Mount Dora Police Department appears to be getting back on track after years of internal turmoil. Yet the alleged actions of former City Manager Robin Hayes and embattled former Police Chief Robert Bell have left the City with continuing legal issues.
Last week Mount Dora City Council unanimously agreed to a $260,000 settlement with former Mount Dora Deputy Police Chief Michael Fewless after he filed suit under (Download the documents here) The whistleblower issue began on June 23 when Fewless advised then-City Manager Robin Hayes that MDPD’s Command Staff cast a “Vote of No Confidence” regarding Chief Robert Bell’s leadership and the group claimed their rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and requested a meeting with Hayes.
Three days later, Fewless, along with two captains, filed a written whistleblower’s complaint that included approximately 25 pages with a myriad of charges of alleged misconduct against Bell, including a hostile work environment, ethics violations, favoritism, and lack of truthfulness. There had also been long-running, but unproven, allegations within MDPD and the community that Bell was having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate officer. The complaint stated officers were threatened with lawsuits by Bell if they discussed the relationship. However, once deposed under oath, Bell, who is married, admitted to the relationship. (Read the case depositions here)
“The City of Mount Dora and its city manager didn’t want these whistleblowers’ complaints to reach the public. They have no one to blame but themselves when all of the misdeeds at City Hall are now exposed,” said Fewless’ attorney Ryan J. Andrews at the time his petition was filed last year.
According to Hayes’ deposition in the case, she launched an investigation into Bell’s conduct and confronted him which resulted in his retirement.
Then on July 2, Hayes met with five MDPD Command Staff whistleblowers, to discuss the issues in their complaint. The group, including Fewless, was advised of Bell’s decision to retire. They agreed to terms of how the situation would be handled in the interim by all parties. Two weeks later, on July 17, the Command Staff was dissatisfied with the City’s subsequent handling of the complaint after Bell allegedly violated the agreement and the whistleblowers felt retaliation against them was imminent. In an email to Hayes, the Command Staff reinstated their claim to Whistleblower Protection and rescinded the previous agreement from the July 2 meeting.
Four days later, Fewless would find himself out of a job for allegedly violating a City media policy on July 17 when Fewless met with a reporter inside MDPD to listen to her unrelated complaint about how she was treated at a crime scene.
After his termination, Fewless filed the lawsuit. The $260,000 settlement will be paid by the City’s insurance company with the exception of the $5,000 deductible. As part of the settlement, Fewless termination was also changed to a mutual separation.
The next lawsuit against the City involving former Police Chief Bell is another violation of Florida’s Whistleblower Act brought by former MDPD Corporal Jessica Howell. The lawsuit was filed in March of last year and the depositions are expected to yield additional facts from more individuals.
Until recently, it has been hard to remember a time when MDPD was scandal-free. Prior to Police Chief Brett Meade taking the reins last July, the toxic division and alleged misdeeds within the department boiled over into the public’s full view. Meade, who is well liked within the department and community, came onboard as the Interim Chief last July and was later named Chief in April. Meade and Deputy Chief Al Rollins have been making positive strides in changing the culture and morale at the department.