PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — A fire commissioners’ race in the Tampa Bay area has turned hostile with allegations of threat, forgery and violations of state and county laws.
“Everybody’s getting kind of really amped up,” retired firefighter Tom May said.
May is among six candidates seeking three seats on the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District Board of Commissioners in Pinellas County.
“It’s been, I’d say, a little bit contentious,” said East Lake Fire Chief Tom Jamison, who has led the department for nine years.
In August, Jamison and the firefighter’s union endorsed candidates Mike Peasley and Maryellen Crowder over May and another former East Lake firefighter Jim Dalrymple, who currently serves on the board. The other two candidates in the non-partisan race are John Cattel and Peter Nehr.
“I’ve never seen a fire chief get this politically involved. Normally it’s been hands-off. Let politicians do what politicians do,” said May.
“My individual views, I have them, and I’ve certainly expressed them. When I’m not on duty and I’m off the clock,” said Jamison.
Dalrymple, who declined an on-camera interview because he had an out-of-town commitment, says the chief and union didn't endorse him because he voted against raises and a shorter workweek.
He told the I-Team that his main focus has been to represent the taxpayers and show fiscal responsibility when it comes to managing the department’s $8 million annual budget.
Supported by firefighters?
Dalrymple’s campaign signs say "Supported by Firefighters."
“He put firefighters on his signs because he knows a lot of firefighters who support him. East Lake firefighters do not,” May said.
That became clear at a recent commission meeting.
“With a firefighter vote of 30-to-0, we do not support Jim Dalrymple,” Lt. Jarrod Carlsen said, during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“All my fellow brothers and sisters of East Lake Fire Rescue have chosen not to support you,” echoed firefighter Nick Plush.
Dalrymple posted on Facebook, “I can start pulling out some of the skeletons in the closet. Remember I was there for almost 30 years.”
The union then filed a grievance, accusing Dalrymple of using social media to “threaten, intimidate and criticize” the union and deceive taxpayers by using signs “that portray he is endorsed” by the union.
“That was a sad day for brother firefighters to go after brother firefighters,” May said, of the grievance.
Forged letter leads to an investigation
A forged letter on department letterhead arrived in the fire station mailbox, which appeared to show Chief Jamison using his office to endorse candidates, a violation of state ethics rules.
The letter showed Jamison endorsed Peasley and Crowder, the same candidates he personally endorsed on social media.
“I did not write that letter so we called the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to come out and investigate,” said Jamison.
Jamison said the letter was written on outdated letterhead but did appear to have come from someone associated with the department.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the investigation to the I-Team but said they could not provide a copy of the report since it was still an open investigation.
Jamison said he was later told by a detective that the investigation was inconclusive as to who may have sent the letter.
“I haven’t heard anything about that. That’s a new one on me,” said May.
Code enforcement issues citations
May and Dalrymple weren’t careful when it came to where they put their campaign signs.
They were charged with continued violations of the county sign ordinance and were fined $143.
May admits he was caught red-handed.
“I apologized to the gentleman. I took all my signs down. I said ‘You’ll never see me out here again like this,’” May said.
“Why? Why go to these extremes to do that?” Chief Jamison said.
Jamison, who plans to retire next year, said he’s never seen a fire commission race turn so ugly.
The position pays just $500 a month and in some elections, they have had to recruit people to run, Jamison said.
In fact, in every other fire district race in Pinellas County, all candidates are running unopposed.
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