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Choice for city manager survives second scrutiny

Safety Harbor commissioners vote 4-1 to stay with the man they picked before learning that he is named in a discrimination suit.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published September 30, 2006


SAFETY HARBOR - The City Commission voted Friday to proceed with the hiring of Billy Beckett as the new city manager.

The commission had hired Beckett, 57, last week. But a special meeting was called after commissioners learned that Beckett this month was named as a defendant in a federal discrimination lawsuit by a black former police officer in Riverdale, Ga., where Beckett was city manager from 2001-04.

The vote Friday was 4-1, with Vice Mayor Kara Bauer casting the lone no vote.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleges - among other things - that Riverdale police officials tolerated the use of racial epithets and punished black officers more harshly than whites.

"The allegations don't seem to be about him. I would not support withdrawing our offer based on what I see here," said Safety Harbor commissioner James McCormick Jr.

"I feel that Mr. Beckett told me and told others the one thing he learned from the past was that he waited too long" to resolve racial tensions within the police department in Riverdale, said commissioner Kathleen Earle. "I see nothing here that proves any malicious intent by Mr. Beckett."

The special meeting at City Hall drew about 75 people. About a dozen addressed the council, most in favor of proceeding with Beckett's hire.

"I don't believe in convicting a man with no proof," said resident Mary Lynda Williams.

"A new broom sweeps clean, and I think we need someone with his experience," she added.

Matthew Davis, 75, who has lived in Safety Harbor since 1961, said "he may be well qualified, but he has a big elephant that he carries."

Davis, who is black, said he feels that the issue of racism is going to raise its ugly head.

Though he voted to proceed with the hiring, interim Mayor Andy Steingold did express "a little trepidation" about Beckett.

"He hasn't even started work here yet, and we're having this discussion. To me, this is disturbing," Steingold said. "Are we inviting trouble by proceeding down this path?"

Also in attendance Friday were the city attorney and outgoing City Manager Wayne Logan, who is scheduled to leave office in mid November.

Beckett is scheduled to start Oct. 23. He will make $120,000 a year.

After hiring Beckett last week, Safety Harbor commissioners learned of the lawsuit on Monday.

In the suit, Carl H. Freeman claims he was unfairly fired in 2001 - the year Beckett started his job in Riverdale - after he was accused of beating an 8-year-old girl while working as a school resource officer.

The city's Personnel Board later reversed the termination and he was given a job as a sergeant in the janitorial and supplies department.

Freeman's lawsuit goes on to say that Beckett didn't give him a fair appeal hearing after he was fired again in 2003, for urinating in a fish pond at a private theme park, according to a story that ran in the Atlanta media.

Earlier this week, Beckett told the Times that he has "never ever discriminated against Carl Freeman, nor have I discriminated against anyone for any reason."

In a memo to commissioners, he said that "the charges are baseless and without merit, and I am very optimistic that the suit will be dismissed."

Beckett was not at the special meeting on Friday. He told the Times that he "wasn't invited" and also that he had another commitment that day.

Outgoing City Manager Logan said Beckett, like any other citizen, could have attended if he wanted to, and that the city's personnel department called Beckett as a courtesy just after the meeting was scheduled. But Beckett told them he could not attend and that he had a previous engagement.

Beckett's contract with the city has not yet been executed.

Beckett left Riverdale in 2004 after clashing with the city's new mayor.

The hiring of Beckett comes as Safety Harbor employees are currently involved in an election to decide whether to join the Communications Workers of America union. The effort was sparked by allegations of racial prejudice in the city's Public Works Department.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or 727 445-4153.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 22:44:53]


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