CLEARWATER — East Lake fire commissioners threw their support behind fire Chief Tom Jamison on Thursday, confirming his decision to strip the rank of a lieutenant accused of racial slurs and lewd text messages.
Jamison demoted firefighter James Finley in May after an investigation suggested he frequently called a Hispanic co-worker "dirty Mexican" and "gay Puerto Rican."
Finley also sent at least two racial text messages to fellow firefighters, including a photo of a black man popping out of a box with the message: "Thanks for the gift, but I am sending it back it won't f------ work." Another showed a naked woman with a towel on her head, saying "Not all towel heads are bad!!"
Finley has denied making the comments and sending the texts, which came from his phone.
Through the fire union's grievance process, Finley asked the Fire Commission, which oversees the $4.2 million department, to overturn the demotion.
But Finley didn't show up to Thursday's meeting, where commissioners voted 3-1 to demote him. The issue may now head to arbitration, which could cost the department thousands of dollars.
After the meeting, Jamison said he was eager to get past the allegations that have plagued the department for months. He said Finley's alleged behavior is not representative of his own values or those of the department.
"We have followed the investigative process," Jamison said. "Given that we're a public service agency and are in a position of trust, we feel like we made the right decision."
Chairman Mark Weinkrantz cast the dissenting vote, citing a lack of evidence and a desire to avoid the cost of arbitration.
"I see at best the nebulous assemblage of finger pointing on this thing," he said, referring to the investigation, which included comments from firefighters who said Finley used racist language.
Weinkrantz is no stranger to the department's internal drama.
In April, he accused Lt. Bill Figueredo of making a Jewish slur and giving the Nazi salute.
In a dramatic appeal to commissioners, Figueredo, who is Cuban-American and the department's lone minority, accused Weinkrantz of inventing the accusation to get him fired.
Weinkrantz frequently harassed him for being Hispanic, he said, telling him he should mow lawns or wash dishes rather than fighting fires.
Both the commission and department are being investigated by the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights.