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Fire board might rehire chief

Maybe East Lake Fire & Rescue won't get a new chief, after all.

In fact, after months of turmoil, maybe it will get its old chief back.

During an informal workshop session late Wednesday night, the new chairman of East Lake's fire board, Bob Genhold, suggested reinstating former chief Ron Taylor instead of hiring someone else.

"I think we have all the right in the world to offer this gentleman reinstatement," Genhold said.

Taylor said Thursday, "It's funny how things turn around."

He said he is definitely interested in getting his old job back, "especially since I'm unemployed."

Taylor served as East Lake's fire chief for six years. His ouster in March led to complaints by the firefighters, an investigation by Pinellas County officials, criticism from East Lake's two civic groups and, eventually, changes in the fire board.

The five-member fire board that ousted Taylor is gone now. Only two of its members still hold their seats. They are former chairman Bill Moushey and Randy Knight. The other three members _ Genhold, Chuck Dedman and Jim Nobles _ were all nominated by the two civic groups.

The board changed last week, under pressure from the county. But before the old board voted itself out of existence, Moushey offered the fire chief's post to David R. Meng, deputy chief of South Manatee Fire & Rescue.

Meng accepted, although he had just been named acting chief of that department. The news that the new board wouldn't get the chance to hire the chief floored members.

"I felt very uncomfortable with that," Genhold said Wednesday.

But last week, the board voted 3-2 to fire its attorney. With the attorney gone, nobody prepared a contract for Meng to sign. And because Moushey handled the negotiations with Meng himself, the old board never voted on hiring him as chief.

Genhold saw that as a loophole for the new board. He suggested the board drop negotiations with Meng and open them with Taylor, a suggestion that drew a round of applause from the firefighters who attended Wednesday's meeting.

Meng said he expects to be offered the permanent chief's job in South Manatee. If the East Lake offer still held good, that would force him to choose between East Lake and the department where he now works.

"I really hadn't made a decision," he said. "But it sounds like it's being made for me."

At Genhold's urging, the board has scheduled another workshop session for next week to talk with Taylor about his old job. If he needs any incentive to come back, Genhold suggested the board offer Taylor the same amount Moushey had offered Meng: $49,000 a year, $1,400 more than what Taylor was earning before being forced out.

Dedman endorsed the idea of rehiring Taylor, saying the old board never put in writing any complaints about Taylor's performance. To him, that suggested Taylor "has been wronged."

Nobles said the idea of reinstating Taylor "deserves to be looked at," but would not commit himself.

Neither Moushey nor Knight attended Wednesday's workshop session, and they could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Accounts of why Taylor left the department vary. According to Taylor, the old board pushed him out because he was about to fire Deputy Chief Bill Edling, who had a record of sexually harassing women and using racial slurs.

After Taylor was ousted, the board named Edling acting chief. Edling said the old board promised him the permanent position. In the wake of the county investigation, he resigned.

For months, the old board members refused to elaborate on why they got rid of Taylor. Finally, two weeks before the old board abolished itself, Moushey distributed a list of 14 reasons, ranging from "used poor judgment with afternoon outings with secretary for supplies in her car" to refusing to follow the board's directions "on many occasions."

Taylor denied all the charges. And Genhold said the items on Moushey's list could not be backed up by anything in Taylor's personnel file.

"That man was wrongfully discharged," Genhold said.