BELLEAIR - Around 150 residents packed the Belleair town hall Tuesday night to talk about the police and sheriff's department and who they're for. Even though a citizen's advisory committee was formed to look into the matter and share their findings with the commission and residents, many long time Belleair property owners came out to let their elected officials know that they want the matter settled. And soon. That night even.
One resident reminded the commission of their true place when he said, "I'd just like politicians to remember you all work for us, we don't work for you."
When the commission worked their way down the agenda to where time is allotted for "Citizens Comments", Mayor George Mariani looked out at the 150 people or so in attendance and said, "Judging by the audience it looks like some of you are here to say something."
Commissioner Gary Kattica jumped in and said he received an e-mail he wanted to have read into public record. The letter concerned the police. Town clerk, Donna Carlen, read sentiments that would oft be repeated throughout the hour's long meeting. Asking for the Belleair police and dispatch to be reinstated, the letter writer said she made a call to police and was greeted by a lengthy hold message saying how great the Pinellas County Sheriff's office is. "Thank goodness it was a non-emergency call," she wrote.
One after one Belleair residents stood at the podium. And one after one they said how long they've lived in Belleair and how having its own police department was one of the main reasons they moved to Belleair. Similar litanies have been heard in neighboring Belleair Beach.
One difference from Belleair Beach though, is that a group of Belleair citizens took up a petition to demonstrate to the commission how many of them want to keep the town's own force. Rae Claire Johnson asked the council to take a vote that evening so the town could get back to its congenial atmosphere.
She recalled a survey from the St Pete Times that was taken on the same issue in 2001 where 80% of Belleair's citizenry said they wanted to retain the town's own police. "The same goes for today," she said.
Many others in favor of the town's own department were insisting that the commission vote that evening to hire a police chief and start the ball rolling and reissue the department. Several demanded though that if reenstated, the officers should recieve appropriate equipment and training.
One man observing all of the democratic participation noted, "This is real town hall government..."
Other residents approached the podium wanting to let their bretheren in attendance know that they weren't so happy with Belleair's police and would welcome Jim Coats' department and all their expertise.
Tax Attorney J. Paul Raymond, whose daughter had a much reported run in with police this summer after it was revealed that Mariani e-mailed the town manager asking for a complete report on the matter, said Belleair police came to their home looking for their daughter who was at work.
"They came in with an attitude. And I didn't like their attitude."
Later Raymond described the experience and the way the officer treated the matter during the investigation. He said it was like, "Being a Jew in Germany," at which point several in attendance groaned and asked him to be quiet. "If you had been there you would understand," he explained.
Raymond is disgruntled because his daughter was arrested on probable cause after being accused of running over a lawn service worker's foot and then driving from the scene, yet an eye witness had not been called to corroborate the victim's account of the incident before her arrest.
Raymond said his daughter was handcuffed in her living room, taken to jail, booked, and strip searched before being bailed out.
Raymond said the police officer called the witness after the fact and after Mariani's e-mail. "Shame on the police officer for his misjudgement made in the coolness of my living room." At the time, police involved insisted that they were following protocol.
The mood took another turn when four Belleair officers took the podium and said they want to go to the sheriff's office. The officers reasoned that the sheriff's department offers not only more money and benefits, but better training, too.
At a previous meeting on August 1, the commission voted to have a special meeting on August 22 to hear what the Citizens for Belleair group concluded about having or not having a police department.
Citizens for Belleair was formed to educate residents on each of the policing options. One is the "hybrid" plan, which would allow the town to have its own police department, but have the sheriff's office perform its administrative duties.
The group's findings would be mailed along with ballots to all Belleair residents who are registered voters with a cutoff date of September 27.
The commission had planned to vote on the issue at a special meeting on October 3 and Mariani wanted to stick to that plan. He proposed the commission vote no to start a search for a police chief and continue to let the advisory committee continue their work so that all the citizens of Belleair could make an informed decision.
A vote was taken of the commissioners. Two others agreed with him, allowing for all residents of Belleair to be heard.
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