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    Official says firing him was unfair

    Safety concerns with the Clearwater roundabout were ignored, he claims, and cost him his job.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- An assistant fire chief has sued the city, claiming he was wrongfully fired after blowing the whistle about safety flaws with the Clearwater Beach roundabout and alleging misdeeds by former City Manager Mike Roberto.

    But City Attorney Pam Akin says she thinks the city can "vigorously defend" its termination of Jack Callahan, who said his 29-year career with the city was ended "without cause" earlier this year.

    "We'll have to look at it, but we saw no merit at the time he filed his letter with some of these complaints earlier this year," Akin said.

    Callahan's lawsuit, which seeks damages greater than $15,000, states he had an exemplary record with the city and had even been encouraged to move to Clearwater to be closer to his job last year. But then he was suddenly asked to resign in January. He declined.

    Just before he was fired in February, Callahan invoked the state's whistleblower law, seeking not to be terminated in retaliation. He made his argument by sending top city officials a letter with several complaints about the roundabout, Roberto and other issues.

    The letter was not placed into a city mail file to become available to the public, as is routine procedure, for one month. Two complaints in his letter are at the core of his lawsuit.

    Callahan alleges he participated in discussions in which Fire Department managers complained the roundabout was being constructed in a way that was "utterly unsafe" because large fire engines would have difficulty making tight turns out of the circle.

    But the concerns were ignored, according to Callahan's lawsuit. Instead, the former assistant chief claims Roberto made it clear that anyone who would challenge the construction of the roundabout would see their jobs put in jeopardy.

    One e-mail from Roberto in November 1998 to a former public works administrator seems to make that point:

    "If you let anyone and I mean anyone interfere with (the roundabout's) schedule, I will hang you to (the) highest mast of the pirate ship," Roberto wrote to Rich Baier. "Everyone signs off on what we are doing and gets the hell out of the way. This is one of my priorities when we build something in this city, neither the department, elected officials or staff will interfere with the schedule or what is being done."

    At the time, Baier was contemplating whether the city needed more time to consider elevated pedestrian overpasses around the roundabout to make it safer.

    Callahan's lawsuit also alleges Roberto asked people to send information to a private e-mail account in an effort to evade public records requests to review his city e-mail.

    Callahan's lawsuit claims the city refused his request to preserve the hard drive of Roberto's laptop computer so that he could investigate further.

    But Akin says Roberto's old computer had long ago been reconfigured and given to another employee, so Callahan's request was not feasible.

    Callahan never came forward with such complaints during an official investigation of the e-mail controversy last fall by a retired judge. Without any detailed inspection of Roberto's computer, the inquiry determined that it could not be proven there had been any abuses of private e-mail by Roberto.

    Roberto said Friday that he would not comment about the litigation.

    Earlier this year, city officials offerred few reasons for Callahan's departure other than a "reorganization" of the Fire Department. Paul O'Rourke, the city's human resources director, said Callahan was not popular with his rank-and-file employees.

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