CRESTVIEW — After nearly three hours, the North Okaloosa Fire District Commission decided on Thursday night to table discussion of removing Fire Chief Ed Cutler until next month’s meeting.
The decision came after public input and much discussion among board members during the commission’s monthly meeting at the Bob Sikes airport fire station.
All five commissioners were present at the meeting, along with Cutler and Deputy Chief Danny Worrells. Cutler’s supporters, many employees within the department, filled the room.
Crestview resident and former department commissioner Gene Wright raised the topic of Cutler’s record, mentioning an incident when a firefighter’s gun accidentally discharged in the firehouse.
Sgt. Richard Noiseux of the Okaloosa County airport police, wrote the report and said the firefighter brought a permitted weapon to the station, and was showing it to another staff member when it accidentally went off into a nearby wooded area. Accounts varied on when the accident occurred, but Noiseux estimated it was late summer or early fall in 2011. No one was hurt.
Wright told the board that he didn't believe Cutler covered up the incident. However, he was concerned that Cutler didn't report the incident to the board.
"The commissioners must now realize that Ed has a very different opinion (of) what's important, noteworthy and reportable than they do," Wright said, adding that Cutler should face that decision’s consequences. Wright told Cutler that he "would go into a fire with him," but his error in judgment warranted firing.
Philip Kent, who said he has been involved with the department for years and has known Cutler, for some time, even before he was chief, defended the fire chief.
"This happened a year ago," he said. "What possible purpose does this serve? If you want to fire Chief Cutler for that, then you do not have my respect. In my opinion, this is bogus."
Commissioner Sam Anderson was also in favor of keeping Cutler.
"I'm totally and completely opposed to the removal Chief Cutler," Anderson said. "He has done an excellent job."
Anderson — who said the gun-discharge incident wasn’t enough to cost the chief his job — said Cutler received a verbal reprimand incident.
"The thing was that it happened and the chief did not make the board or at least the chairman aware that it had happened," Chairman Franklin Sauls said. "That was disappointing."
Still, Sauls agreed the incident wasn't enough to warrant Cutler’s removal.
That night, Cutler asked the board if he could give a statement, which the board allowed.
"Mr. Chairman, my rights have been infringed upon, have been violated," he said, adding he planned to hire an attorney and sue the board. He then read from a prepared statement. In the statement, Cutler said he had not broken any law and that his rights as a firefighter have been violated. He also accused some of the board members for violating Florida's Sunshine Law, which regulates elected officials’ discussions on issues they will vote on. It aims to prevent private discussions on public matters.
"There is no reason for the charges that have been brought against me in public," Cutler said. "When charges were brought up by one commissioner, with no explanation, and then another commissioner seconds the motion .... that is very suspicious."
Cutler explained that he thought information illegally was being exchanged outside the board, and expressed that he wanted Sauls to launch an investigation into the matter.
"The board and the firefighters have been at odds," Cutler said. "We need to get back on the same page with the right commissioners to works towards the same goal."
Both sides agreed that they would work on communication with each other.
"We came to agreement with the chief and the board, 5-0." Commissioner Craig Shaw said. "I think were on the right track."
Although the vote was scheduled for early in the meeting, commissioners held the item until the end of the meeting after seeing the night's attendance.
The meeting covered in-house department business, including volunteer training and updates on fueling and the district's Insurance Service Office rating.