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Palm Beach County Fire Rescue chief rescinds his resignation, says he was forced to do so

Posted at 5:16 PM, Jan 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-18 12:32:29-05

UPDATE:

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Administrator Jeff Collins says he is rescinding his resignation, as of Monday.  It was reported Saturday that he would resign effective Friday.

In a letter to county officials, lawyers for Collins claim that County Administrator Verdenia Baker demanded the resignation, and that Collins was "coerced, forced, placed under undue duress, and intimated into resigning his position."

Collins' lawyers claim Baker, Nancy Bolton and Human Resources Director Wayne Condry demanded the resignation. 

According to lawyers at Berman and Berman, Chief Jeff Collins was informed by county officials, that he "could either resign or be terminated effective immediately, without being informed of the basis of his termination, his rights, or benefits." In their lawyers, his lawyers claim Collins informed Baker "that he was making a decision under duress and felt coerced" and him make a decision "on-the-spot," without first speaking to a lawyer. 

But many sources tell Contact 5 Verdenia Baker was not happy with the inner workings at Fire Rescue, especially after an internal review said the department produced "an offensive work environment" and that Collins knew about her disappointment. 

Collins' lawyers asked the County Attorney to set up a meeting, to resolve the matter, before any unnecessary litigation. 

Lawyers for Collins, Collins himself and Baker have not responded to our requests for comment. 

In response to PBCFR Chief Jeff Collins' rescinding his resignation, County Mayor Melissa McKinlay had this to say:

"I stand by my earlier statement that I have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and racial discrimination. I will continue to seek information regarding these allegations within our Fire Rescue Department, including thorough questioning of our County Administrator and the policies she has in place. The Commission normally does not get involved with the day to day personnel operations as that is the responsibility of the County Administrator. But in the current #MeToo environment, it is imperative that the Commission have input into sexual harassment policies. After all, it is the elected official who must answer to the public at the end of the day, not staff. 

EARLIER STORY

Contact 5 spoke to Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker about the resignation early Monday morning. Baker would not get into specifics, but County Mayor Melissa McKinlay tells Contact 5 that Baker is not happy with the inner workings at Fire Rescue, and how they handled sexual harassment and discrimination claims. 

Contact 5 investigator Sam Smink asked Baker, "if Chief Collins' resignation had anything to do with the way he handled harassment or discrimination," within the department. Baker said in response that, "I think I gave you the answer already Sam, and that is, we’re looking to go into a different direction and a change in leadership was required."

But Contact 5 knows a number of women within Palm Beach County Fire Rescue reached out to Baker, and commissioners, in a letter, expressing their disappointment in county leadership, for failing to take significant actions toward Chief Jeff Collins and other fire rescue leaders, over repeated claims of sexual harassment.

Under Chief Collins' leadership, another chief, Chris Hoch, admitted to spreading sexual rumors about a female captain. His comments sparked a human resources examination of the department, in which investigators found, "not only are sexually oriented rumors commonplace, but there was apparent acceptance within the department of such behavior."

Contact 5 asked Baker "whether we’ll see Chiefs like Chris Hoch be out, because he was the subject of that harassment?" Baker responded, "As I stated we’re looking a change in direction and so I will address it when it’s necessary, when I’m required to."

We then asked, if that change in direction would "be addressed this week." Baker did not answer.

There are now four lawsuits pending against Palm Beach County, and Fire Rescue, because of alleged sexual harassment, and discrimination and how the department handled it. 

Verdenia Baker confirmed Collins submitted his resignation Friday, and it is set to take effect this Friday, Jan. 19. Over the weekend, union reps told Contact 5 the resignation was effective immediately. Monday, the union said they made a mistake.  

We asked County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, about the resignations. County Commissioners recently reinstated the Commission on the Status of Women to review policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and other issues. McKinlay pushed for that reinstatement.

On Collins' resignation, McKinlay says "Palm Beach County has zero tolerance for cultures of harassment and misconduct. Unfortunately, because of a non-interference clause in our County Charter, the Commissioners often do not learn of these situations until either the victims or the media bring them to our attention. Moving forward, it is my goal to revisit the way we handle any personnel complaint, whether it be sexual, racial, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic discrimination or harassment allegations. This type of review was one of the reasons I asked for the Commission on Women to be reactivated. 

I will also recommend that any training we do from this point on discusses not only physical harassment but also the passive aggressive behavior of engaging in gossip or rumor spreading about people. As we have seen in the complaint that resulted in the current lawsuit regarding Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, simply insinuating someone’s sexual behavior is equally as hurtful and harmful. I will not tolerate this type of environment in any county agency.

From here, the County learns from its mistakes, provides requirements for continued appropriate training and education, and terminates the employment of any employee who breaks the rules by harassing coworkers or any of the people we serve. We must lead by example."

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