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Mayor rebuffs offerof county policing

KENNETH CITY Voters in 2000 turned down a similar county takeover proposal by 68 percent.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


Mayor Muriel Whitman has accused the sheriff of trying to lure town police officers away as part of an effort to take over the Kenneth City Police Department.

Whitman made her accusations in a harshly worded letter written Aug. 28 during the height of "critical" contract negotiations with the police union over pay and other issues. Kenneth City officers are some of the lowest paid in Pinellas County and the bargaining team wanted a hefty raise.

Whitman said Friday that Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats called her at home to talk about the advantages of dissolving the Police Department and having him take over.

"I just didn't appreciate being called at home and told our men were unhappy," Whitman said. "I went to the attorney and he wrote it and I signed it."

Whitman said she wanted Coats to know "the men are happy here and we're happy with them, so butt out."

The mayor said she had feared Coats' actions would derail negotiations, which were successfully concluded. The officers will receive a 3 percent raise, much less than the 13 percent they wanted. The lower raise, necessitated by a budget crunch when property taxes were cut back, prevented police layoffs. The Police Department accounts for 50.7 percent of Kenneth City's $2.26-million operating budget.

Although the Police Department is safe for now, the future is not clear. If voters pass tax reforms in January, the town would take a major hit and Whitman agreed the council would face some difficult decisions. That uncertainty caused the council to hold off on hiring a new police chief until next year.

Even if the worst happens, it is not certain the council would choose the sheriff to oversee Kenneth City's police needs.

"There's others out there besides the sheriff," Whitman said.

Whitman's tussle with Coats came as town officials locked horns with the police union over pay. Coats said he was approached by a representative from the Fraternal Order of Police.

"They indicated that a majority of the officers had an interest in dissolving their Police Department and coming with the Pinellas County sheriff," said Coats. "I felt I had a duty to reach out to the mayor and see if she wanted to consider a proposal ... (to) make her aware of what we had to offer," especially in light of the tough economic times.

"I said, 'Don't quote me this price, but I could probably save you close to a million dollars,'" Coats explained.

Coats said taking over the department would not be so difficult. The sheriff already handles many of the more serious cases.

A few days later, Coats said he got Whitman's letter.

Whitman accused Coats of trying to lure Kenneth City officers by promising higher pay.

"Any efforts on your part ... to undermine our Police Department by attempting to hire its members are totally unconscionable and clearly an attempt to interfere with an important function of our city government, and our current contract negotiations," the letter said. "Please be assured that our town will not be intimidated into a contract with your office.

Coats denied the charge that he was trying to undermine the department. Coats said he was only trying to give Whitman information and an option.

Kenneth City officials have in the past considered allowing the sheriff to take over policing duties for the town. The issue went before voters in 2000. About 42 percent of the town's voters turned out. An overwhelming 68 percent voted to keep the department.

[Last modified September 30, 2007, 01:00:17]

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