The Operations Center shortly after construction. (File photo)

Sheriff asks county to leave evacuated Operations Center building alone for 'preservation of evidence' until employees can have a separate expert test it

More than 30 employees have filed worker's compensation claims related to the Sheriff's Operations Center building, which has been evacuated.
By: 
Jul. 16, 2018

Flagler County Sheriff's Office employees plan to have their own expert conduct testing on the evacuated Sheriff's Operations Center building before they move back into it — and until that's done, their attorneys largely want it left alone so that "evidence" can be preserved.

More than 30 employees have filed workers compensation claims pertaining to the building, saying they believe it is making them sick. Recent testing by a firm hired by the county, which owns the building, declared it safe.

In a July 14 email to Flagler County commissioners and staff, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly attached a letter from the Sheriff’s Office General Counsel and worker's compensation carrier attorney.

The attorneys were seeking "preservation of evidence" in the building pending testing done by someone hired by the Sheriff's Office's employees, who want a second opinion on the building before they'll move back into it.

The county administration had the building tested by Engineering Systems Inc.'s Zdenek Hejzlar, who recommended only minor changes, prompting County Administrator Craig Coffey to ask his own staff to prep the building for move-in as soon as possible after July 25.

That "caused panic among my employees," the sheriff wrote.

Coffey later clarified that he had intended for the building to be ready as soon as possible after July 25, not that he was requiring employees to return at that time.

"Also, based on Administrator Coffey’s email it is my understanding a deep cleaning and modifications to the HVAC are being planned for next week," the sheriff wrote. "This would appear to violate the previous and most current preservation request and could be considered spoliation of evidence and further complicate this situation and open us to further litigation, which can and should be avoided."

The worker's compensation attorney, he continued, has asked the employees' attorney for a timeline on when the employees can have the testing done.

"In the meantime, I ask that you direct that no modifications or cleaning of the building occur and direct your staff to comply with the attached and the prior preservation request," Staly continued. "In my opinion saving samples is not sufficient. Current samples may only be good for analyzing tests and results that were done, not for taking additional tests in the current building conditions they may want or their own sampling for study," the sheriff wrote. 

Hejzlar had made "split" samples of all of his collections so that they could be tested by others, according to the county's public information officer.

Coffey replied July 15, writing:

"When individuals are not in a building the operational settings of the HVAC are required to be different than that of an occupied building. To reoccupy the building even partially will also require some HVAC operational adjustments. Additionally, we have some suggestions from Dr. Zed to work with our mechanical engineer of record to better control humidity. The adjustments I was referring to were operational adjustments working with our mechanical engineer to implement the suggestions and to operate the building through these transitions. In Florida, proper climate control is required at all times, even in a vacant building or it can develop problems.

"Secondly, there was no mention of cleaning the HVAC system as we have not detected any issues that would warrant such a taxpayer expense. The mention of cleaning was simply a general cleaning ahead of any re-occupancy.  Whenever you vacate a building and move you inevitably create some dust. Additionally, the lack of occupancy minimizes the disturbance of dust, causing it to collect. Regular cleaning is necessary even with a vacant building. We will coordinate next to determine if this is being done.

"Although I have not seen a second attorney's letter about testing etc. I will refer any protocols for the the testing of our facility and any limitations on our normal maintenance activities to the County Attorney and our outside legal counsel for direction and response to the same."