An investigation into an accident last week involving a city-owned SUV resulted in a documented verbal counseling for Mobile Fire-Rescue Interim Chief Randy Smith.
“More attention to surroundings would have made this event avoidable,” read an accident review committee report released Friday.
The one-vehicle accident on June 16 resulted in controversy after Councilman Fred Richardson sent an email to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office asking for more information on the incident.
Smith, who was driving a 2009 Ford Expedition issued to the department, turned south on Washington Avenue and was attempting to avoid a “sinkhole” when he brushed against a power pole, according to the report. Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said Smith “made a right hand turn a little too tight” and “brushed” a utility pole.
“This is a non-issue,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a minor accident.”
The accident did result in about $1,900 worth of damage to the passenger-side rear quarter panel of the vehicle, according to the report.
Cooper blamed the leak of Richardson’s email for making the issue newsworthy. He said within 45 minutes of the accident, Smith had followed city policy and procedure by filing an accident report and submitting to a drug and alcohol screening.
“As far as we’re concerned, he complied with all policies and procedures,” Cooper said.
Smith had his saliva tested for alcohol. The test came back negative, according to the committee’s report.
In the message, Richardson requested “the official police and fire investigators’ report” of the accident, as well as a “copy of the drug test associated” with the accident. Richardson also wanted to know “the apparent overall physical condition of (Smith) at the time.”
In a phone interview June 18, Richardson said he was “concerned” about the accident, but would wait to comment on the situation until he had more information.
In a statement issued the same day, Cooper acknowledged the administration had received the email from Richardson, but said the inquiry was sent to the media “before the mayor or I could read or respond to it.”
In the statement, Cooper warned council members not to “cross the line of interfering with the day-to-day operations” of the city.
“The City Council has the right to inquiry, but when inquiries are sent to the media with insinuations and implications about the good name and character of city employees, it crosses the line,” he wrote.
In all, the city has dealt with 98 accidents involving city-owned vehicles in 2014, spokesman George Talbot wrote in an email message, a rate of nearly four per week. The majority of those, some 64 accidents, involved police vehicles. There have been 14 accidents involving MFRD vehicles, Talbot said.
“We have heard from Councilman Richardson on two of those 98 total incidents,” he wrote. “Those two include the one this week involving Chief Smith, and one earlier this year involving a MFRD ladder truck.”
The latter incident involved a truck that apparently struck a low-hanging branch.
Almost all departments use city-owned vehicles and department heads decide who drives the vehicles, Talbot said. Talbot added that the administration is not aware of any other councilors requesting information on vehicle incidents.
Richardson said he hasn’t had to request information for previous accidents, adding that information from previous accidents was readily provided via email.
“I’m always concerned about accidents involving city vehicles,” he said.
Richardson added that he was concerned as to whether a police report was filed at the time of the accident.
“As far as I know, a police report wasn’t filed,” he said.
Talbot said filing a police report is not part of city policy regarding accidents involving city-owned vehicles. A policy from 2004 states that 911 and an ambulance must be called if there are injuries involved, but doesn’t specify if a report is necessary otherwise.
Richardson said as of Friday afternoon, he hadn’t received a reply directly from the mayor’s office.
Smith hasn’t come before the council for confirmation as permanent fire chief since being nominated by Stimpson last year. There has been speculation that Richardson wouldn’t vote in favor of Smith, but Richardson said that was based on assumptions.
“There will be no discussion on him until he’s put on the agenda,” he said.
Richardson said he wouldn’t comment on a 2006 lawsuit Smith filed claiming the city discriminated against white employees within the MFRD at the urging of former Mayor Sam Jones and former Fire Chief Stephen Dean. Richardson was subpoenaed to testify as part of the lawsuit before it was settled.
As a result of the settlement, Smith was awarded the position of deputy chief and $80,000 in damages. The money went partly to pay attorneys fees.
“He has the right to file a lawsuit,” Richardson said.