Orange Park town manager asks Town Council to approve her recommendation to fire Chief Alvin Barker

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 4/21/21

ORANGE PARK – Town manager Sarah Campbell told the Orange Park Town Council it should fire chief Alvin Barker be fired.

That came Tuesday night after Barker refused Campbell’s request his …

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Orange Park town manager asks Town Council to approve her recommendation to fire Chief Alvin Barker

Posted

ORANGE PARK – Town manager Sarah Campbell told the Orange Park Town Council it should fire Chief Alvin Barker.

That came Tuesday night after Barker refused Campbell’s request for his resignation following three apparent incidents the town manager said broke the town’s No. 1core value of integrity.

Barker is unwilling to resign, and he’s prepared to fight back, according to his attorney, Paul Donnelly.

“Barker is a long-term public servant,” Donnelly said. “He has worked for 33 years in Northeast Florida and in that entire time in his professional life, he’s never been subject to any kind of material or inverse, adverse discipline. He’s a fantastic town fire chief...and has been for over half a decade...and looks forward to continuing for many years.”

Donnelly claimed Barker had been fired for being a whistleblower over an “illegal town bank account.” Donnelly said that after he allegedly pointed out to Campbell the bank account in question was illegal, he was asked to resign a couple of days later. Donnelly also said complaints deemed meritless by outside investigators that cost the town $18,000 were being used to justify his firing. Donnelly said those claims shouldn’t affect his professional career.

The meritless complaints were calls for harassment and unfair targeting by Barker to subordinates, but Donnelly said the complaints were made because of “disgruntled employees.” Campbell said the employees in question weren’t at the meeting to represent themselves. As a result, Clay Today opted not to include their names. He said one of the main “disgruntled employees” had applied for Barker’s Fire Chief job, which is currently being advertised. That person was being considered for the position, something Campbell later said wasn’t true.

Donnelly’s argument during the meeting centered around he and Barker’s claim that Campbell “attempted to entrap Barker by asking him to take control of an illegal town [bank] account.” And allegedly, because Barker refused because it violates law, he was asked to resign.

He was given a settlement offer that required Barker to waive his rights and his position as the fire chief. Donnelly said by signing, Barker would have waived his ability to pursue legal remedies under the Florida Whistleblower laws.

Town Attorney Rob Bradley stopped Donnelly a couple of times throughout the presentation to explain that his silence during Donnelly’s presentation did not mean he agreed with him. Bradley said he disagreed with much of what Donnelly said in regards to law, especially in regards to the Florida Firefighter Bill of Rights, which Donnelly claimed Barker was protected. Bradley, however, said that because Barker’s position was more administrative than anything else, he was not protected under that bill of rights.

When Campbell spoke, she said many of Donnelly’s claims were false. She also said the item on the agenda, which was asking the Town Council to vote on Campbell’s recommendation had nothing to do with the “illegal bank account” – something she said wasn’t illegal. Bradley said the “illegal bank account” was propped up as dramatic moment, but that in reality, it has nothing to do with Campbell’s resignation request.

“The town accountant came to me with a bank statement and asked if I knew about it and I did not,” she said during the meeting. “But that’s not illegal. It was for the Explorer Posts [which has to do with a local Boy Scouts of America troop]. It was a bank account created before I was the town manager.”

Campbell said the town’s finance department asked her to find out about the account and she was informed one of the fire department employees was the only signee on the account. Donnelly and Barker argued that this was not okay, and Barker should have at least been on the account if it was an account under the fire department’s jurisdiction.

Campbell said when she saw that employee’s name on the account, she immediately knew it was for the Explorer Post and it was set up for the explorers to buy food and gas when they travel for competitions. The leadership of the town at that point thought it was appropriate for that to be a separate bank account, Campbell said.

After learning of this, Campbell spoke to Barker and asked if it should remain a separate account or a town account and Barker told Campbell that it should be a town account, she said. She contacted the signee and they turned in the funds from the account to the town’s finance department in the form of a check.

“It was really a non-issue and really an administrative issue,” Campbell said. “The account was closed and the funds were turned over to the town. Explorers is a protected account under the town’s budget for the fire department.”

Campbell said it’s three incidents leading to Barker’s potential firing. She said Barker tasked one of his employees in question with reviewing and editing a department policy and that this employee spent an entire day working on it. This policy was about chain of command, which sees employees with complaints, questions or concerns going through multiple chains of command before reaching Campbell.

“After the policy was issued, Barker contacted [another employee in the fire department that was the subordinate of the employee Barker had review and edit the policy procedure] and asked if anyone was complaining about the policy,” Campbell said. “Barker then says he was just messing with [the employee that reviewed and edited the policy] and that it was a joke.”

Campbell said the employee was very upset to learn it was a joke and a prank. He didn’t find it funny and he didn’t think it was a joke, she said. He thought it was inappropriate and he thought his supervisor [Barker] had gone behind his back to talk to a subordinate privately, which broke the policy he had just reviewed and edited.

Campbell said Barker denied that this “joke” incident had ever occurred so she contacted the people involved again to double check and she said she has reason to believe that all of it occurred and that Barker denying it ever happened was a show of extreme “dishonesty.”

“I believed [their testimonies] to be accurate...as they had no reason to fabricate the story against Barker,” Campbell said, explaining how the person Barker told it was a joke to was friends with Barker and wouldn’t make up a story to get him in trouble. “To me, that was the final straw and when it was a question of dishonesty, he couldn’t be honest and own up to his actions.”

Campbell said it was the third incident that demonstrated dishonesty that led to her asking him to resign.

“It’s not something I take lightly,” she said. I’ve handled the town’s [human resources] for a number of years. We have to do it with compassion and integrity, but you’ve charged us with a certain set of rules. The town’s code has been violated. Our number one core value is integrity, so when I believe a department head has lied to me on three occasions in rapid succession, I no longer trust him to be on the leadership team. He was given the opportunity to resign and he denied that opportunity so here we are today.”

The council and everyone in the room was somewhat taken by surprise at everything that played out that night. They were supposed to either vote yes to approve Campbell’s recommendation to fire Barker or no to reject her recommendation. The majority of the council felt that it needed more time to make this decision, and perhaps more importantly, they wanted more of the information about everything argued during the meeting. They voted 3-2, with mayor Alan Watt and council member Virginia Hall voting no, to table the item.

A special meeting will be held next week to discuss in more detail this potential firing. Bradley recommended the council make a decision sooner rather than later as it’s an important nobody should be left in limbo, especially considering that the possibility for litigation.

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