NAPLES, Fla. — Part of being a firefighter is helping give back to the community. The Greater Naples Fire District participates in multiple events annually, includes the toy drive, sneaker drive and other charitable events. Currently, the money to support those efforts, is tied up.
In 2017, the Greater Naples Fire Foundation was created, with the goal of performing public functions that had been carried out by the Greater Naples Fire District. Documents show this newly formed foundation was seeded by almost $40 thousand tax payer dollars, transferred from the Greater Naples Fire District. Three employees at GNFD also became the only three directors of this new organization. They include former Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt, and command staff members, Tara Bishop and Wayne Martin.
All three are no longer with the Greater Naples Fire District, but they are technically still in control of the foundation, according to attorney, Anthony Conticello. Conticello is the attorney for the local firefighters union 2396, which is now suing those former employees.
Conticello says, "Government is to serve the people. One of the key functions people have in order to ascertain whether or not they're actually doing that, are the Sunshine laws. We call them public records and open meetings.">
Union members say they became suspicious and started requesting documents. The foundation contends it's a private entity and therefore, not subject to the state's Sunshine laws.
However, its address is the same as that of the Greater Naples Fire District. Emails, obtained by FOX 4, also show business conducted for the foundation, was often done by district personnel during work hours.
Conticello says, "I can confirm with you in our depositions, that all three of these individuals were asked that question and unequivocally, stated that none of their meetings were done pursuant to Sunshine laws chapter 286. And they're often done, running down the hallways, using the fire district email server and such and telephones." He adds, "What we'd really like to do, is work cooperatively with the Fire District. if somehow, they would step in and help out, we believe they would come to the same conclusion as us, that this is really an organization that's public; meet all the factors that any court would apply in a situation and consider it a public entity. And if they did that, they might be able to either appoint a receiver to take over operations or, even hold an election so that there could be new board members that take over."
Until then... roughly $60 thousand dollars remain locked up in the foundation's account. Union members claim, the inability to access funds is affecting the Fire District's ability to put on more charitable events.
The toy drive for the 2021 holiday season will proceed, since the Fire District is partnering with the Salvation Army.
A hearing for a Writ of Mandamus is scheduled for November. That will ask the court to issue an order to require a governmental entity to produce all requested records.
The Greater Naples Fire district is not making any official comment on the case at this time.