Fred Crosby had no plans to step down as Horry County Fire Rescue chief as recently as a day before he turned in his retirement notice, according to emails obtained by The Sun News.
Even when he sent that notice on May 12, Crosby asked County Administrator Chris Eldridge if he could leave in December. Then he requested July 1. His last day was May 29.
Why Crosby wasn’t allowed to stay longer remains unclear. Through a spokeswoman, Eldridge declined to comment. Crosby could not be reached.
Lisa Bourcier, the county’s public information officer, said the emails were released in compliance with the state’s open records law, but she wouldn’t elaborate on their contents because Horry officials typically don’t discuss personnel matters.
The strained relationship between the administrator and the fire chief was no secret.
In December, Eldridge suspended Crosby for a week without pay for inefficient management and fostering discord among his supervisors and coworkers, according to a county disciplinary report.
But in recent emails, Crosby seemed unaware that his time in the $105,000-per-year post was coming to an end. In a May 11 blast to his staff, Crosby tried to quell rumors that he would quit or be fired.
“I am not quitting and I asked my supervisor this morning if there is intent to terminate me and he assured me there is not,” Crosby wrote. “We have work to do getting ready to meet our busiest time of year and we don’t need to be distracted by rumors.”
The following day, Eldridge criticized Crosby for the message.
“This is not appropriate to be sending out to your department,” Eldridge wrote in an email. “Personnel issues should not be a part of department-wide communications. Catching me before a Public Safety Meeting to talk about your performance isn’t the way to do it, either. If you want to sit down and talk about your performance, schedule a meeting time with me. And, no, don’t send out any portion of this in another email to your employees.”
Within an hour Crosby replied, saying he normally wouldn’t discuss his employment status with staff, but the rumor had originated from a deputy chief’s report and firefighters were taking that document seriously. He felt he needed to address the matter.
“There is no way I could maintain credibility if they assume I am either quitting or being terminated,” Crosby wrote.
Later that day, May 12, Crosby sent another email to Eldridge telling him he intended to retire on Dec. 1.
“It is becoming increasingly clear to me that I am not a good fit for your administration and I wish to end my fire service career amicably and with dignity,” Crosby wrote. The former chief noted that he wanted to stay until December to help the department navigate the busy summer season, finish some projects and ease the transition to new leadership.
In response, Eldridge told Crosby they would take the matter up after Memorial Day weekend.
On May 27, Crosby sent Eldridge an email saying he wanted to retire July 1. Within hours, county officials confirmed Crosby’s retirement would be effective in two days.
Crosby spent 34 years as a firefighter in Hanover County, Va., before coming to Horry County in November 2012. He began reporting directly to Eldridge in September when Paul Whitten, assistant administrator for public safety, resigned.
An examination of Crosby’s only performance review, which was in July 2013 and issued by Whitten, called Crosby an “extraordinary leader” whose “strongest trait is his ability to effectively communicate.”
But the former chief’s casual communication with firefighters proved too much for Eldridge, who highlighted blogs, emails and other “rumor control” messages to staff in the disciplinary report for Crosby’s earlier suspension.
The report accused Crosby of “failing to properly follow your chain of command to the Administrator with regard to various issues, engaging in unauthorized communications to staff concerning ‘brown outs’ and propay and initiating direct communications with County Council without consulting or informing Administrator.”
A brown out is a situation where a fire chief temporarily closes a station because there aren’t enough staff to man it.
Along with those challenges, the department has been sued multiple times by current or former firefighters under Crosby’s short watch. The chief, himself, has been sued three times, most recently in federal court.
That case was filed by Horry County Professional Firefighters association President Ben Hughes, a former lieutenant whose eight-year tenure at the agency ended in November when Crosby accused him of falsifying documents, according to the lawsuit. Hughes contends the offense that led to his departure happened six months earlier when he was 10 minutes late for a shift and didn’t report it on his timecard. The tardiness was also two months before Hughes was promoted.
In the lawsuit, Hughes noted that just before Crosby told him to resign or be fired, the chief learned Hughes had been looking into why the county wasn’t compensating employees for the training hours they were working.
Bourcier said she couldn’t discuss Hughes’ case because the county doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Hughes isn’t the only veteran firefighter to leave the department in recent months.
In 2015 alone, the county has seen the departure of more than 20 fire service employees, including three lieutenants and a captain, according to records of terminations, resignations and retirement.
On the day the chief’s leaving became public, Crosby told The Sun News that he and Eldridge had agreed to wait until after the Atlantic Beach Bikefest to announce his retirement. He said they wanted to ensure the agency’s leadership remained consistent through the busy event.
Crosby spoke fondly of the county’s firefighters and talked about his plans to stay in the area and pursue a real estate license. But he never said why he was leaving or the reasons for the abruptness of his departure.
“It was just time,” he said then. “I’m leaving on good terms. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the county or anything.”
Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.