EAST LAKE — East Lake fire commissioners have put their fire chief and deputy chief on paid leave indefinitely while attorneys try to work out an amicable parting of the ways.
Division Chief Tom Jamison, a 16-year veteran who makes $80,000 a year, will serve as acting chief until another chief is found. No time line was given for the search.
The 4-1 vote to put the two chiefs on leave came during a special meeting Thursday night. Commissioner David Root was the lone dissenter.
"There comes a time in a relationship that it just doesn't fit anymore," said Mark Weinkrantz, the commission chairman.
Fire Chief Jeff Malzone, who has held the post since 2005 and has been with the department since 1982, declined to comment after Thursday's meeting. He referred all comments to his attorney.
However, Malzone, 53, began cleaning out his office Thursday night.
Deputy Chief Steve Rogers, 43, has been with the department for 23 years. He also declined to comment.
Last week in an emergency meeting, Commissioner Paul Ferreri presented a downsizing plan to the commission that called for the elimination of the two positions to cut costs. Ferreri initially cited the need to save money due to pending cuts in emergency medical services funding from Pinellas County.
Eliminating the two jobs would save at least $250,000 over a three-year period, Ferreri said. Malzone, whose contract with the department doesn't expire until Dec. 31, 2014, makes $106,000 a year — $160,000 with benefits. Rogers makes $92,000 a year.
Ferreri suggested offering Malzone $147,000 to buy out his contract and $40,000 in severance pay. Rogers, who does not have an employment contract, would be offered $35,000.
But in a letter dated Wednesday, Malzone's attorney, David Linesch, said the value of Malzone's contract is more than $951,000, including almost $522,000 for unpaid salary through Dec. 31, 2014; $102,800 for accrued sick leave and comp time; and more than $326,000 for payments related to Malzone's participation in the state Deferred Retirement Option Program.
Linesch also was troubled by Ferreri's position that if Malzone and the fire commission can't agree on terms, the commission could find a way to fire him for cause. And Linesch argued that Ferreri's recent remark that the department needs "new thoughts, not the same old, same old" is evidence of "clear and unmistakable age bias."
According to documents examined by the St. Petersburg Times, Malzone's previous evaluations showed he exceeded expectations.
"Any attempt by the district to sully the otherwise exceptional record and reputation of Chief Malzone will be vigorously defended and counterclaimed as appropriate," Linesch wrote.
Despite the previous good reviews, commissioners Thursday criticized Malzone's performance. They said the chief had not developed strategic plans and that he had failed to follow the commissioners' direction on several occasions.
Commissioners also complained about Malzone's contract, which in essence states the chief must abide by the job description outlined in the department's Standard Operating Procedures but that the SOP cannot be modified without his approval.
"As long as the chief follows the rules, he can't be fired," Ferreri said Thursday, "but no rule can be made without his approval … I don't like the contract. It's a difficult contract to deal with."
The contract was approved by a previous fire commission.
Ferreri said he has several people in mind who could be the next chief. One of those, he said, is a fellow fire commissioner, Tom May, who retired from the East Lake fire department in 2009 and who recently said Malzone is "feared but not respected."
"I think this downsizing may make some really qualified candidates within Pinellas County emerge," Ferreri said. "We also have Tom May. … I don't know if he's interested or if it's legally possible. I haven't spoken with him about it. But he's definitely on my mind.
"He would make a fine chief, but we've got a long way to go before we can get there."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.