Under fire: East Naples fire commissioners accused of violating Sunshine Law

East Naples fire commissioners are taking heat for accusations of conducting public business behind closed doors.

The union representing firefighters from the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District filed a Sunshine Law complaint against the fire commission this week for “circumventing statutory requirements to open government,” according to Union President Chris Tobin.

Tobin said the fire commission, facing budget shortfalls, is trying to avoid making difficult decision in public.

Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law mandates public access to meetings of government commissions. Knowingly violating Sunshine Law is a misdemeanor, and penalties for violations can include jail time, a $500 fine and removal from office.

However, the chairman of the fire commission said he’s not taking the claims seriously.

Tom Cannon dismissed the complaint as a union negotiation tactic in ongoing labor contract talks between the district and the firefighters’ union.

In his letter to commissioners, Tobin outlined three alleged violations by the commission:

n The East Naples Fire Control and Rescue agreed to pay $250,000 in “lost wages to employees for violations of Federal Hour and Wage provisions,” but the fire commission did not vote publicly on the matter or explain where the payment was coming from, Tobin’s letter stated.

n The fire commission is holding closed meetings, or “executive sessions,” with East Naples Fire Chief Keith Teague to discuss district business, Tobin wrote. He called those meetings an attempt to “circumvent open government.”

n Tobin also questioned the board’s practice of “delegating responsibilities and authority” to the fire chief or a single commissioner on the fire commission’s behalf instead of conducting the business in public.

When reached on Friday by phone, Cannon told the Daily News that he had not yet read Tobin’s letter.

“And I don’t know if I will,” he added.

However, Cannon did answer a reporter’s questions about the allegations.

Cannon contends that the board has discussed the issue of lost wage violations at public meetings for more than a year.

He said executive sessions have been held only for contract discussions with their attorney present.

“The Sunshine Law gives us a right to meet behind closed doors when we meet behind closed doors during labor negotiations,” he said.

For Tobin’s final complaint, Cannon said commissioners are sometimes delegated to work with staff in reviewing bids for independent contracts, from fire station landscaping to software updates. Cannon said those findings are reported back to the fire commission, and no decisions are made outside the public realm.

_Connect with Aaron Hale at /www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale

Editor’s note: This story has been altered from previous version which incorrectly stated commissioners use a delegate to negotiate with independent contractors. Commissioner Tom Cannon said a fire commission delegate only “reviews” bids by contractors.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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