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Spring Hill Fire District board should be embarrassed

This is what asking questions gets you at the Spring Hill Fire District: A special meeting of the board of fire commissioners for a dressing down in public, a reprimand and one guy who wants to fire you.

This dysfunctional board, elected by voters, topped itself last week with a 3-2 vote to publicly reprimand Fire Commissioner Robert Giammarco for sending too many e-mails to Chief Mike Rampino.

Recently appointed Commissioner Ben Edwards called the e-mails — nobody ever did specify an accurate number — excessive and said they violated the commission's bylaws preventing interference with the department's daily operations. Edwards called for the meeting after Giammarco sent at least three e-mails over several weeks requesting Edwards' resignation letter from the fire-police, which directs traffic and provides similar support duties at emergency scenes. The fire-police are volunteers, but receive stipends for mileage expenses. Edwards stepped down as captain, but remains a member pending an answer to questions about potential conflicts in serving both roles.

Edwards' personal interest in rebuking Giammarco paled compared to the commission's longest-serving member, Leo Jacobs, who sought to remove Giammarco from office. During a rambling, 30-minute soliloquy and in follow-up comments, Jacobs opined: Only one person should speak for the five-member commission; commissioners are not authorized to interact with the public on Fire District issues; their roles as commissioners begin and end with their monthly meetings; they should use caller ID to screen phone calls from the public; and somebody in the audience was making faces at him.

A video recording of the meeting does not capture the offending facial expressions, but open-mouthed, bug-eyed astonishment at Jacobs' disregard for public representation certainly would have been in order.

Giammarco was unrepentant, though he said he felt bad that Chairwoman Amy Brosnan was so threatened by his April 21 e-mail to the commission that she filed a complaint with the Hernando Sheriff's Office. Brosnan's overreaction demonstrated her own inability to separate policy discussions from petty personal conflicts. In the e-mail, read into the public record, Giammarco warned the commission in advance of Wednesday's special meeting to tread lightly on potentially violating his rights.

The board stumbled ahead anyway and finally arrived at a public reprimand after an initial motion and Jacobs' subsequent push for removal failed to garner seconds. Brosnan voted with Giammarco against the motion.

The majority should be embarrassed. Giammarco's crime is to send e-mails to the chief asking for information. What a concept. Informing yourself of the operations of the department for which you've been elected to set policy shouldn't be discouraged. Some of the matters dealt with personnel discipline, and Rampino was correct to deflect those as potential liability issues. But questions about vendors and perceived substandard contract work shouldn't be dismissed as badgering or nit-picking.

The rest of the board, if they do ask questions, apparently conduct most of their business with the chief via private telephone conversations. Giammarco should be commended, not admonished, for creating a public record.

Jacobs, in particular, should reconsider his ill-regard for the public. His attempt to remove the duly elected Giammarco over unsubstantiated allegations reflects poorly on his own judgment in running a district that in August will ask voters for permission to assess a property tax, absent county oversight, to finance the department's multimillion-dollar operations.

If the commission majority isn't comfortable publicly asking questions of the chief now, what safeguards do voters have that the commission's fiduciary responsibilities won't receive short shrift in the future.

Spring Hill Fire District board should be embarrassed 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 9:46am]
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