A Tallahassee law firm has been tasked with investigating firefighter allegations that “a toxic work environment” exists within the Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District.
The department review by the firm of Allen Norton & Blue was authorized Thursday by the district’s five-member governing board.
It follows receipt of formal complaints lodged against Fire Chief Billy Lord and Assistant Chief Scott Funchess by at least four firefighters.
“The environment that I work in is extremely hostile as a result of their management leadership techniques and style,” Firefighter William Powell wrote in one of the letters. “I have repeatedly been bullied, tormented, harassed (and) called vulgar and disrespectful insulting names.”
Letters making similar allegations against Lord and Funchess have been filed by firefighters Matt Wendt, Christopher Brown and Lonnie Thomas. Thomas is the president of the local chapter of the Florida Professional Firefighters union.
A fifth complaint has also been filed, board members confirmed Thursday.
The decision to retain Allen Norton & Blue came at the recommendation of board attorney Jeff McInnis, who said the firm’s lawyers were qualified to conduct the sort of thorough investigation the complaints deserved.
“It is very important that kind of thorough investigation is done so this board has all the information it needs to make appropriate recommendations,” McInnis said.
The board voted unanimously to accept the recommendation and requested a special meeting be held June 9 to discuss the scope of the scheduled investigation with a representative from Allen Norton & Blue.
Lord and Funchess will confine themselves to administrative duties during the course of the investigation, which McInnis estimated could last 30 days.
They have been instructed to have no contact with the employees who lodged the complaints and to refrain from discussing the complaints or the investigation with Fire District employees.
Mike Bellamy, a district vice president for the Florida Professional Firefighters union, thanked the commissioners for launching the investigation.
It was Bellamy who used the term “toxic work environment” to describe the ongoing situation at the Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District.
“There is a documented history by employees stating Fire Chief Billy Lord and Deputy Chief Scott Funchess continually display inappropriate behavior directed at employees,” Bellamy said in a letter sent May 23 to each fire district commissioner.
Commissioners released a formal statement regarding the complaints.
“This issue mandates discretion be maintained and the District not provide any specific details,” the release said. “We will continue to provide exceptional levels of service and as always place the safety of the public in the forefront of all operations and decisions.”
Though one firefighter stood to speak in defense of Lord and Funchess, and was called a “twerp” for doing so, most of the 50 or so who crowded into the small commission board meeting room Thursday appeared to be there in support of the complaining firefighters.
At least one of those who had filed a complaint was present.
Four letters of complaint were sent anonymously from several sources to the Northwest Florida Daily News. The letters cite similar examples of the types of abuse alleged against Lord and Funchess.
“There is a mentality in the department as a chief officer that you can go around saying whatever you want,” Wendt wrote in his complaint letter.
Each letter’s author asserts the use of foul language to berate and demean employees and frequent threats of termination.
Powell, who wrote that he contracted esophageal cancer as a result of rescue work done following the 9/11 attack, wrote “Chief Lord told me he would hope I would die so it might save the department some money.”
Thomas said “both chiefs have a long history of retaliation when it comes to standing up to them.”
Brown alleges that in 2014 he and others were forced to make shift changes after Lord learned they had voted to approve a “letter the union wrote” to notify commissioners of firefighter complaints.