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Madeira Beach fire chief ousted

MADEIRA BEACH — Derryl O'Neal on Wednesday became the second fire chief within two weeks to lose his job to dustups over consolidation issues.

Whether O'Neal's ouster was justified depends on your viewpoint.

If you're Madeira Beach City Manager W.D. Higginbotham, the former chief was an insubordinate employee who tried to cut deals behind his bosses' backs and tried to interfere in a nearby city's referendum.

If you're O'Neal, you're a loyal employee looking out for the fiscal health of your city and the welfare of residents.

The commotion began in Belleair Bluffs, which, like all governments, is facing declining tax revenue. Mayor Chris Arbutine and the council decided to eliminate the Fire Department and let Largo provide fire service. The council set a Sept. 1 referendum.

All seemed well until Belleair Bluffs fire Chief Pat Competelli backed off on his endorsement of the idea. Competelli and a Belleair Bluffs council member met with officials from Belleair, which had decided to switch from Belleair Bluffs to Largo for fire service. Competelli was fired Aug. 5.

Enter O'Neal, who had been meeting with chiefs from other beach communities and one or two mainland cities to discuss the possibility of a loose consolidation of services that could later become more formalized. A citizens group from Belleair Bluffs invited him to talk about the ideas, which he did in a two-paragraph e-mail printed on the group's Web site, savebluffsfire.com, under the title "There Is a Viable Option."

Arbutine, the Belleair Bluffs mayor, wrote Higginbotham a letter Tuesday complaining about O'Neal.

Higginbotham gave O'Neal a choice: resign or be fired. O'Neal chose to resign although he had failed to send in his resignation by late Wednesday and had refused to turn over his keys to City Hall.

Higginbotham said he ordered locks to be changed and sent O'Neal a letter firing him.

O'Neal said Higginbotham knew of his activities.

"Absolutely, absolutely, he knew," O'Neal said. "I thought everything was fine. … I thought we were doing a good thing."

Higginbotham says O'Neal kept him in the dark.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Madeira Beach fire chief ousted 08/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 10:58pm]

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