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Memo spells out new policies to fight drugs

The policy comes after an investigation in the Public Works Department was concluded.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- The city of New Port Richey is giving all city employees a refresher course on their counseling benefits, and putting all department supervisors through training on how to detect and react to substance abuse.

The city's Public Works Department will go first.

The move, in addition to a revision of the city's drug-free workplace policy that is in progress, comes in response to a recently completed criminal investigation into the Public Works Department relating to alleged drug use, and a continuing administrative investigation. City Manager Gerald Seeber outlined the measures in a memo to City Council members that was dated Tuesday.

All Public Works employees will participate in sessions that will remind them about the city's Employee Assistance Program, a benefit that allows them to confidentially obtain information or counseling for personal problems, including alcohol or drug abuse. Public Works employees will attend these sessions over the next two weeks. They are provided by Behavioral Health Management Inc., an affiliate of Morton Plant Mease.

Seeber says he wants to revise the drug-free workplace policy so that it redefines what kinds of circumstances under which the city can order drug tests, and protects the city and the rights of employees.

The current policy states that there must be "reasonable suspicion" to indicate that an employee's ability to perform work safely or effectively may be impaired before employees are required to take drug tests. Direct observation of drug use, or of physical symptoms or manifestations of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol use, is cause for drug or alcohol tests.

That "isn't satisfactory from my perspective," Seeber said Thursday. "We need a policy that gives the city a freer hand than it does right now." He is working with the city's labor counsel to revise the policy.

The New Port Richey police and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office took drug-sniffing dogs to the Public Works complex on Pine Hill Road on Jan. 10 in response to calls from citizens who said that they had seen Public Works employees using drugs at the city's water-pumping stations. Seeber says that they did not have the necessary grounds to do the drug test at that point.

"We didn't see people who were under the influence . . . or an accident where someone was injured," Seeber said. "That's where we need to focus our attention in the rewrite of the rule.

"In a perfect world, everyone would have been tested Jan. 10," Seeber said.

During the investigation, dogs found the scent of marijuana in the work area of three of the top department officials and on six other city-owned vehicles used by 11 department employees. Traces of the drug were found on two of those vehicles. During the investigation, police learned that Pinellas County had an arrest warrant for water lineman James Smoak. Police also found that Leonard Reeves, an equipment operator, had marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his possession. Both employees were arrested and posted bail. Reeves was terminated.

Mayor Wendy Brenner said that the measures Seeber outlined are a step in the right direction.

"This is not necessarily the end, but we're off to the right start," she said. "We're just trying to do what's necessary to help those people out there and re-educate some of our supervisors. We need to reinforce the position that we're trying to protect the health and safety of the city."

The administrative investigation into drug use continues. Seeber says he has directed Assistant City Manager Gerald Paradise to conduct interviews with employees and to "conduct some fact-finding" regarding the situation. Once Paradise completes that work, Seeber will decide what, if any, disciplinary action needs to be taken.

No Public Works employees have taken drug tests since the investigation, and no additional employees have received disciplinary action, Seeber said.

Reeves plans to appeal his termination with the city's civil service board.

"After a 16-year career to the city, it being my first offense, I feel like I need to get my job back," Reeves said Thursday. "I've been a decent employee and had no strikes against me. I made a mistake, I'm going to end up paying for that anyways. I don't think that losing a 16-year career with the city is part of paying for it."

- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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