Pinellas Park, a tale of two cities
It's business as usual, except for that international story playing out - the one drawing all the police, upping bills.
By ANNE LINDBERG
Published March 30, 2005
PINELLAS PARK - Firetrucks, a street sweeper, politicians and city employees gathered Saturday morning outside the clubhouse at the Lakes condominiums on the eastern edge of the city.
They were there for a town meeting to give residents a chance to casually meet city officials and chat about local issues.
Absent from this meet and greet was the usual contingent of police cars and officers. They were on the western side of town, keeping guard over Terri Schiavo at the Hospice House Woodside.
The gathering illustrated the two worlds of Pinellas Park government these days: Controversy swirls along 102nd Avenue N. Elsewhere, life goes on, pretty much as usual. Sometimes they collide.
Business was mundane as usual at last week's council meeting.
One big issue was a proposed community of townhomes on property at the Shoppes at Park Place, the former Pinellas ParkSide mall. Another was a noise dispute between residents of the Lakes and a neighboring plumbing supply company.
No one mentioned Terri Schiavo during the four-hour meeting.
That changed during Saturday's town meeting.
While city officials milled about, chatting with the Lakes residents, talk about Schiavo could be overheard among some city employees.
There was a bit of grumbling about media coverage and how, this time, the media got it right: Hospice, Terri and the protesters are all in Pinellas Park.
That's usually the case, went the rumbling. The media get the name of the city right when the news is bad. If the news is good, the media call it Tampa Bay or Pinellas or anything but Pinellas Park.
Once inside, folks partook of cookies, brownies, pastries, coffee. Then the officials took the stage.
Mayor Bill Mischler apologized for the absence of police officers and cars, although Chief Dorene Thomas was present.
"You know, because of the situation, our officers are tied up elsewhere," the mayor said.
There was some subdued laughter.
He added, "It's not the type of publicity we want."
He praised the police for the way they are performing a difficult job. The audience applauded.
"We are challenged right now and our reserves have been diverted elsewhere," said Thomas, referring to the Schiavo situation.
She offered to have officers visit later.
Mischler bragged that Thomas had been on national television.
"She's popular these days," he said.
Mischler said he had been on CNN and radio.
The topic arose again a bit later when one resident complained about speeders along Lake Boulevard and asked for city help in controlling them.
"Right now, with the Terri Schiavo thing, we can't do it," Mischler said.
These days, Schiavo is a backdrop even to everyday city activities.
The most notable daily reminders are likely the e-mails. More than 100 have come in during the past week or so. Many plead for intervention to "save Terri." Some are threatening. Others supportive.
Then there are phone calls. They go to City Hall. The library. The Fire Department. Police dispatch.
Some, especially those to dispatch, claim to report a murder in progress. The address is the hospice where Schiavo lies.
Others are from the media asking for quotes, information and interviews.
For City Manager Mike Gustafson and the police, the involvement began long before Schiavo's feeding tube was removed. It started when activists contacted the city and told officials they wanted to talk about protocols for arrests.
The general idea, they said, was to call attention to Schiavo's plight but not be harmed during an arrest.
Gustafson said officials told them how to behave - don't resist, obey officers - and the response was, "We'll tell you when we want to be arrested."
Gustafson said he does not doubt their sincerity, but "it's staged very well."
Police spokesman Sanfield Forseth agreed that all but a handful of arrests have been "well choreographed."
So well, in fact, that one man in a wheelchair indicated that he would likely cross the line. So officers got a wheelchair-accessible van ready. But when it came time, the man decided he would leave the hospice property when ordered, Forseth said.
Despite the apparent peacefulness, Gustafson said he is briefed daily, even while on vacation.
Like Thomas, he said the heavy police presence at Hospice House has not deprived the city of coverage elsewhere.
"We plan for all of it," Gustafson said.
What is beginning to hurt, however, is the expense. With the hospice paying only for four officers, the city is bearing the brunt of the cost for the heavy police coverage and overtime.
"I think it's going to affect our budget," Gustafson said.
He declined to say how many officers are on duty, and he said Monday that the city had not yet figured the cost.
There may be some good news for officers, city spokesman Tim Caddell said. The Police Department has often requested a command van for SWAT and other callouts. In the past, the department has been turned down because no one else saw a need.
Now there is a need. The city is using a transport van from the Pinellas County sheriff and a command vehicle from the Pinellas County school system.
It is not only for this kind of situation, Caddell said. In the past couple of years, the city's SWAT team has had a couple of long callouts.
[Last modified March 30, 2005, 01:22:23]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]