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March 22, 2019 12:15 am

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Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Resigns

Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Brian Florey resigned Monday morning (March 4), ending a tumultuous, almost two-month internal investigation that uncovered numerous revelations of financial, operational and potential legal problems within the department and raised questions about the oversight provided by members of the past Fire Board.

Florey submitted his written resignation to Acting Fire Board Chair Jane Verplank and other Fire Board members. Florey had stated he would finish out the work week and asked to take a week’s vacation staring March 11 before leaving office. But Verplank denied that request telling the departing chief Monday morning to gather his personal belongings before escorting him from the Saugatuck Township Fire District building on Blue Star Highway.

“He just needed to be gone,” said Verplank Monday afternoon.

Saugatuck Township Deputy Fire Chief Dane Schreckengust will take over the duties of acting chief until the Fire Board conducts a search for Florey’s replacement.

The resignation of the embattled fire chief “was in the best interest of everyone,” said Verplank. “We (the Fire Board and the public) can now move forward and work to create the best fire department possible for our community.”

Verplank said Florey’s departure ends an internal investigation being conducted by her and fellow Fire Board member Brad Rudich, who also serves as Saugatuck Township Clerk.

No other fire department personnel are expected to be fired or asked to resign despite several verified reports of incidents and actions in violation of the department’s rules and regulations. “We want everyone to start with a clean slate,” said Verplank. “There have been problems…but we need to have better training and understanding of how things are supposed to work. We’re in the process of doing that now.”

Verplank said she is confident the tri-community “has dedicated, professional fire department personnel working to protect everyone in the district.”

In tendering his resignation, Florey wrote: “It is with much thought and ponderance that I submit my 2 week letter of resignation. Through the last several weeks many things have been stated in a local newspaper that has brought the department and myself into the center of great debate.”

Forty-five years of running a department cannot be changed in 18 months; we are, however, moving in the right direction. I will complete this week as scheduled and am requesting my 1 week of vacation for the week of March 11. I have had meetings with the officers and will work out a smooth transition. I will submit a list of projects in process to the deputy chief by the end of the week. Payroll will be completed with bills and turned into Peter (Stanislawski, City of Saugatuck Finance Director) this week.

“It has been an honor to serve the community and to work with the incredible crew of firefighters here at Saugatuck. I will have my office cleared out and turn in all of my issued items to Deputy Chief Schreckengust by end of shift March 16th. I do request that the (performance) review that was turned over to the local newspaper (The Local Observer) be removed from my file as it was never completed and reviewed by myself prior to the request by the newspaper.”

Various media reports over the past two months showed Florey had violated departmental policies and showed questionable administrative judgment through such actions as:

* using official department vehicles for his own personal use, including driving out of the district to pick up his children in South Haven and elsewhere, including letting his young son ride in a car seat despite the risk the chief could be called to an emergency scene.

* allowing his children and girlfriend to visit him at the fire department - with the children allowed to play on-site - despite the risk of fire calls coming into the station.

* taking loans from fire department personnel working under him despite clear departmental and state policies and regulations against such action.

* overspending the fire department’s 2012-2013 fiscal year budget leaving only $20,000 to $30,000 to cover the remaining fiscal year ending June 31. The department was put on “financial emergency status” as a result.

* myriad operational, financial and accounting problems.

The Saugatuck Township District Fire Board has reportedly contacted the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs to provide the local department personnel and Fire Board members proper training and guidance. Additionally, experts from the association are expected to work with the Fire Board to ensure a proper candidate search is conducted so the township can hire a trained and experienced individual to run the department.

“We can now all move forward…and that is the focus I am taking,” said acting Fire Board Chair Verplank.

For now, Fire Board officials say there is now “a hiring/firing freeze in effect” until a new chief is selected. “What things (policies and personnel) stay or go should be left up to the new chief,” noted Verplank. “It will be his/her job to make those determinations.”

Verplank, Rudich and Douglas Mayor James Wiley are the newly appointed Fire Board members. They now serve with long-time board members Scott Phelps, Gerald Bekken and Lance Winchester. Former Fire Board Chair Bill Kaye, who served almost two decades, resigned his position a few weeks ago.

Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Resigns

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