ZEPHYRHILLS — City Fire Marshal Kerry Barnett, who has been with the department since 1988, rising through the ranks to become even acting chief for a time, finds himself in a position he never expected: His job is on the line.
"I've had a stellar career," he said Wednesday.
Barnett, 44, has been on administrative leave with pay since Dec. 27 after an allegation was made that he continued working as a contract fire safety inspector for the town of St. Leo while on medical leave from his full-time Zephyrhills job last fall, said City Manager Jim Drumm.
Barnett injured his leg or foot in an off-duty accident, which he declined to describe to the Times. He used crutches for a while. A doctor's note said the injury prevented him from fulfilling all of his duties as a firefighter, but he could still perform some desk-related functions.
Fire Chief Keith Williams alleges that Barnett violated a city policy that prohibits employees who are on sick leave from working at a second job without permission from the city manager, according to an investigative report. Barnett never sought permission, Drumm said, and it's unlikely Drumm would have granted it.
Williams couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
The investigation has not yet determined whether Barnett violated that policy. A decision is expected from the chief within the next couple of weeks, Drumm said. If Barnett is found in violation of the policy, he could be terminated.
At the time of his injury, Barnett asked to be put on light duty, but was told because the injury didn't occur at work it was against city policy to do so. He could not come back to work, however, because of the injuries. So, beginning Sept. 26, Barnett took sick leave for about four weeks.
After returning to work, Barnett mentioned to Williams that he had done jobs for St. Leo while on leave, the Zephyrhills report said. An investigation began.
Invoices and records from St. Leo show that Barnett did inspections and reviewed construction and site plans, as well as several other non-strenuous duties, while on leave.
During his leave, Barnett also applied for and received disability benefits, which were authorized by the city because he had his doctor's note, the report states.
Barnett has never denied performing contractual duties for St. Leo while on leave from Zephyrhills.
During an interview on Jan. 4, Barnett told police Lt. Derek Brewer, who conducted the investigation, that he thought he could still continue his consulting work for St. Leo because the doctor's orders didn't prevent him from doing that type of work and the city couldn't allow him to do light-duty.
"He summarized his actions by saying he did not deny working at his secondary job while on leave, but he would not have jeopardized a 24-year career with the city if he thought he was doing something wrong," Brewer wrote in the report.
Barnett maintained that stance on Wednesday.
"At this point in time I don't think I've violated anything," he told the Times in a telephone interview.
Barnett said he would like to get back to work in Zephyrhills.
"I've wanted to go back to work since this all happened," he said. "I enjoy my job and I am well-respected in the community."
Barnett had already been medically cleared and had returned to work before being confronted with the allegation.
While on administrative leave, he has been allowed to continue his consulting duties for St. Leo. He contracted with the town on May 10, 2010, to perform safety and fire inspector duties on an as-needed basis, and got permission from Zephyrhills officials to do so.
St. Leo Town Clerk Joan Miller said Wednesday that she is pleased with Barnett's work.
"It's been exemplary," she said. "I have had no problems with Kerry at all. I've had no complaints."
Miller said although she saw Barnett working on crutches, she didn't know at the time he was on leave at Zephyrhills and said she doesn't see any reason to discontinue his service.
"What he's been doing in Zephyrhills is not my primary concern," she said.
Recent job evaluations for Barnett in Zephyrhills have shown his work to be "excellent" and even "outstanding." He was even recognized in 2010 by then-state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink as Fire Marshal of the Year.