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OCFD letter implicates councilman in recent city controversies

(Sept. 20, 2013) Correspondence from within the Ocean City Fire Department, obtained by this newspaper, points the finger at a city councilman as being involved in the recent unrest within the resort’s fire and EMS services.

In addition to more recent controversies, these may include the problematic captains’ promotion in the fall of 2012, an incident that prompted the city to spend more than $100,000 in legal fees in order to preempt an investigation by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

The correspondence, dated July 17, was authored by Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company Assistant Chief Will Savage and addressed to OCVFC Chief David Cropper. Its authenticity was verified by Savage after he was questioned by Ocean City Today about the document.

The document recounts a July 16 phone conversation between Savage and City Councilman Doug Cymek. The conversation allegedly revolved around Cymek’s continuing objection to the non-use of the department’s dive team in July’s plane crash, as well as Cymek’s conduct in previous disputes and controversies within the OCFD.

The purpose of his letter, Savage wrote to Cropper, was to comply with the department’s chain-of-command protocols, as well as to raise concern “that issues in the city continue to be improperly investigated from the top down versus the bottom up.”

In one portion, Savage alleges he was told by Cymek that “last fall, when he [Cymek] received information regarding the fire department and acted upon it, he did not reveal his source(s), even after receiving threats from the city attorney.”

“In my opinion, these matters should come down from the City Manager to my supervisor, or be initiated at my level and pushed up if they are out of my scope of responsibility,” Savage said when asked why he had authored the document.

“The way these things are being handled currently contradicts everything we do as a department.”

Cymek declined to comment on the matter, stating that he had never seen the letter and was unaware of the allegations. Despite being supplied with both paper and electronic copies of the letter by this newspaper, he would not provide any further input.

“When I saw who the letter was addressed to, I stopped reading and gave it to the city manager,” he said. “It was clearly not intended to be given to me … and I don’t think it’s [the newspaper’s] job to be giving it.”

In the letter, Savage said that he was “contacted by a third party” who left a voicemail on his phone requesting that he contact Cymek. Savage did so the next day.

Savage wrote that Cymek first said “he is impressed with the way that I operate my incidents. He even went so far as to tell me that he feels that I could someday be Chief of the Department.”

Following that, Savage wrote, Cymek “said that he had questions for me and assured me that he does not reveal his sources, and that I would be held in a position of no harm.”

“Councilmember Cymek then stated that he was contacted by ‘a volunteer member of the dive team’ who relayed concern as a taxpayer about the plane crash that recently occurred,” Savage’s narrative reads, “and that the concerns were ‘troubling to police officers, career firefighters, and volunteer firefighters.’”

On July 1 of this year, an aircraft owned and piloted by an Ocean City Police Department officer crashed a short distance of the beach in north Ocean City. The wreck claimed the lives of the pilot as well as his passenger, who was also an OCPD officer.

Shortly thereafter, OCFD Chief Chris Larmore, who oversees the volunteer company as well as the city’s paid fire and EMS division and the Office of the Fire Marshal, came under fire for his decision to not send the department’s rescue divers to assist the Maryland State Police in the recovery operation.

“Councilmember Cymek stated his concerns about decisions made that day by the Fire Chief, and that he felt those decisions were not based upon the needs of the incident but, rather, upon money,” Savage recounted in his letter to Cropper.

“I recently had a conversation with another member of the department who was broadcasting this same erroneous information on Facebook (I consider this to be a personnel matter that I handled, and am comfortable with the outcome that I had with that individual),” Savage continued. “Because of the amount of false information that Councilmember Cymek had received (or presumed), I knowingly and willingly engaged in a conversation with him in an attempt to educate him on the true events of that day.”

According to a memo, written by the OCFD dive team’s leadership and circulated to the entire department, the MSP sergeant in charge of the incident initially said he could use up to four members of the OCFD’s dive team to assist the operation.

As the team was being assembled, however, a call came in from Larmore advising that the MSP no longer needed the team. Larmore stated that – unless essential to the MSP’s operation – the OCFD should not take additional ambulances out of service to have paramedics on dive duty, especially on a weekend when the department was already over-burdened and under-staffed.

At this point, the plane had been down for more than an hour. In the initial response, the OCFD stationed an EMS crew and rescue diver aboard the Coast Guard vessel that initially responded to the area of the crash. However, the exact location of the plane was unknown and no survivors or evidence of them was apparent.

The OCFD’s divers are trained for active rescues, Larmore noted, whereas the MSP was conducting a recovery operation past the initial response.

Given that this explanation and operating guidelines had been clearly communicated, Savage was concerned that members of the department were being allowed to bypass their commanders and lobby a member of council against Larmore.

“Even after we have thoroughly investigated this incident and a memo was sent out department-wide with the facts of the incident, members are allegedly breaking the chain of command and bypassing no less than five superior ranks,” Savage wrote. “I am frustrated that any council member felt the need to call me when this is a situation that I could have handled at my level immediately with the allegedly complaining individual if I were given the opportunity.”

“For the record, I support the facts of this incident and I support Chief Larmore’s decisions that day, because I was there and in contact with him from the time of my response to the time the dive unit was placed in service,” Savage further said in the letter.

According to City Manager David Recor, the issues raised by Savage have been addressed.

“This was a chain-of-command issue,” Recor said. “It was discussed and followed-up with the appropriate staff … and I consider it resolved.”

How a matter centering on Cymek was resolved without his knowledge was not immediately clear.

“If it involved me specifically, it would’ve been brought to my attention,” Cymek said.

Although it was not made explicitly clear, Savage said it was his understanding that Cymek’s reference to “the events of last fall” pertained to the controversial selection of new OCFD captains in the fall of 2012.

“I would have to presume that’s what it is,” Savage said. “Not that much else went on last fall because of that.”

In November of 2012, Larmore approached the City Council with a proposal to promote one of the department’s lieutenants to captain, and another lieutenant to the title of “acting” captain, until the department’s budget would allow for an extra captain’s pay.

However, this pitch was opposed by the city’s chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is the collective bargaining unit for the OCFD’s paid personnel. The union alleged that Larmore had never portrayed his intent to promote two candidates, instead of the one allotted for that fiscal year, when conducting the selection process.

At least one member of council, according to numerous sources, backed the IAFF’s position, allegedly trying to dictate to Larmore whom should and should not be promoted. The IAFF’s favored candidate for captain was male, while the other was female.

Although the city declined the IAFF’s grievance in the case, objections did not stop. Rumors began circulating through City Hall and the resort’s emergency services that Larmore had engaged in sexual relations with the female candidate, although Recor had declared the allegations to be unfounded.

The apparent scheme to discredit Larmore and the female candidate allegedly revealed a pattern of harassment and intimidation in the OCFD. The female candidate charged that she had long been the victim of harassment by fellow firefighters because of her gender, and filed a complaint with the EEOC to that effect.

Although the city settled the issue and the complaint was withdrawn, the city’s labor attorneys – Miles & Stockbridge – conducted an extensive investigation in order to maintain the town’s position of no harm should the case be pressed to court.

Despite Public Information Act requests by this newspaper, the city has declined to release any of the documents produced by Miles & Stockbridge in the matter, citing attorney-client privilege. However, the city has revealed that its legal bills for the incident totaled $100,106.57.

Savage said the alleged campaign against Larmore was an increasing burden on the department.

“It’s really tough when you have council members coming to you for different issues, but they’re really looking for information on your boss,” Savage said. “We spend so much time dealing with this sort of stuff, it’s hard to get our own jobs done.”

Larmore said he and Cropper had received Savage’s letter and had addressed the issue. He deferred any further details to Recor, who declined to verify them.

“I can’t elaborate or tell you who said what or when, because then I would be discussing a personnel issue,” Recor said.

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