Michael Fewless’ three-year tenure as Fruitland Park’s police chief is over.
That decision was made Thursday night by a split commission, with Fewless standing in front of them and members of his family in the audience. The chief, who joined the department in August 2015 and had been forced to temporarily step down in August because of an issue with the Florida Retirement System (FRS), was hoping to return to the city under a temporary third-party contract.
City Attorney Anita Geraci-Carver told commissioners that if they OK’d the arrangement, it still would have to be approved by FRS. But after a long debate, the 3-2 vote against retaining Fewless left many of his former police officers and others in the audience in stunned silence.
“What we did with the chief tonight is just shameful,” said Commissioner Rick Ranize, who along with Mayor Chris Cheshire voted to approve the third-party contract to retain Fewless. “He came here knowing all the problems from the past and he changed the culture of our police department. He brought us to where we now have people wanting to come work for us.”
Fewless was first forced to leave his post in August because he retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office while in the state retirement system and then took a job with another agency that pays into that same system without waiting a designated time between positions. Fewless didn’t re-enter the state retirement system when he came aboard with Fruitland Park, but apparently that didn’t matter, Geraci-Carver said in August when commissioners first learned of the issue.
“It’s the fact that this city has an FRS system,” she said. “It is a violation of their rules.”
On Thursday night, the issue with retaining Fewless seemed to center more on the money the city might have to repay FRS as a result of the violation. Fewless also hinted that if the city’s insurance policy doesn’t take care of the issue, he might be forced to file a lawsuit, as he’s currently out a considerable amount of retirement money.
That possibility didn’t sit well with longtime Commissioner Chris Bell, who questioned Fewless on the issue and eventually said he views the police chief position as a “luxury” the city can’t afford right now.
“It depends on everything the insurance does,” Fewless responded. “But I cannot take a $542,000 loss. Commissioner Bell, I wouldn’t think you would expect me too. That would mean I’m paying to have a job – and that just doesn’t make sense.”
Commissioner Ray Lewis, who was attending his first meeting since suffering a heart attack last month, said City Treasurer Jeannine Racine had suggested the city might have to repay FRS somewhere in the neighborhood of $140,000. But City Manager Gary La Venia said the final number won’t be known for some time, adding that so far, the city has received a bill for $69,000 connected with retirement money Fewless received from 2011-15. And he added that the city’s insurance carrier had advised him not to pay the bill until the issue is completely sorted out.
As it became obvious that three commissioners were leaning toward parting ways with Fewless, Ranize made a couple of impassioned pleas for them to reconsider, saying the entire debacle was caused by a clerical error and “sits squarely on the shoulders” of the city.
“He was told by our staff that we have a pension plan. It’s not a problem. We’re not going to put you in FRS,” Ranize said. “But nobody went back and looked at the contract this city signed in February when we entered FRS that stated clearly that all new full-time and part-time employees shall be part of the FRS system.”
Ranize said he told Fewless to get a job someplace else “and bring your career back,” but he didn’t want to do that because he wanted to finish what he started in Fruitland Park.
“He’s never walked away from any assignment he’s been given in 30 years, and he’s got things he still wants to do in this city,” Ranize said. “Facing all this turmoil, he still wants to come back. I applaud him for that. But we need to make Mike Fewless whole. Period.”
After the vote, Ranize offered some final words to Fewless as he thanked the commission for allowing him to serve as police chief for three years.
“Chief, I wish you the best,” he said, as Fewless shook hands with and hugged his former officers. “And if you need a witness, call me.”
After the three-hour commission meeting ended, Cheshire said he was disappointed with the vote.
“He’s a great chief,” the mayor said. “He made the Fruitland Park Police Department viable again. We were looked down upon for so long. He brought us back professionalism. The whole thing is difficult and you feel horrible for him.”
Capt. Erik Luce, who is serving as the city’s interim chief, agreed. But he said the men and women in his department will do exactly what Fewless would expect of them – they’ll keep doing their jobs to the best of their abilities every day.
“There were a lot of kind words said about the department tonight as a result of Chief Fewless,” he said. “We’ve been hoping that it wouldn’t go the way it went tonight. But we will certainly keep going in the same direction and keep the same reputation going forward.”