Sheriff Investigating Situation At Belleair Bluffs Fire Department
by Leo Coughlin
BELLEAIR BLUFFS - The Sheriff's Office is conducting an internal affairs investigation into the situation in the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department, understood to be centered on the behavior and activities of Lt. Chuck Barlet.
Mayor Chris Arbutine announced at Monday night's workshop meeting that he had turned to the PCSO to look into the matter.
The Bluffs' department is tied into Largo by agreement where Largo provides leadership and administrative services.
Barlet had filed a string of grievances with the Belleair Bluffs City Hall over his apparent dissatisfaction with matters in the fire department.
In late July in a meeting between Barlet and Karry Bell, then acting Largo fire chief, words disputed by Bell were spoken that resulted in the forced resignation last week of Bell.
Commissioner Dave Shimkus of Belleair Bluffs sent an "urgent" e-mail to his fellow commissioners expressing that he wanted quick action on the matter of Barlet.
He pointed out in that message that Bell had been fired as a result of "another grievance filed by Lt. Chuck Barlet."
Shimkus assailed Barlet, writing "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 in late April, and there has been nothing but problems ever since."
Arbutine wanted a probe but felt his city was not in a position to do so and that if he asked Largo to do it there would be complications.
Seeking objectivity, he called Sheriff Jim Coats and Coats took immediate action, assigning his Internal Affairs officers to begin an investigation. Arbutine said he had a two-hour session last Friday with the investigators.
Shimkus has been troubled by Barlet's comments to a local tabloid newspaper where Shimkus said Barlet lied about the union contract, grievances and attacked Debra Sullivan, Belleair Bluffs City Clerk.
Arbutine said that the Sheriff's Office investigation would look into everything and would bring back facts, not a recommendation about how to handle any employee.
It is amazing to some observers how defiant, as an employee, Barlet has been. He has had a reputation for years of "stirring the pot."
Shimkus clearly wants Barlet fired and asked Tom Trask, Bluffs city attorney, what that procedure would be. Trask said that legal counsel would be sought to avoid violating any contract provisions.
In his e-mail last week, Shimkus wrote, "As we try to better this department there is no room for this kind of leadership or lack thereof. We don't need our department heads or City Commission challenged on a daily basis through grievances, in person, or through a newspaper."
In other action Monday night, Arbutine reported that the city's efforts in buying property on Bayway Avenue, bordering City Hall grounds, has been successful.
This will give city operations more room, including the possible plans of building a new fire station.
Carol Cortright, a former member of the Bluffs commission, also lives on the street and was at the Monday meeting. She said that she and her husband, Dave, would not necessarily be opposed to sell their property as well.
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