NewsLocal NewsInvestigations


Embattled Palm Beach County fire chief calls out county administrator

Posted at 6:03 AM, Jan 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-23 17:55:10-05

Scroll to the bottom to watch the news conference

Former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Administrator Jeff Collins held a news conference Friday morning, to discuss what he calls "an involuntary resignation." Contact 5 was the first to tell you that Collins resigned last Friday, amid complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination within the department. Sources tell Contact 5, County Administrator Verdenia Baker was not happy with the way Collins handled the complaints. 

RELATED:Fire Rescue Advisory Board member weighs in

Collins resigned last weekend amid complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination within the department.

Earlier this week, Collins said he wished to take back his resignation but the county did not accept that.

In a news conference at the Berman and Berman Law Firm, now former Chief Jeff Collins says he still "deserves the job as Chief Administrator." Collins says he believes there was no reason he should have been coerced into resigning. Collins alleges he was blindsided by Baker, threatened by her to resign, or get a blemish on what he calls a decorated 20-plus year career. 

"I then found out my resignation was being tied to very serious allegations," said Collins Friday, adding he felt his forced resignation was "a pretext to further a political agenda."

RELATED:Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Union: 'Not opposed to what county is doing with Fire Rescue'

When asked what that political agenda was, Collins and his attorneys said they would not comment further. But earlier in the news conference, lawyers from Berman and Berman said Baker removed Collins, as a part of an agenda to remove people unfairly, for her benefit.

Collins is an at-will employee, with no county contract. That means the county can fire him at any time, as long as it is not for an illegal reason. Collins's lawyers argued Friday that Collins had rights under the Florida Firefighter Bill of Rights.

Collins told reporters he was called down to the county building last Friday for a meeting with Baker and two other officials and was told he'd be resigning. He says, in hindsight, it would not have mattered what he said to them because on his way to the office he ran into Chief Michael Mackey, who has now been put in charge as interim chief administrator. 

Collins says he feels he's being treated like a criminal, banned from county property. Contact 5 has a copy of a text Assistant County Administrator Nancy Bolton sent to Collins on Monday, saying "he cannot report to headquarters or any county facility unless otherwise instructed by Verdenia Baker."

Collins said in the news conference, "he's personally terminated employees for sexual harassment," adding he had "zero tolerance," for such matters. 

WPTV reported in December that Captain Amanda Vomero was suing the county and department for claims she endured sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation on a regular basis.

RELATED: Palm Beach Fire Chief now on administrative leave until resignation becomes official, county says

According to Vomero, Chief Chris Hoch "would make her the brunt of most of his jokes," in management meetings.

Vomero also says she was "constantly subjected to crude and discriminatory comments by this particular chief," even threatening to replace her with his girlfriend.

Vomero claims Hoch then began making comments about how tight her pants were. She says when she went to Chief Administrator Jeff Collins for help, he told her she was "blowing it out of proportion," and that it was just "good humor, firehouse fun."

Shortly after that, Vomero says the chief began to spread a rumor saying Vomero was in a relationship with a district chief. 

Vomero says she took an extended leave in 2016 because the department refused to do anything to protect her. When she returned to work, Vomero says the department barred her from working on programs and boards she had before.

Palm Beach County Human Resources did an investigation into Vomero's claims and found “sexually oriented rumors are commonplace within the county’s fire rescue department,” with high ranking officers the ones responsible for circulating the rumors.

HR investigators also  found there was "sufficient information to conclude that an offensive work environment exists within Fire Rescue.” The report went on to say, "there was apparent acceptance within the department of such behavior,” saying “all of the substantiated discriminatory and retaliatory behavior occurred within the administrative office suite and involved high ranking administration officers.”

Collins said that he wishes during that investigation into Vomero's claims that "the county had contacted many more people," adding "many more individuals should have been interviewed." ]

He said through time, the truth would come out.

That report shows that the department reprimanded Division Chief Chris Hoch for violating the county's discrimination, harassment, and retaliation policy. But it was only a written reprimand, although fire policy says he could have been terminated. When Contact 5 asked Collins if it was true that Baker had asked him to terminate Hoch, he said "no comment." 

The county administrator recently sent an email to fire rescue employees stressing that the department is not in chaos and that interim chief is taking the department in a positive direction. But in response to Friday's news conference, a spokesperson for the county said it would not be commenting because of the "ongoing legal issue."

Email the Contact 5 Investigators
Share your news tips and story ideas with WPTV's investigations team.