St. Lucie County Fire Chief to retire after no-confidence vote, complaint filed against him

First, there was an overwhelming vote of no confidence, followed by an official complaint. Now, the St. Lucie County Fire Chief has announced his plan to retire in February. 

Chief Buddy Emerson said his decision to turn in his retirement letter to the Fire District Board is connected to the no-confidence vote cast by more than 309 members of the local fire union. 

Chief Emerson said he knows there have been disagreements with the fire union, but the no-confidence vote took him by complete surprise. 

"A vote of no confidence is a political too. It is a political tool used by unions to stimulate a different kind of change," said Emerson. 

A complaint filed by the local Firefighters Union President Shane Kozac claims Chief Emerson has "lost his troops." 

The complaint claimed the Chief put firefighters in danger when calling in additional firefighters during Hurricane Irma and then sending them home during the storm. 

"Not one safety-related issue came up during the event, not to any of our chief officers to my knowledge, and they were asked, or not to me even when I was out at the fire stations. Most of it came after the fact," said Emerson.

Emerson admits there has been strong opposition to his decision to change how contributions are made to the Health and Welfare Trust. 

"It wasn't to stop paying, it was to make sure we were paying the correct amount," said Emerson. 

The complaint states he used bullying and intimidation to get his way. 

"That's a mischaracterization of what I said. I said if the payment is not appropriate, we may not pay it and I told that to employees directly, I did. I don't perceive that to be a threat. I perceive that to be open and honest communication," he said. 

There is a special Board of Commissioners meeting Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the Fire District's Commission Chambers to discuss the complaint. The chief said he does not know what will come out of the meeting.

"I've always wanted fairness for both our employees and for the taxpayers, for the organization as a whole," he said. "We've [the Union] had disagreement over pension costs and the health insurance thing has been out there for a while and there have been many issues within the union contract that we’ve always been able to work collectively together to resolve through honest and open communications."

The chief said his contract expires in February 2018. He said that coupled with the current environment led to his decision to announce his retirement. 

County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky said usually a complaint filed with the board is heard and there is a discussion on whether to open an investigation, but he expected the board will accept the chief's retirement letter.

"At this point, whatever vote was taken, it becomes a moot point," said Dzadovsky. 

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