It’s hard to remember a time when Mount Dora Police Department (MDPD) was drama-free. In recent years, the toxic division within the embattled department has boiled over into the public’s full view.
This week Mount Dora’s former Deputy Police Chief Michael Fewless, who was terminated last month, filed a petition in the Circuit Court for his temporary reinstatement under Florida’s Public Whistleblower Act.
The whistleblower issue began on June 23 when Fewless emailed City Manager Robin Hayes to request a meeting and advise her that MDPD’s Command Staff cast a “Vote of No Confidence” regarding Chief Robert Bell’s leadership. In the email, the group claimed their rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Fewless, along with two captains, then filed a written whistleblower’s complaint on June 26 that included allegations of a hostile work environment, favoritism, lack of truthfulness and derogatory comments by Bell, according to the new court filing.
Subsequently, Hayes stated Bell notified her of his intent to retire on July 1 effective August 7.
On July 2, Hayes officially met with the three top officers, plus two lieutenants, to discuss their Whistleblower Complaint issues. The group was advised of Bell’s decision to retire and they agreed to terms of how the situation would be handled in the interim by all parties. Two weeks later, on July 17, Fewless emailed Hayes stating the Command Staff was dissatisfied with the City’s subsequent handling of the complaint and felt retaliation against them was imminent. In the email, the Command Staff reinstated their Whistleblower Protection and rescinded the previous agreement from the July 2 meeting.
Fast-forward four days and Fewless would find himself out of a job. According to Sharon Kraynik, City of Mount Dora Human Resource Director, Fewless was relieved of his duties on July 21 for “Violation of Policy 3.09 (c): Public Relations: No employee shall publish a news release or represent the position of the City to the news media unless authorized to do so by the Mayor or the Mayor’s designee.” The alleged violation occurred on July 17 when Fewless met with a reporter inside MDPD to discuss media relations.
After Fewless’ termination and sources informed Mount Dora Buzz about Bell’s pending retirement, information on the issue was requested from the City. The City of Mount Dora’s Public Information Officer Lisa McDonald provided Mount Dora Buzz with anonymous documents claiming wrongdoing by Bell, but none that were signed or attributed to anyone. The anonymous documents supplied came with the following disclaimer, which cast doubt about the credibility of allegations:
“In providing the requested documents to you, I want to call to your attention the fact that all such communications have been provided to the City without signature or through an anonymous email address. These communications can only be characterized as unsubstantiated comments, notes or statements. We provide these documents to you as required by law, but we ask that you use your utmost discretion when reporting, due to the unsubstantiated nature of the same. The use of names and/or of unsubstantiated information could have serious repercussions on City of Mount Dora employees.”
The dubious characterization of the unsigned documents predictably rendered them journalistically inappropriate for publication. However, Fewless’ new court filing exposed that there was a corroborated complaint, as well as follow-up emails attributed to Fewless and the Command Staff that could have been supplied by the City to form a more complete story. The omission of that relevant information to the media affected the way the news was reported, thereby raising serious concerns about a lack of transparency by the City on the issue.
The petition, filed by Fewless’ attorney, Ryan J. Andrews, gives the City 20 days to respond. “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,” stated Andrews.
As is standard, City officials cannot comment about on-going litigation matters. Bell retired on August 7 and his statement is included in the documents above.
Captain Coy Hunter, one of Bell’s accusers, was suspended on July 28 by new Acting Mount Dora Police Chief Brett Meade for improper surveillance. He submitted a letter of resignation on August 18 shortly after an internal investigation resulted in disciplinary action.
Meade comes with more than 38 years in law enforcement, including 25 years with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He specializes in operational and policy development and has earned a doctorate in education in Organizational Leadership, a master’s degree in Public Administration, and a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration.
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