Orange Park fire chief’s job will be decided within 30 days

Third-party arbitrator to investigate claims Barker violated ‘town’s core values

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 5/5/21

ORANGE PARK – The fate of the town’s fire chief’s job will be decided in 30 days.

Alvin Barker was asked to resign as the Orange Park Fire Department’s Fire Chief in March and he did not …

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Orange Park fire chief’s job will be decided within 30 days

Third-party arbitrator to investigate claims Barker violated ‘town’s core values

Posted

ORANGE PARK – The fate of the town’s fire chief’s job will be decided in 30 days.

Alvin Barker was asked to resign as the Orange Park Fire Department’s Fire Chief in March and he did not accept the offer. He instead pled his case during the April 20 town council meeting, when the town council was originally scheduled to hear town manager Sarah Campbell’s recommendation to fire Barker after he refused to quit.

This led to more than an hour of discussion where Barker’s lawyer, Paul Donnelly, argued on behalf of Barker, saying his client was a “whistleblower” for revealing an account he deemed “illegal.” Campbell said her request for Barker’s resignation had nothing to do with that, while also explaining the account wasn’t illegal, and instead had to do with three separate issues that put Barker’s integrity into question.

Campbell discussed those three incidents during a special meeting held Wednesday, April 28. The first issue was brought to her attention on Feb. 16. She said she received an email from Barker asking if it was OK if insurance sales representatives were allowed to come into the fire and police departments to talk about insurance.

“I didn’t think much of the email at the time and I responded and said I think this would not be appropriate to come in as they [the insurance sales representatives] need to go through the open enrollment process,” Campbell said. “We’re asked frequently about this and that’s our practice.”

She said the concern didn’t come up until police chief Gary Goble spoke to Campbell. Campbell says Goble told Barker having the insurance sales representatives come in was against policy and upon seeing his name attached to Barker’s email about it to Campbell, Goble reached out to Campbell to explain that he did not approve of Barker’s email and didn’t want Campbell thinking he did by virtue of his name being attached to it.

“Goble expressed his concern to me and he didn’t want to be seen as in agreement and that was concerning to me because it seemed like a department head was trying to manipulate me in order to do something they wanted to do even though it was against town practice to do so,” Campbell said.

The second incident occurred on Feb. 26, according to Campbell. Council member-elect John Hauber asked about open data ports. She said Barker sent an email explaining why having an open data port wasn’t necessarily cause for concern. His explanation was multiple paragraphs long and after reading through a few of them, Campbell said it didn’t sound like Barker’s own words so she put Barker’s words into Google and the search engine returned a site which had Barker’s exact words.

“It’s not that we’re writing term papers, but in normal communication, [you might say], ‘Here’s some information I found online,’” Campbell said. “It seemed like somebody passing off work that wasn’t their own trying to make me think it was their own and that made me uncomfortable.”

The third issue was Barker supposedly tasking an employee with doing some policy edits that took the employee an entire day to complete, only for Barker to allegedly tell a different OPFD employee he was playing a joke on the employee working on the policy edits. She said at the previous meeting she found this inappropriate and that the employee did as well.

“These were the three reasons I ultimately made the decision that I did,” Campbell told the town council. “I take very seriously the town’s core values of integrity, accountability, transparency, ethics, and economic stewardship. The Town’s employee handbook code of conduct prohibits directly or indirectly making any statement related to town business that is knowingly false or misleading in any material respect.

“I want to [say] that there was no discrimination based on disability or whistleblower action. In conclusion, you know me to be a town manager with integrity and patience and that I would not bring it before you if it were not a serious matter. I take my duty to protect the employees of the town very seriously and I ask you for your support in my recommendation for termination.”

Barker said he was privy to protection under the Firefighter Bill of Rights, but the town’s labor lawyer said Barker doesn’t fall under the description of a firefighter.

Donnelly argued the council didn’t have all the facts it needed to make a decision about Barker’s career.

“Having the facts is important, or in other words, investigating is important,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said an external investigation by an unbiased, third party cleared Barker of any charges related to complaints from employees, such as the joke he played on a fellow employee. He also mentioned that to date, Barker has apparently yet to receive official documentation outlining why he’s being fired. He also said there’s been no testimony, sworn statements or anything else usually associated with the process.

The town’s labor lawyer argued because Barker is an at-will employee, he’s not privy to those rights. They said this doesn’t mean this entire process wasn’t done in fairness, however.

Donnelly pointed out despite what Campbell had said about integrity and the core values of the town, Barker had received employee ratings from her saying otherwise. Barker received a 3.43 out of 4 in 2018, a 3.42 in 2019 and a 3.86 in 2020.

“That [2020] evaluation said [Barker] has an excellent understanding of his profession,” Donnelly said, allegedly reading from Barker’s 2020 employee review. “[It says], ‘I believe Al acts with integrity by following all rules and policies by raising attention to matters that could be risky.’”

Donnelly then said Barker listened to Campbell about the insurance sales email and didn’t allow them to come in and present their insurance to the departments. He also explained that it’s not uncommon for people to copy and paste information from a source online into an email. He said Barker wasn’t trying to submit a paper for “a PhD certification,” after all. He just wanted to get true and accurate information to the manager, he said.

A few town residents spoke on behalf of Barker and said he shouldn’t be fired. Dozens more made comments of support on the live Facebook feed’s comment section.

“Is this truly a fireable offense, or is it just a case of a few employees not liking their boss?” one resident asked. “Did the chief show up to work and complete the requirements of his job description? What will this do for this man’s reputation and career”

One town employee said she supported Campbell because Campbell has always been a manager who makes decisions with integrity and compassion.

The rest of the meeting centered on how this would impact Barker and whether he should be terminated or allowed to resign on better terms. Barker said he wants his name cleared and his reputation restored. He explained he would be willing to resign, but not based on the original resignation letter written up by the town.

He’s been on administrative leave without pay for six weeks, something he said is usually reserved for criminal offenses. Council member Roland Mastandrea was in favor of bringing in third party mediation to figure out a better resignation route for Barker, fighting for it several times throughout the meeting.

He ended up making a motion that was approved unanimously to have an agreeable third party come in for mediation with the goal of finding a suitable route of resignation for Barker with the findings brought back to the town council within 30 days. The motion also includes the stipulation that Barker be paid for the six weeks of administrative leave without pay he had endured and that he be put on administrative leave with pay immediately.

Barker and his lawyer said they believe a proper mediation could lead to a resignation route that would satisfy him.

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