs and I get some sort of indication Id have a start date somewhere, Ill let them know.

Joe King, his deputy, appears to be lined up to take his place. He certainly would be considered for that position but I havent made a decision on how that will be handled, Cameron said. The decision will depend on Petitos dates, assuming he does leavewhich is now again in question.

Morale at the fire department has been dismal, however, and King does not have the following that Petito has.

The state of morale is very low in our department right now, Stephen Palmer, who heads Flagler County Fire Rescues union, said. The morale is low, the union body, the membership and the leadership are unhappy with Petito leaving and we dont feel theres anybody qualified currently to take his position with the county. Palmer, whod had several conversations this week with Petito before and after his meetings with Cameron, was also under the impression that Petito had been given an ultimatum. Thats how Petito put it to him. Last I talked to Don, he did not want to leave, when he came back from vacation this week.

Cameron said hes aware of low morale. Ive heard that its something I need to address and Im going to do that, or am doing it.

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Forced Out or Not, Flagler Fire Chief Don Petito Is Looking to 'Get the Hell Out' in Fallout From Clash -

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November 1st, 2019 at 10:46 am