BROOKSVILLE — An emotional Hillary Sanford received pay and benefits last week that were more than two years overdue when the Brooksville City Council voted to settle her wrongful termination case.
Brooksville Fire Chief David Freda fired Sanford — a captain in the department — in 2016, and an arbitrator later ruled the move unjustified.
Freda argued that Sanford violated his rule about which firefighters should obtain patient refusals, a rule that contradicted the medical director who oversaw her license as an emergency medical technician. The city manager backed Freda's decision.
Sanford was the department's first female driver, engineer and captain, and the agency's public face at events. Her firing prompted a blitz of public support.
The settlement was slated for approval several weeks ago, but was delayed over a social security payment calculation at the last minute. The final amount was $37,204.18, including $16,221.97 in salary, plus benefits and pension payments. The delay frustrated Sanford, firefighter union leaders and city officials.
That frustration spilled into last week's discussion.
"Ms. Sanford, I want to thank you for your service to the city. I want to thank you for your service to your profession,'' said council member Joe Bernardini. "I want to apologize for the disservice and the blemish on your record ... You've been an outstanding employee.''
Bernardini said he was upset the city awarded her no punitive damages, however Freda no longer works for the city, and "there is some consolation in that.''
Freda was fired last year after he was arrested on charges of organized fraud over $50,000 for his financial dealings while chief at the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. His case is still pending.
An emotional Mayor Betty Erhard thanked Sanford for her service.
"You had so much energy, so much love, so much passion for what you do,'' Erhard said. "I'm glad it has finally ended. It's long overdue.''
Sanford fought back tears to thank those who supported her.
"I hope this never happens to anyone else, and I hope I left my mark on the city in a positive sense," she said. "Sometimes the toughest roads lead to the biggest blessings.''
Sanford, 33, has worked the past two years for the Osceola County Fire Rescue as a training lieutenant. She oversees training for 350 field personnel, handles planning, logistics and record-keeping for the training program.
Joe Keefer, president of the Brooksville firefighter's union, was happy to see a conclusion.
"I'm glad that the city attorney and City Council made this happen, but it never should have taken this long,'' he said. "It took four city managers, two city attorneys and three (fire) chiefs for them to settle this.''
While the arbitrator said the city should return Sanford to her job, Keefer said, the time it took the city to settle indicates the dysfunction that kept her from returning.
Sanford said she hopes to feel full closure when Freda's criminal case is resolved.
"I can walk away from Brooksville knowing that I left a positive impact on the citizens, which is really all that matters," she said. "I left that place better than I found it, and for that I am so proud.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.