Editorial: Fire chief’s response time on sex harassment was his undoing

Jan 23, 2018
  • By The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
County Administrator Verdenia Baker. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

So the fire chief couldn’t stand up to the county administrator and now wants his job back.

Jeffrey Collins, the former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue chief, resigned on Jan. 12 in the wake of sexual harassment and retaliation complaints under his command. Almost immediately he “rescinded” his decision, saying he had been pressured under pain of being fired.

“I was threatened and forced to submit my resignation to Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker,” Collins said at a news conference in his lawyer’s office on Friday. “To be clear, I did not voluntarily leave my position as the fire chief.”

He might have salvaged some honor if he had.

RELATED: Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief rescinds resignation

Collins said he had been “blindsided” and that “I did not think I had any other options” — a remarkable admission of ineptitude twinned with bad judgment. If Collins were truly blind to the atmosphere of sexual harassment and unrest in his department that was his responsibility to address, he was affirming his unfitness to be chief. For caving on the spot, rather than demanding a timeout to speak with his lawyer before agreeing to anything, he showed a simple lack of smarts.

“I love serving,” Collins added in his news conference statement. “And I love protecting the public.”

If only he had been as intent on serving and protecting the female members of his department, who, from available evidence, had to put up with long-running humiliations simply for working side by side with male colleagues.

“For the past almost 15 years, I have dealt with many inappropriate, unprofessional and discriminatory comments,” Capt. Amanda Vomero said in court papers.

A member of a firefighting family (her husband and brother are in the department), she knew she was entering a male bastion when, fresh out of recruit school, she reported to Station 24. “One of the more senior male personnel approached and said to me, ‘You know you have no business being here.’”

RELATED: Lawsuits claim harassment, retaliation at PBC Fire Rescue’s top levels

For years, she bore such slights mostly in silence. But in 2015, she says in a lawsuit filed against the county, she “was constantly subjected to crude and discriminatory comments” from Division Chief Chris Hoch, one of the highest-ranking members of the department. Among them were repeated crude sexual and racially charged “rumors” about her and her direct supervisor.

Vomero filed a complaint, and Hoch was reprimanded after an internal investigation found he had violated county policy against discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.

Vomero’s supervisor himself filed a lawsuit claiming that department officials, including Collins, retaliated against him after he had provided a statement to investigators supporting Vomero.

On Jan. 5, a group of women in Fire Rescue — anonymous because, they said, they feared retaliation — wrote to county commissioners and other top officials to express dismay that the only action regarding sexual harassment had been Hoch’s “woefully insufficient” letter of reprimand.

The next week Collins was gone. Baker had put her foot down — booting Collins and elevating a deputy chief, Michael Mackey, to interim chief.

For doing this, Collins has accused her of “advancing a political agenda.” What agenda? He wouldn’t say.

He needs to. Otherwise, the public may reasonably infer that he was taking a coded swipe at the first black and first female to hold this powerful position in county government. If so, it’s thoroughly undeserved. From all we have observed of Baker, it is scurrilous to suggest she has been anything but utterly scrupulous in performing her duties.

If Collins thinks he has been punished for being white and male, he is poisonously mistaken. He was removed because he did far too little to stop the fetid workplace behavior under his watch. Alarms were sounding, but the career firefighter failed to heed them.

His time was up.