Palm Beach County Fire Union President Jose Gonzalez, of IAFF Local 2928, tells Contact 5, he agrees with everything the county administration is doing following allegations Palm Beach County Fire Chief Jeff Collins mishandled sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.
Beyond Chief Collins' resignation, union president Jose Gonzalez says the county is looking to make more moves. At the same time, the union wants you to know the "offensive work environment" the county found existed at headquarters during an investigation, doesn't speak for the whole department.
Gonzalez says the department will get through this: "We’re going to move forward, we’re going to continue our focus on providing exceptional service to the citizens that we serve while ensuring that our employees and our members feel as though they can go to work and not be discriminated, harassed or retaliated against."
When first asked about the controversy happening within fire rescue, Gonzalez says, "Ultimately, you should be able to come to work and not be offended by anything that I say or anyone else says, and vice versa."
It's a controversy that started with Captain Amanda Vomero's lawsuit. In that lawsuit, Vomero says Division Chief Chris Hoch sexually harassed her on a regular basis, which included spreading sexual-based rumors about her.
"I've always said, if you're not willing to say the same thing to your mother or your sister, who knows, your daughters, then you probably shouldn't be saying it at work. That's regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, it doesn't matter," says Gonzalez.
Gonzalez says Vomero did make him aware of her complaints, which they had to leave up to the county to investigate. He says the chief should have made sure Vomero and Hoch were not working together while this was investigated.
"When an employee feels as though they are being harassed at work, there's certain actions that must be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly," said Gonzalez.
That didn't happen. In fact, Vomero claims in her lawsuit, that when she brought her concerns to Chief Collins, he simply called it "firehouse fun."
Sources tell Contact 5 that Collins was asked by Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker to resign over his mishandling of the complaints.
"We're not opposed to the decisions that County Administrator Baker and Nancy Bolton are making," said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez says he believes Baker is working on making some more changes within the department, saying "ultimately she has the final say so. And again, we’re not opposed to the decisions that she’s made and I don’t believe we are going to be opposed to any decisions that she’s going to make to get our focus on where it needs to be."
Contact 5 asked specifically about moves that might involve Chief Chris Hoch, whom county investigators say admitted to spreading sexual-based rumors about Vomero during their investigation into the complaint. Chief Chris Hoch was only given a written reprimand after admitting to the rumors. The county says it has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
Contact 5 reporter Sam Smink said to Gonzalez: "A lot of people say it was a good first step for Chief Collins to be out. But they still say people like Chief Chris Hoch, who admitted to spreading some of those rumors, needs to go as well."
Gonzalez replied: "I know Verdenia Baker, the county administrator is looking to make moves in the right direction and that's between the county administrator and Chief Mackey as far as additional moves to be made. Ultimately, if you make a mistake, you do something that is egregious, is unacceptable, you're going to have to take ownership and responsibility." Chief Michael Mackey is the interim chief fire administrator in charge as of Tuesday.
Contact 5 asked Gonzalez if division chiefs like Hoch could be demoted back to a union-protected position. Currently, division chiefs and above positions are at-will employees. Gonzalez said, "We have some language in our district chief contract... that question has been asked. There’s some interpreting of the language in the contract. So in this instance, several members have asked us whether it can or cannot happen. We referred it to our union attorneys, which are labor attorneys and they are going to be the ones who tell us, this can or cannot happen."
Contact 5 will let you know when we get that answer.
On Wednesday, Contact 5 also got our hands on a copy of Collins' resignation letter. In it, he says he'd like to accept a transfer to Palm Beach County Facilities, as fire system manager. The letter was dated Friday, January 12th. Sources now tell Contact 5, that position is off the table, and come Friday, January 19th, Collins' resignation is final, and he is out of the county. He is currently on administrative leave until then.