Jeffrey Kerner (Courtesy of Fort Myers News-Press)
The head of the Coast Guard station on Fort Myers Beach was forced to step down last month, accused of unsatisfactory conduct and performance.
Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Kerner, 49, of Cape Coral, was temporarily relieved of command May 23, according to district spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo.
The Coast Guard district commander, who oversees Fort Myers Beach, found officers under Kerner were disrespectful when counseling their subordinates. Kerner was faulted for failure to supervise his officers during the counseling.
Kerner also failed to enforce administrative procedure when a subordinate violated the Coast Guard’s alcohol abuse policies, Fajardo said.
The Coast Guard is reviewing the case to determine if Kerner will be permanently relieved of his duties, Fajardo said.
Kerner has filed a rebuttal and hopes to restore the district’s confidence in his ability to command. He said he had nothing to do with the lack of respect shown Coast Guard members, and found out about it only after the investigation began. But Kerner admitted it is his duty to accept responsibility.
“One thing in the military that is essential to keep in mind,” he said, “as the commanding officer I am inescapably responsible for everything that takes place whether I know about it or not.”
The Coast Guard has a serious commitment to treating members with respect, Kerner said, adding the recently uncovered claims are not symptomatic of larger problems in the Fort Myers Beach station.
Kerner could not provide specifics on how his subordinates were treated disrespectfully.
“I can say,” he said, “what I’ve been told is it definitely lends itself to the less serious side. It’s nothing like anybody was being hit or anything like that.”
As a result of this investigation, the Coast Guard demoted four Fort Myers Beach officers for their roles in disrespecting their subordinates, Fajardo said.
Kerner also takes responsibility for his improper handling of a subordinate’s violation of alcohol policy. He said he did not initially receive all the information regarding that incident, and he failed to later follow-up and uncover the truth.
“It was done with the best of intentions,” Kerner said, “but in hindsight, learning what I did during the course of the investigation, I made a wrong choice.”
The alcohol violation occurred outside of work, Kerner said, but he declined to elaborate further. The Coast Guard member guilty of the violation was demoted.
Kerner has been temporarily replaced by Chief Warrant Officer Gene Gibson, who ran the Fort Myers Beach station until he transferred to Miami in 2010. Next month Chief Sworn Officer Robert Garris, from Seattle, Wash., will take over.
Gibson said the investigation did not affect morale or productivity at the Fort Myers Beach station. He declined to comment on the claims against Kerner.
“The station was fully operational when I took over,” Gibson said. “The men and women are here ready to serve the boating public.”
Like other Coast Guard stations, the Fort Myers Beach station’s responsibilities include search and rescue missions, marine safety, immigration enforcement and marine environment protection.
Kerner said he reached his maximum 30 years of service and was scheduled to retire in July. Even if the Coast Guard instead removes him, he will retain a monthly pension of 75 percent of his base pay. That’s not enough to retire on, so Kerner will look for civilian work — though he’s not sure where.
“Despite these proceedings,” Fajardo said, “Chief Warrant Officer Kerner has had an otherwise distinguished and laudable near 30-year career.”
The Fort Myers Beach investigation comes about two years after Coast Guard crew members of a St. Petersburg-based ship were disciplined for hazing. Penalties ranged from criminal charges of abusive sexual contact and assault, to demotion, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website. The hazing took place from 2007-09.