Florida County Officials Vote To Keep Current Medical Director and Assistant

Collier County commissioners retain Dr. Robert Tober and deputy director


AISLING SWIFT, Naples Daily News | | Wednesday, June 26, 2013

COLLIER COUNTY - After considering the ranking by the Public Safety Authority, Collier County commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to keep the current county medical director and his assistant - opting not to accept the PSA's top choices.

Although it was Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller who wanted to solicit interest for the positions, Commissioner Donna Fiala cast the dissenting vote against renewing the contracts for medical director Dr. Robert Tober and his deputy, Dr. Douglas Lee.

She cited the dissension between Tober, county emergency services and fire district personnel.

"How do I say it nicely?" Fiala asked. "He's been derogatory."

If he hasn't worked well with them before, she asked commissioners, how could he now?

"I think we need a new face on this system because we've designed an entirely new department," she said.

Fiala wanted the top choices ranked by 13 members of the 17-member PSA: Dr. James Augustine, the medical director for North Naples Fire Department, and Dr. Jeffrey Panozzo, medical director for NCH North Naples Hospital's emergency department who also is North Naples Fire and Rescue's medical director.

But most were shocked at Hiller's vote because it was she who asked that the county solicit proposals.

Much of the controversy stemmed from Tober's post as medical director of the Wound Healing Center at NCH and his nearly two decades as chairman of emergency medicine at NCH Healthcare System. Hiller had said she wanted someone who is either affiliated with all - or none - of the local hospitals, a director free from conflict.

Tober's tenure also has been controversial. He'd accused firefighters of cheating on his paramedic exams in 2009 and 2010 and also was against consolidation, an ongoing contentious debate between EMS and fire departments.

Hiller explained that commissioners needed to see who else was out there, whether there were better candidates. She also cited her opposition to "evergreen contracts," agreements repeatedly renewed without being put out for bid.

"It's an absolute policy decision," she said afterward. "It is public policy that we do not accept evergreen contracts."

Her affirmative vote, however, allows her to bring the matter up for reconsideration at a future meeting.

Commissioner Fred Coyle supported Tober, telling commissioners he preferred a medical director affiliated with a local hospital and someone who is uncompromising with those under him.

"If that means conflict with the fire districts, that's what it means," he said. "I have seen enough of the conflict here to know that subrogating emergency services to a fire district is the worst thing that could ever be done."

Commissioner Tim Nance opposed a five-year contract and suggested renewal after a year. He called Tober's affiliation problematic, the system "dysfunctional, absolutely ridiculous and shameful" - branding the controversy "political."

But Commissioner Tom Henning said he understood what Hiller wanted to accomplish.

"Now I know we did the right thing," he said, adding that there are other contracts that have not been put out to bid.

Their vote came after 11 doctors, nurses, PSA members and others spoke about Tober and Lee, with five opposing the two.

Tober wasn't at the meeting, but said he was tired of the controversy. "I'm pleased," he said, declining further comment.

His contract was up for renewal in September. He's been director for 34 years, during which Collier received numerous awards for emergency services. He earns $105,000 yearly and pays Lee $36,000 out of that.

County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow will now draft two contracts, negotiate with the two, and the board will finalize the hirings with a vote at its next meeting.

Hiller asked that the two contracts be structured so the deputy reports to the director and Tober answers to commissioners, a move that would bar him from firing anyone without commission approval.

In other business, commissioners unanimously voted to send a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, urging them to "carefully and judiciously review" citizens' concerns about permitting for oil exploration and extraction, including safety, emergency response and environmental monitoring - if permits are issued - and to coordinate and communicate with the county about that approval.

The letter asks the agencies to take into account that the location of a proposed oil production well is within 1,000 feet of homes in Golden Gate Estates and that their water comes from on-site wells that typically draw from the aquifer system.

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