Firing of Acting Chief in Largo Triggers Call by Bluffs Official for Dismissal of the 'Instigator'
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - Largo's acting fire chief became the victim of an intradepartment squabble in the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department last week.
In action that happened last Wednesday after the Gazette went to press, Acting Fire Chief Karry Bell was given the ax - that is, a forced resignation - because of charges brought by a long-standing pot-stirrer in the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department.
Pinellas County's only daily newspaper managed to get into print only two days ago the events that happened six days previously.
The ostensible reason for Bell's firing was that he had uttered a phrase that he disputes while visiting the Belleair Bluffs department in late July.
Belleair Bluffs has a contract with Largo in which Largo handles the smaller cities administrative direction of the fire department, which also incorporates coverage for Belleair.
Belleair Bluffs has been besieged with grievances from the fire department over the past many weeks.
The situation came to a head July 29 when Bell, accompanied by two other officers, visited Belleair Bluffs looking into one of the many grievances that department has filed.
During that visit he is accused of making the vulgar comment, "Eat me," during a dispute with Bellair Bluffs FD members.
He says he didn't say that. Bell says he said, "Grieve me."
Naturally, the complaint was made to Largo City Hall and Bell was forced out.
Mayor Chris Arbutine of Belleair Bluffs went to bat for Bell as the situation was unfolding. He tried to calm the situation, but Henry Schubert, Largo assistant city manager, was adamant that Bell had to go.
City Manager Mac Craig had little to say, keeping his hands well away from this hot potato that parallels the resignation cum firing of Fire Chief Jeff Bullock several months ago.
"I have offered (Bell) an opportunity to appeal to the Personnel Advisory Board. If he decides to appeal he is to request in writing to do so. I expect him to appeal and he will not comment further on his case until he has had this opportunity," Craig said.
As a career Army man, Craig learned how to duck all kinds of missiles obviously and he demonstrated this skill again. First off, Bell would have an absolute right to appeal to the Personnel Advisory Board and would not need to be "offered an opportunity."
Secondly, Craig has no knowledge of the facts of the case, could not be called to testify, would not be a judge of the facts and thus there is no bar to commenting on the case.
What happened is that Schubert, who facilitated Bell's resignation, chose to believe disgruntled employees instead of the man the city administration had put in charge of the fire department.
Another angle is the statement from Commissioner Dave Shimkus of Bellair Bluffs which excoriates Lt. Chuck Barlet of the Bluffs FD.
Describing his e-mail to fellow commissioners as "urgent," Shimkus said this "can't wait until our next commission meeting and since we can't speak behind closed doors, I am sending this message to our City Clerk so it will be a matter of public record for all to see."
Pointing out that Bell had been fired last Wednesday and that this resulted from an internal investigation that Bell himself had demanded, Shimkus said that it came about as a result of "another grievance filed by Lt. Chuck Barlet."
Shimkus recounted how Barlet, who has been at the center of controversies in the Bluffs department going back at least 10 years, claimed that Bell made an inappropriate comment, Bell asked for an investigation and "The result for standing up for his rights got him fired . . . after 28 years of service."
Then Shimkus got to the meat of it - "I for one will no longer stand for Lt. Barlet's antics, and feel this is an embarrassment to our department . . . Barlet challenged our City Clerk with a "Game on" (challenge) in late April, and there has been nothing but problems ever since."
Shimkus' e-mail describes how Barlet was "written up" last year for "failing to report missing equipment on his shift" and later for "violation of conduct" in making "derogatory or false accusations to a city employee."
Shimkus claims in his e-mail to fellow officials that Barlet "stirs the pot" and that he "clearly and deliberately lied to a newspaper reporter . . . while he was in uniform about the status of grievances, the union contract and attacked our City Clerk."
Shimkus pressed his case, suggesting that Barlet be given the same option Bell was given by Largo officials; that is, resign or face dismissal.
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