Matthew Altman resigned from his position as Longboat Key Fire Rescue deputy chief Dec. 31, after a disagreement with Chief Paul Dezzi over how he disciplined another of the department’s three deputy chiefs.
The incident in question occurred over the holidays, when Altman was serving as acting chief while Dezzi was on vacation.
Altman spoke with the Longboat Observer briefly Tuesday but declined to discuss the incidents in detail.
“I’m going to look at all my legal outlets,” he said.
Altman said he stands by two memos he wrote on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30. Here’s how Altman describes what occurred between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27:
He met with Deputy Chief Sandi Drake on Dec. 27 to discuss three issues.
The first involved a possible disciplinary matter for one of her shift employees. The second was a counseling statement about expired medication on a fire apparatus. The third was a fact-finding session to determine whether there was enough information to proceed with a formal hearing or disciplinary action concerning an incident in which Drake did not wear a life vest during a Dec. 24 check of a department Jet Ski.
Altman wrote on Dec. 28 that he asked the department’s third deputy chief, Rocky Parker, to sit in the Dec. 27 meeting as “an objective observer.” He accuses Drake of beginning “a verbal assault on DC Parker, saying he was stirring things up in the department, going behind her back, etc.”
In a followup Dec. 30 complaint, Altman wrote:
“I made it clear that I was not comfortable being with any female in a closed room during any type of potential counseling/disciplinary action. Immediately, D/C Drake stated ‘it’s a female thing.’ I feel that this was an attempt to turn the conversation to a sexual harassment filing which I categorically deny.”
Altman wrote that he allowed Parker to leave. He states that Drake said she was quitting the department several times and kicked and shattered a glass framed picture before leaving the office. (The picture was Drake’s personal property.)
“It was very upsetting,” Drake told the Longboat Observer. “The format and the setting and the approach to discipline he used in questioning created an uncomfortable environment.”
Drake said she was uncomfortable with Altman’s approach, including the fact that he brought her peer into the room as an observer. She said she was the one who discovered the expired medication on the apparatus and requested that she be disciplined, but in a manner that would be discrete. She said that similar matters are often handled by coaching and/or counseling instead of an investigation.
“There’s no question about my ability to accept discipline, but unfortunately, this escalated,” Drake said.
After returning from vacation Dec. 30, Dezzi met with Altman, Drake and Parker and believed the meeting ended on a positive note.
“When we left here, there were smiles, and I thought we were all understanding each other,” Dezzi said.
Dezzi wrote the following in a memo to Altman after the meeting:
“DC Altman, by your own admission, you wanted to have an objective person in the room with you when you spoke to DC Drake only to later indicate you’re uncomfortable with speaking with females privately.
This is the first I have been made aware of this and to protect both you, I am requesting anytime you both want to have a conversation behind closed doors a mutually agreed party shall be present.”
Dezzi wrote in another Dec. 30 memo to Altman that his signature was on the check-off list for the apparatus that he used to counsel Drake.
“After my review of this form, I find that you need to write yourself a counseling statement due to the fact that your initials are on the form, acknowledging your approval and acceptance,” Dezzi wrote.
Dezzi said the incidents snowballed, and he doesn’t understand why.
He praised Altman in a Dec. 31 memo to department personnel as “a leader in the field of EMS (who) has demonstrated his skills daily.”
“I think it’s unfortunate the way it happened,” Dezzi said. “Matt was put in charge, and I think it was appropriate to address, but I disagreed with the process.”
Drake, a 13-year member of the department, also expressed disappointment.
“I respect Matt,” she said. “I wish him the best of luck. I’ve worked with him for years, and it’s difficult to see him go like this.”
Altman said he stands by what he wrote in his memos and that what occurred was not an isolated incident.
“It was my choice to resign, but I really wanted to stay employed,” he said. “I just felt like I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Drake and Parker continue to serve in their roles as deputy chiefs. Fire Recue Lt. Jason Berzowski has been appointed to serve in the acting deputy chief role while the town seeks to fill the position.