Monroe County commissioners are standing by their decision to suspend fire chief Donny Mercer without pay for three days despite blowback from angry firefighters.
The suspension came after controversy involving a background check on volunteer firefighter Scott Bogulski. Mercer was suspended early Tuesday afternoon after he met with commissioners for about 15 minutes in closed session to discuss personnel. Mercer’s suspension began Tuesday afternoon and ran through noon on Friday.
Commission chairman Mike Bilderback, who made the motion to suspend Mercer, said the issue was related to Mercer’s claim at a March 3 commissioners’ meeting that support personnel member Scott Bogulski’s criminal background check came back clean. District 2 commissioner Jim Ham seconded the motion, and commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the three-day suspension. District 3 commissioner John Ambrose was the lone commissioner opposed to the suspension.
Bilderback reprimanded Mercer verbally before the vote was cast on Tuesday.
“Your personnel, I mean they have to be vetted, period,” Bilderback told Mercer. “Every one of them have got to be vetted, and we’ve got to know… We’re gonna let you off for three days. I mean the liability and the p.r. (public relations) would be horrendous. And I want to be a better person for this. I mean I know it’s a little embarrassing to say the least, but we feel you’re the guy that’s going to bring this department to where we want going to be. But we also feel you’re weak in personnel issues. And you have got to have people with strong moral character in this department, period. I mean, period. And you have got to have a heavier hand when it comes to telling people you can’t participate in this. You’re going to have to cut it. You’re not physically fit. You’re not mentally fit. You have got to be hard with folks… Your position is such that their lives are in your hands. If a person is not able to function, they don’t need to be on the scene. They don’t need to be participating. You’re doing them a favor by getting them out of the department. They’re a liability to themselves and others. I feel like your position is one of, if not the most important, in the county. You know how I feel about the fire department.”
Mercer then answered, “You know everytime I do something now, they’re going to come running to y’all (commissioners). I’m telling y’all.”
Bilderback responded, “They can run to us all they want to, but you’re the guy who makes the decisions.”
According to a criminal background check on Bogulski obtained by the Reporter, Bogulski was convicted of a felony burglary charge in Newton County in 2004 relating to an incident that occurred on Nov. 17, 2003. Bogulski was subsequently sentenced to 10 years probation meaning his probation has expired. Bogulski stated in a letter dated March 17 that he sent to Bilderback that his probation was lessened by a judge and ended in the summer of 2012.
According to Code Section 25-4-8 of the 2010 Georgia Code dealing with fire service, Bogulski would be eligible to be a firefighter because the felony conviction came more than 10 years prior to his applying to become a volunteer in 2014. However, that portion of the law does not appear to specifically cover volunteers.
After Mercer was questioned by commissioners about Bogulski’s status at the March 3 meeting, Bilderback said commissioners asked Mercer to provide them with criminal background checks on all support personnel members by Friday, March 13. Bilderback said Mercer never provided the list and was subsequently disciplined.
“I don’t know if he thought we were joking about the list or what, but we just want him to be more disciplined in the way of personnel,” Bilderback told the Reporter.
Bogulski questioned in his letter to Bilderback why his past transgression could violate the county’s employee morals clause while the county continues to employ other firefighters/EMTs with criminal backgrounds who were already in place prior to Mercer’s hiring. While Bilderback declined to speak on specific employees Bogulski referenced in the letter, the chairman said commissioners could make further changes if more information is brought to light.
Bilderback said the Bogulski issue was not commissioners’ sole reason for Mercer’s suspension but said when citizen Keith Scott alerted commissioners publicly about Bogulski’s status with the department at a March 3 meeting, the board had to take action. He also said Scott’s complaint was not the first commissioners had received about Bogulski, which included a complaint from a “highranking” member of the fire department.
Many Monroe Countians were outraged by commissioners’ decision to suspend Mercer and took their frustrations out on social media. A Facebook page entitled, “We Support Fire Chief Donny Mercer” had 272 likes as of Monday evening. Many local firefighters and citizens said they plan to attend commissioners’ next scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7 to speak out about Mercer’s suspension.
Bilderback said Mercer’s suspension was unfortunate and added that Mercer has been outstanding at most aspects of being fire chief and has elevated the department during his 13-month tenure. He said all county employees are subject to discipline at times and did not think a three-day suspension merited the clamor it has caused in the community
Ambrose said he voted against the suspension because he felt a verbal reprimand would have fit more in line with county policy for a first offense. Ambrose said Mercer didn’t do a criminal background check on Bogulski, but said the county policy never specifies what type of background check should have been done. Ambrose said commissioners should spell out more clearly that they want criminal background checks done on fire department applicants.
Despite repeated attempts, Mercer could not be reached for comment. Bogulski told Reporter editor Will Davis via instant message that he would meet with the Reporter on Friday afternoon, but he never showed up for the interview.