[PHOTO CREDIT: Facebook /Mount Dora Police Department]
[Original Publish Date: 07/28/20]
MOUNT DORA, Florida — The retirement of Mount Dora Police Chief Robert Bell was announced Tuesday.
Back on July 1, Bell informed City Manager Robin Hayes in a brief letter that “After having lengthy conversations with my family members, my close confidants and a lot of prayer, I have decided to provide you with my intent to retire.” His retirement is effective Aug. 7. The letter was provided to LLN by the City of Mount Dora on Tuesday, pursuant to a public records request.
In a follow-up formal letter to Hayes, also dated July 1, Bell — who spent 27 years at MDPD — said the support he received from Hayes and the city council was “exceptional,” and thanked Hayes for her leadership, guidance and friendship. Bell stated he was proud of his service and the many positive accomplishments of MDPD.
He stated, “…I am especially proud of the work we have done in the Northeast community and with the downtown business district.”
Several sources told LLN Bell was asked to stay out of the office prior to his formal retirement date of Aug.7, but City of Mount Dora Public Information Officer Lisa McDonald told LLN Tuesday in an email that Bell is still in the office.
Hayes first released a statement Tuesday, nearly one month later, regarding Bell’s retirement, and announced MDPD’s new acting chief. She thanked Bell for his service and “genuine love” for Mount Dora and wished him the best in his retirement.
The new acting chief is Brett Meade; his most recent law enforcement job was at the University of Central Florida Police Department, where he retired as deputy chief in 2018. Before that, he was employed at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years, according to the press release. Meade has a doctorate in education in Organizational Leadership, a master’s degree in Public Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration.
“Acting Chief Meade will begin work immediately on an entire review of the Police Department. Over the past month, issues of concern, including questions about both personnel and policies, have been raised by members of the Mount Dora Police Department. Chief Meade’s previous experience in this type of review, played a significant role in the decision to name him as acting chief,” the press release states.
The review is scheduled to begin this week.
On Sunday, LLN reported on a federal lawsuit filed in March by former MDPD Cpl. Jessica Howell-Gonzalez alleging violations of Florida’s Whistleblower Act, Family Medical Leave Act and the First Amendment. It is unclear if the allegations raised in the lawsuit are some of the “issues of concern” in the police department. The suit alleges Howell-Gonzalez complained of a fellow officer, Ivy Severance, using city time for her personal errands and it being a chronic issue. Howell-Gonzalez complained to a MDPD sergeant, “who always advised her he was told to leave Ofc. Severance alone at the instruction of then-Deputy Chief Robert Bell, who later became the MDPD police chief,” the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, Howell-Gonzalez met with Bell who was then the acting chief and raised the issues regarding Severance using city time to “perform personal errands and incurring overtime for which she was not entitled.” “In response, Bell became aggressive and moved close to Howell[-Gonzalez] and told her that Severance spends more time at MDPD than anyone, and that he [Bell] takes his daughter to school while at work and asked Howell if she was also accusing him of stealing time,” the complaint states. Howell-Gonzalez’ legal position is that she was “constructively discharged” in October 2019.
The retirement of Bell is just the latest change in a department that has had its third chief in little more than a year; and just last week Deputy Chief Michael Fewless was fired. One of the attorneys representing Fewless, Ryan Andrews of Andrews Law inTallahassee, told LLN last week Fewless was fired for speaking with LLN on July 17 about creating an open and transparent relationship with the media. Fewless termination was just two business days after the meeting.
On Tuesday, LLN confirmed Fewless was fired for speaking with the media. A letter from Human Resources Director Sharon Kraynik to Fewless states:
“Your employment with the City of Mount Dora will end effective today, July 21, 2020. You are dismissed from the City for the following reasons: Violation of Policy 3.09 (c): Public Relations: No employee shall publish a news release or represent the position of the City to the news media unless authorized to do so by the Mayor or the Mayor’s designee. You are relieved of your duties at the City of Mount Dora.”
LLN has a meeting with city officials scheduled for Wednesday morning.
In 2019, the city fired former Chief of Police John O’Grady. At a Mount Dora Heroes Foundation event, O’Grady allegedly made a racist comment to Severance that sparked an investigation, resulting in his firing.
In a press conference in July 2019, City Attorney Sherry Sutphen announced O’Grady’s firing and said there was “overwhelming evidence of a department fraught with distrust and a loss of respect for O’Grady’s leadership.”
The city later came to a settlement agreement with O’Grady and paid him just over $64,000.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Marilyn M. Aciego, began writing for Lake Legal News in 2010. Born and raised in Lake County, she is a graduate of Umatilla High School and Lake-Sumter State College. She started her journalism career at LSSC, where she was editor of both student publications, The Angler and The Odyssey. Her professional career began at the Daily Commercial in 2004 where she covered cops and courts the majority of her time there until she left in 2009. Currently, along with being Editor-in-Chief of Lake Legal News, she is the Florida bureau chief for an international media organization. She has made more than two dozen appearances on live national television, including Nancy Grace and the Greta Van Susteren show, along with her appearance on Evil Twins. Contact her with breaking news, tips, and feedback by sending an e-mail to 352Tips@gmail.com. You can also contact us on our Facebook page — and make sure you “Like” and “Follow us” there. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]