SC county leader recommended firing fire chief amid ongoing strife, fire official said
Sheldon Fire District Chief Buddy Jones and Assistant Chief Dale Glass remain employed by the department six months after the fire commission met privately to discuss department leadership issues and “infighting"
The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — A Beaufort County administrator recommended firing the embattled fire chief and his deputy last year amid strife in the department and a state ethics inquiry into the chief’s actions, a fire official said Thursday.
Sheldon Fire District Chief Buddy Jones and Assistant Chief Dale Glass remain employed by the department six months after the fire commission met privately to discuss department leadership issues and “infighting.” The board chairman said this week the men kept their jobs because he had known them a long time and they needed to provide for their families.
Former Interim County Administrator John Weaver denied recommending that the men be fired -- because as interim he did not have that authority -- but said he offered the dismissals as an option. Firing might still be the appropriate outcome, he said Friday.
During a commission meeting Thursday night, two women connected to the district said the December 2018 fire board meeting violated state law because it was not publicized, nor were minutes kept.
The Sheldon fire board is a seven-member panel responsible for fire protection for a rural area of Beaufort County north of the Whale Branch River. Members are appointed to four-year terms by the Beaufort County Council. The group is responsible for long-range planning for fire and EMS stations and equipment, and it also evaluates the fire chief’s job performance.
The county administrator has the power to demote or fire the chief.
The 20-minute meeting Thursday at Sheldon fire headquarters fell on the board’s regularly scheduled third Thursday and included a discussion about the department, but an agenda was not posted on the board’s website.. The public comment period included a tense exchange between Connie Glass — a former longtime Sheldon fire commissioner and the assistant chief’s mother — and Jones. Connie Glass focused on the state ethics inquiry into whether Jones’ wife, Diane, improperly received health benefits while suspended from her firefighter job amid a criminal investigation in 2017.
Connie Glass also criticized the arrangement in which Diane Jones, until her resignation last year, worked as an officer in the department led by her husband.
“I’m ashamed of this fire department, and you ought to fire your fire chief,” Connie Glass told the fire board. “If y’all had any guts, you would do your job.”
Board chairman Wayne Blankenship responded that that’s exactly what was recommended late last year., that Weaver had recommended that the board fire Buddy Jones and Dale Glass. The recommendation came during a meeting with Blankenship and County Councilman Gerald Dawson related to the department’s ongoing problems, Blankenship said.
Recalling that meeting, Weaver said Friday he believed the problems related to an ongoing feud between the fire chief and his assistant chief. Weaver said he didn’t recommend the men be fired but that he might have suggested it as an option for the board to consider.
He said Friday that dismissing the men still “sounds like a reasonable alternative for them to consider.”
“Usually when you’ve got two people feuding with one another and one stays and one goes, that usually does not put the fire out,” Weaver said. “Because there are remaining people who favor one side or another.”
Phone messages for Dawson weren’t returned Friday.
Chief Buddy Jones and Blankenship denied wrongdoing in handling Diane Jones’ case. They said they had properly consulted county officials. The ethics complaint is awaiting a hearing, which has not been scheduled.
Connie Glass referred to a report by The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet last month about the ethics investigation and tried to poll each fire board member about whether they had approved continuing to pay health benefits to Diane Jones, a former Sheldon fire lieutenant.
Diane Jones was arrested in March 2017 and charged with providing alcohol to a minor. She resigned in October 2018 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in December.
Blankenship told Connie Glass that her time for public comment was up before she had quizzed all the board members. He said the officials weren’t obligated to respond. He told her that after Diane Jones was arrested, then-County Attorney Josh Gruber recommended suspending her without pay but maintaining her health benefits.
A phone message for Gruber wasn’t returned Friday. County attorney Tom Keaveny said Friday he has not been involved in conversations related to the fire district.
Connie Glass and Vicki Shouse, wife of Sheldon Fire Capt. Bill Shouse, both said county officials had told them Diane Jones should not have continued to receive health benefits. They noted that the department’s insurance policy requires that an employee work 30 hours a week to be eligible.
Buddy Jones responded: “They’re still employees while they’re suspended. When I suspend somebody from here, I don’t cancel their health insurance.”
The fire chief later told a reporter that the ethics investigation is related to Diane Jones’ dependents — children from a previous marriage —remaining on her health insurance during her suspension, not for the personal health benefits she was paid while on leave. He provided a copy of a cashier’s check he said shows the fire department was repaid $11,027.67 by Diane Jones for her children’s health insurance.
In a letter to the state Ethics Commission dated May 15, Buddy Jones said he followed department procedure after his wife’s arrest and that Gruber had directed him to suspend his wife without pay but to keep her health insurance while the case was pending.
Diane Jones and the dependents were removed from the department’s insurance policy after she resigned and placed on the fire chief’s insurance, he wrote.
“As Chief of Sheldon Fire District, at no time was I trying to acquire financial gain by authorizing invoices to pay for her dependent premiums,” Jones wrote to the ethics commission.
Blankenship, the fire board chairman, said Weaver recommended firing the top two fire officials because they had shown “poor leadership.”
“And it was -- Buddy wasn’t doing his job,” Blankenship told a reporter after Thursday’s meeting. “He was letting them skate by on stuff instead of hammering them.”
He declined to elaborate on specific examples but said he declined to pursue firing the longtime employees.
“I’ve known them guys forever,” Blankenship said. “It used to be a good department here. Then all of a sudden negativity got in here.”
Asked about the alleged secret meeting, Blankenship said he couldn’t remember the date, whether the meeting was publicized or minutes kept. The board’s website shows no agenda or minutes for a specially called late December meeting.
Vicki Shouse said during Thursday’s public comment period that during the “illegal” meeting Dec. 27, Dale Glass’ job was threatened and the board discussed documenting issues against Shouse’s husband in an effort to fire him.
Blankenship said Thursday night that Dale Glass had been told during the December meeting that he had 30 days “to help straighten out the firefighters.” He said no votes were taken during the meeting.
Buddy Jones said the entire fire board attended the meeting but that it wasn’t an official commission meeting.
“(Blankenship) talked to me and Dale about we had to stop all of this — I guess infighting,” Jones said.
©2019 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)
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