EAST LAKE — East Lake Fire Rescue may be barreling toward costly arbitration as the department seeks to sort out the firestorm of racial accusations that led to the demotion of one of its lieutenants.
East Lake fire commissioners — elected officials who oversee the department — seemed poised Monday to reinstate firefighter Bill Figueredo, whom they demoted from lieutenant to driver after he was accused of making a Nazi salute.
But commissioners abruptly adjourned Monday's meeting without resolution after Figueredo gave an impassioned speech about how the allegation had hurt him and his family.
The accusation was made by commission Chairman Mark Weinkrantz, who didn't attend Monday's meeting.
"I never, ever thought I'd wake up one morning and find myself … accused of religious racism against the Jewish people," Figueredo said. "That would suggest I harbor hate toward my own dad, a Jewish doctor who has raised me since I was 10 years old. My brothers and sister."
After that, Commissioner Paul Ferreri withdrew his motion to reinstate Figueredo with full pay, though he acknowledged the fire department doesn't have the financial resources or emotional capital to withstand legal action.
"It's tough to know what to say here because I don't feel like we're moving on," Ferreri said. "I thought this was going to be over with and be done with, but I have a feeling it's not."
Fire department attorney Andy Salzman said he would work with Figueredo's attorney Michael Stephens to try to resolve the issue and avoid arbitration, which he said could cost more than $10,000.
Stephens estimated the cost would be much higher.
The meeting was only the latest drama to unfold at East Lake Fire Rescue, which has roughly 40 employees and operates a $4.2 million budget.
During an April meeting, Figueredo, a Cuban-American and the department's only minority, argued Weinkrantz had fabricated the Nazi salute accusation to get him fired.
Figueredo said Weinkrantz routinely called him a "dirty Mexican" in addition to bringing pink 8-pound weights into the department and giving them to Figueredo, calling him a derogatory name for homosexuals.
Lt. James Finley, who had also filed a grievance accusing Figueredo of a Jewish slur, is also not credible, Figueredo argued, showing commissioners two provocative and racist text messages sent from Finley's phone.
Weinkrantz said he bought the pink weights because they were on sale. Finley did not respond to phone calls to his house.
East Lake fire Chief Tom Jamison said he's implementing sensitivity training in the department and following up on accusations.
Brittany Alana Davis can be contacted at [email protected] or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.