HOLMES BEACH – West Manatee fire commissioners voted to dismiss a formal complaint by Al Robinson after considering a 70-page investigative report by Commissioner Larry Tyler.
At the September fire commission meeting, Robinson filed a formal complaint against Chief Andy Price and Deputy Chief Brett Pollock alleging censorship, violation of freedom of speech and of assembly rights and use of threats and intimidation by government officials.
The complaint arose from an incident at a district stakeholders’ meeting on Sept. 8. The meeting was by invitation to seek input from community leaders to help the district develop its strategic plan for the future.
Regarding his investigation, Tyler said, “It was a fact finding held at a neutral facility. I had interviews with the complainant, the chief and the deputy chief and conversations with other people.”
In their interviews, Price and Pollock said Robinson arrived at the meeting uninvited, began questioning attendees and handing out materials critical of the fire district. They confronted him and said they would not tolerate his behavior, but would allow him to stay and participate if he did not distribute his papers or disturb others.
“... I looked up. Mr. Robinson was in Brett’s face,” Price told Tyler. “He was almost nose to nose looking straight up because he’s much shorter than Brett. … I though that something was gonna happen.
“So I immediately got up and walked down there and stood next to both of them. When I got there, Brett backed away, and I turned to Mr. Robinson and told him, ‘We weren’t going to have this here’ … and if he continued we were gonna ask him to leave.”
Robinson said he felt they were colluding to exclude him and three candidates for fire commission seats from the meeting and that Price and Pollock tried to intimidate and censor him at the meeting.
“Chief Price and Chief Pollock, there’s no doubt in my mind, decided if I showed up for the meeting how they were going to handle it,” Robinson said in the interview.
“When they both approached me individually, their wording was the same, their approach was the same.
“They tried to scare me and intimidate me and censor me from saying anything and they did. It was unbecoming public officials.”
Chair John Rigney said the complaint is not viable and should be dismissed and added, “The only reason he was there was to disrupt the meeting.”
Commissioner Randy Cooper agreed and noted, “It’s regrettable we had to come to this. From what I read, Chief Price and Deputy Chief Pollock should be commended for their patience and professionalism.
“Mr. Robinson should have been thrown out, but they allowed him to stay, offered him water, a lunch and gave him the opportunity to participate in the process.”
Commissioner Mike Mulyck concurred, and Commissioner Jesse Davis was absent.
Continuing with public comment, Holmes Beach resident Pat McConnell told commissioners that he was concerned about notice of a meeting to discuss an ordinance modifying the pension plan and felt they were rushing its approval. He asked them to postpone the vote until after the November election.
Price said the ordinance would give the district the ability to count more of the state’s money to help fund the retirement plan, which would reduce the district’s cost. The board approved the ordinance.
McConnell also asked that the district post on its website the notice of a meeting a week prior to the meeting, the agenda and any supporting documents for the meeting and the minutes of previous meetings.
Cooper said he agreed with McConnell’s suggestion, and Price said that would be a goal after the administration moves into the new building.
Rigney asked board attorney Jim Dye if the board could limit public comment to agenda items.
Dye said it could and added, “This is not a Hyde Park corner; it’s a business meeting. If it’s a topic that the board can’t do anything about, it wastes everybody’s time. There are other forums available for general grievances.”
Price told the board the next meeting could be held in the new administration building.
Fire pension update
According to documents submitted by Foster and Foster, the West Manatee Fire District pension plan’s actuary, as of Oct. 1, the plan’s assets were $4,842,114, it’s unfunded liability was zero, and total accrued benefits were $2,443,752.
The total return was 10.74 percent between Sept. 30, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2010. The plan had assumed an 8 percent return, so it outperformed the assumption by 2.74 percent.