Police chief says he cannot just shut down the department


OKEECHOBEE — During its Jan. 19 meeting, the Okeechobee City Council discussed its COVID-19 administrative leave policy, (a policy allowing for up to an additional 10-days sick leave if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19). City Police Chief Bob Peterson suggested allowing each department to handle it in the way they see fit. “Our department cannot shut down even if every single person gets COVID,” he said. “If dispatch gets COVID, they will be working in gas masks. They have to go on. The problem with this policy is it sounds nice, but if you look at it, it says ‘You WILL send them home for seven days.’ It’s nice and tight and rules are great, but what happens in my department? I can’t shut the doors. If everybody in the PD gets COVID, they still gotta come to work. I can’t just shut the door, but according to this, I’ve got to shut the door.”

The PD has had nine people test positive for COVID, and it did not affect operations at all. “We handled it. We dealt with it. The major did an amazing job. They went home for 10 days or seven days, then they came back to work.”

He reminded the council that last time this issue came up, they gave department heads the authority to make decisions authorizing up to 80 hours of sick leave.

City Clerk Lane Gamiotea said the new policy would not really be changing anything but would just clarify some of the questions department heads have been asking. Department heads would still have authority to make decisions.

Peterson said the policy clearly says employees who test positive would have to stay home for seven days. “He has to stay home for seven days?”

“That’s straight from the current CDC guidelines and our health department,” said Gamiotea.

“GUIDELINES! Who cares what they do in Washington DC? Who cares what they do in other places. We care about what we do here,” said Peterson.

“These are things we have already been doing,” said Gamiotea.

“I haven’t!” said Peterson. “I’m not joking when I say if we get a run of cases over there, people will be coming to work COVID positive with masks, because what are you gonna do, let people just get murdered out there?”

Peterson would like a clause written into the policy exempting the police department from the portion of the policy stating anyone testing positive will be sent home for seven days. He said he has not had to have any positive personnel at work so far, but if necessary, he WILL do it.

“We have had nine positive — two or three at a time. As long as it stays two or three at a time, we can manage it. OCFR had 14 once. A whole shift was out. If that happens to us, that’s a horse of a different color.”

At this time, his department has been following CDC guidelines “for the most part,” he said.
City attorney John Fumero suggested adding a sentence allowing for case by case determination by department heads in consultation with either the personnel director or the city administrator. This way if a situation arises which deviates from the norm, they can address it.

Peterson said, “We have disagreements now. I don’t know how well the consultations are going to go either. You either trust us to do our job, or you don’t.” He went on to say they have dealt with nine cases with zero problems and he sees no reason to change things now.
City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca said they have had issues with some of the other departments, and they are just trying to answer all the questions. They have no complaints about the way Peterson’s department has handled things.

After some discussion, the council voted to extend the policy they have on the books now which gives all employees 10 paid calendar days off if they test positive and requires proof of a positive COVID test result rather than instituting a new policy.