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

Posted at 4:42 PM, Jan 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-18 12:35:38-05

The shake up within Palm Beach County Fire Rescue continues. 

Chief Jeff Collins, who resigned last Friday, and tried to rescind his resignation Monday, is now on administrative leave. The County Attorney's Office tells us his administrative leave is effective until Jan. 19, when his resignation becomes official. 

The County Attorney's Office also tells Contact 5, they are not, and have not accepted Collins' claim that he is rescinding his resignation. His resignation is final.

Replacing him at the top of the department, on an interim basis, is Chief Michael Mackey. 

On Tuesday, Contact 5 spoke to an employment lawyer, about whether Chief Collins could even rescind his resignation in the first place.  

"It’s not a letter I would typically expect to see in situation like this," said Employment Attorney Arthur Schofield, who is not associated with Palm Beach Fire County Rescue Chief Administrator Jeff Collins', after he took a look at the letter Collins' lawyers sent to County Administrator Verdenia Baker Monday. 

The letter announces Chief Jeff Collins is rescinding his resignation, because he claims Baker and two other county officials demanded his resignation "under duress, with undue influence, and without counsel or an explanation of his rights or benefits."

"The Chief is employed under what is known as the at-will doctrine. And the at will doctrine allows for separation at any given point for any or no reason as long as it’s not for an illegal reason," said Arthur Schofield. 

Chief Collins does not have an employment contract or an avenue in which to appeal his employment status. 

"They could have terminated him without any opportunity to resign, without any notice of any wrongdoing. They could have simply exercised their rights to let him go," said Schofield.

But sources tell Contact 5, Chief Collins was offered a position at Palm Beach County facilities last Friday, during a meeting with County Administrator Verdenia Baker, Assistant County Administrator Nancy Bolton and Human Resources Director Wayne Condry. That employment was set to start after his resignation, if he accepted. That offer is now off the table. 

Schofield said he was better off just accepting that deal. 

We asked Schofield if the county could just fire Collins now. He said, "Absolutely. And it has no obligation to retract or re-consider what they may have accepted as a resignation notice."

Sources tell Contact 5 the resignation was put into motion, after published allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation within Fire Rescue. Contact 5 found four lawsuits alleging so. One was filed by Capt. Amanda Vomero, who claimed a top Chief was sexually harassing her on a regular basis. Another lawsuit was filed by a Division Chief, who said he was retaliated against for defending her. A third detailed discrimination at the hands of a recruit academy Captain. A fourth, filed by a 911 dispatcher, claimed her co-worker sexually assaulted her in 2014. 

Verdenia Baker was not happy with how Chief Jeff Collins handled sexual harassment allegations, according to sources, and asked Collins to resign. Baker also received a letter, sent from the "Anonymous Women of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue" dated Jan. 5, that pushed her to fire him. Contact 5 first told you about that letter over the weekend. 

Collins' lawyers would not comment Tuesday, saying they will be holding a news conference Friday to address everything. 

As we've been reporting since Saturday, several firefighters tell Contact 5, even with Collins' resignation, it's not over.

Contact 5 investigator Sam Smink received the same letter as Baker, the week before, signed by "The Anonymous Women of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue." The letter was also sent to Palm Beach County Commissioners, according to the group.

The letter expressed disappointment in county leadership, for failing to take significant actions toward Chief Jeff Collins and other fire rescue leaders.

In the letter, the female firefighters said they were disappointed Chief Chris Hoch only got a written reprimand, after admitting to spreading sex rumors about Captain Amanda Vomero. During that investigation into the behavior, the county found those kinds of rumors were "commonplace," and that helped produce an "offensive work environment."

The group asked the Commissioners, and Baker, to not let "Chief Hoch's attitude be the standard used on how women can be treated at Fire Rescue."

Below is a copy of that letter:

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