Former fire chief files lawsuit over termination
Former Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny's lawsuit says defendants used the media to "widely distribute their defamatory information"
By Laura Layden
Naples Daily News
NAPLES, Fla. — Former Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny has filed a lawsuit over his firing last year, alleging that city and union leaders "concocted a scheme" to bring him down.
He is demanding a jury trial and seeking damages.
His long list of defendants includes former Naples Mayor John Sorey, current and former City Council leaders, Naples firefighters and members of their union Local 2174, along with the city's TV channel and the city.
The lawsuit alleges defendants used the media and the Public Records Act to "widely distribute their defamatory information," hurting McInerny's "good professional reputation" and creating "political pressure on the city manager" to fire him.
McInerny, who continues to live in Naples, is seeking employment as a fire chief.
Marco Island attorney Robert Bates, who represents McInerny, declined to comment about the specifics of the suit, saying, "We look forward to successfully resolving it with the city of Naples, and we look forward to avoiding protracted litigation."
Before the suit was filed, Bates sent the city and other defendants written notices of claims — detailing McInerny's allegations — as required by state law.
Under such situations, a government agency and its leaders would normally have six months to evaluate the claims and either deny them or settle them before a lawsuit is filed.
McInerny alleges the Tort Claims Act doesn't apply to the malicious actions of the city officials and employees. Furthermore, he claims they had no right to dictate employment issues to the county manager because they don't have the ability to hire or fire, so they're liable for their actions and statements.
Mayor Sorey declined to comment, saying it's city policy not to talk about a pending lawsuit.
In the suit, McInerny alleges that union members, Sorey and three City Council members, along with a "political operative," used the union as a "surrogate to deliver a 'no confidence letter' they knew would be discussed in public, though it wasn't on the agenda. The three named councilors are Sam Saad, Doug Finlay and Linda Penniman.
The letter — presented at a televised City Council meeting about two years ago — set off an unexpected and heated debate and then triggered an investigation by the city manager.
The fire union alerted the council to two unanimous votes of no confidence in McInerny that its members made at separate meetings in October 2015.
In summary, their letter stated that Mclnerny had created a poor working environment and had shown "a lack of leadership and an inability to make sound decisions on matters affecting the community."
The timing of the letter was intentional and designed to "generate maximum public ridicule," not allowing the chief to prepare anything in his own defense, he alleges in the lawsuit.
More: In Naples fire chief’s acrimonious tenure, clues to his firing
McInerny was the city's fire chief from August 2009 until March 15, 2016, when City Manager Bill Moss sent an email to council members notifying them that McInerny had been let go. At the time, Moss said the action "should not be interpreted as a disciplinary firing."
More: City manager axes Naples fire chief Steve McInerny, cites management style
At the time, Moss said it was made in recognition that the chief's management style was "no longer suitable in the present environment, considering the current department staff, the community at-large, and the transitions that will likely occur in the fire-rescue service over the relatively near term."
For years City Council members had expressed concerns about McInerny. There were public spats during annual budget talks when the council rejected McInerny's expensive requests for new equipment, and McInerny was accused of over-reporting fire incidents to justify new spending.
McInerny alleges that Moss let him go because the city manager was "illegally leveraged and under the duress of being fired" by the City Council if he didn't take action.
As for the union members, McInerny claims they did what they did to "achieve promotions they believed were unobtainable" as long as he was the fire chief.
McInerny previously spent more than 25 years as a fire official in Fort Lauderdale.
As a result of the false statements made against him in Naples, McInerny said in his lawsuit that he's suffered physically and mentally from embarrassment, humiliation and disgrace.
He said he's lost earnings and that his personal and professional reputations have been scarred.
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