News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Sgt. David Sass spoke at the AP council meeting Monday night. He argued that if the city's finances were as healthy as described, there was time to think through the issue.
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published: Wednesday, July 25, 2012
APPD talk draws big crowd
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
AVON PARK -- Feelings were heightened at Monday night's regular city council meeting as individuals in the standing-room-only audience stood to argue the merits and drawbacks of replacing the police department with the sheriff's office.
The original agenda item was about the complaints Avon Park Police Department Det. Jesse Sapp and City Manager Julian Deleon exchanged following an incident on July 18 after a special council meeting. That issue, however, did not come to the council as the city's labor attorney, Brian Koji, had been delayed at a hearing and was unable to make the meeting.
Despite that, Mayor Sharon Schuler still allowed the audience to speak out on the general subject of the police department. No decisions were voted on Monday night.
While filled with tension the room remained calm and the discussion was mostly courteous.
The discussion ranged over many related topics -- from the importance of city pride to better opportunities for employees at the larger sheriff's office.
The subject of Deleon's leadership arose, including his request for sheriff's deputies to attend the meeting for the purpose of crowd control.
Deleon has explained he took the action because of meetings that occurred in 2010 when a contingent of police officers left a council meeting in anger. "It (the departure of officers from the 2010 meeting) clearly put the brakes on any discussion," Deleon told the News-Sun Tuesday morning. "Half the room emptied. The impact was, 'We don't want to talk about this because we're angry.' I was afraid it would happen again."
It is a question of civil rights, he added. Just as citizens have a right to picket and speak out, so the city council has the right to hear all arguments in a calm and orderly setting.
Near the end of Monday night's meeting, former city council member Joe Wright spoke forcefully in Deleon's defense.
"Julian has done an excellent job," Wright said, citing four specific successes: Lowering the debt and increasing the contingency fund; moving ahead with annexations; bringing a significant drop in the millage rate; and "having the courage" to address the issue of unfunded liabilities in the police and fire pension fund.
In a choice between Julian and police department, Wright said, "I want Julian."
Regarding the police department, Wright asked what residents really expect. "We want cost-effective, corruption-free, law enforcement," he said. "It's that simple.
"I fully understand why our employees do not want to become members of the sheriff's department. I know that change is tough for people, but objectively I think there is more belly aching than there ought to be." In the long run, Wright said, the sheriff's office is larger, has more money and more opportunities for advancement.
Finally, he said, "We've had four chiefs in five years. I'm very concerned about having to search for another police chief. If I look to the sheriff, at least the sheriff has the ultimate accountability -- there's an election every four years."
Sgt. David Sass, wearing civilian clothes, corrected Wright when it came his turn to speak. The police and fire pension fund is in good shape, he said. It poses no threat because of unfunded liabilities, with the fund now at 88 percent.
In fact, Sass said, the trust fund's actuary in June reported that the pension fund is listed among the top 10 percent of all pensions in the state. "A couple of hundred cities would be happy to change places with Avon Park," he said.
Sass had questions about why the city suddenly could not afford the police department.
"Avon Park currently has the money for the next fiscal year," he said, "even with a lower millage rate for the city manager. If, and I stress if, the city finances that we've been hearing about are actual, I submit those savings will be available next year.
"I believe a decision this important, which will affect the city of Avon Park and its citizens forever, should not be rushed. But, it appears that is exactly what happened. The council needs to be sure it understands all the facts."
Sass said he was insulted by Deleon's decision to bring sheriff's deputies into the meeting.
Deleon had not questioned the police department's honesty and professionalism in the past, Sass said. Not when he had called on it to protect him and city staff from possible retaliation when several employees had been fired, or when an investigation into some public works employees was necessary.
Former mayor Tom Macklin agreed with Sass. "You're protecting us from the very people we want the sheriff to hire," Macklin said.
Citizens voiced concern before, during and after Monday night's meeting that the decision of replacing the police department will not go to a public referendum, due to the city contracting with the sheriff's office, rather than transferring power.
In an effort to protect the public's right to decide, Warren West, a captain with the fire department, gave a proposed ordinance to city council members. It says: "It is the intent of this said ordinance to remove authority of the said city council of the city of Avon Park to transfer, contract, or abolish any function of the ... police and ... fire departments by vote of said council, and to provide the qualified voters of said city the authority by referendum to transfer, contract or abolish any function of said departments, now or in the future."
Deleon said Tuesday afternoon, "I believe Fire Captain Warren West is a city resident and well within his rights to petition the city council on any endeavor."
Police Dept (by: Rose Hart - 7/30/2012)
The voters should make this decision, not he city councel
Mr. Joe Wright (by: Mr. "Right" - 7/28/2012)
Lets see about Mr. joe Wright. A few years ago he wanted to run for city council but could not because he did not resided in the city limits. What did the council do? They voted and annexed his property way up in lotela drive, way away from city limits. So, technically he is now a city resident on paper, but not really. Even his business is not in the city limits. So, since he is no longer a council member, I think they should de-annex his property. He said he wants Julian and not the police. Is not the choice of Julian and the police, is the sheriff or the police. Wonder what he knows that we the real citizens of ap don't know. Go ahead Mr. Wright. You want Julian, hire him to run your business.
City Govt (by: Pontiao - 7/26/2012)
It is not the elected officials or the City Manager who run the City. Instead, you have the unions, employees, family members, and special selfish interest groups running the entire city.
Public for the PD (by: Brother in Blue - 7/26/2012)
You have to go to the meetings. Making comments on an open on line forum is great but lacks substance in the way of council decisions.
New Beginnings (by: SmallTownGirl - 7/26/2012)
It seems that Deleon gets rid of whatever and whoever may be in His way. With that being said, why don't we take the $10,000 additional that he's going to receive and add that to the Police Dept.'s funds? How about the next time the City of Avon Park hires someone to work for them and represent our town, that they hire someone WHO ACTUALLY LIVES HERE and knows and respects our small town? I honestly think that maybe the city needs a new overhaul. Get rid of all of the council members, the mayor, city manager, etc. and start all over! Would love to see some fresh new faces tackling some of these OLD issues.
APPD, FD and Families (by: The Fisher Family - 7/25/2012)
I for one am opposed to a change in the PD by the council. Due to the nature of past and the long distance we as a community have strived in the name of our public and personal safety. As a community we should not look to save when it comes to a PD. That’s totally foolish. On March 18th at 3:30pm our 7yr old son “Matty” was struck and killed by car. The APPD and Fire Dept. treated us with respect and compassion. Every officer conducted themselves in a professional as well as a fair and impartial manor. Not only did the officers and Fire Dept. come to our side in our time and need they came with wives, brothers, sisters, moms and dads as well their children to assist in consoling ours. They cooked, cleaned and even did maintenance to the home and property. Even stayed late into the early hours of the morning to make sure we would make it thru to the next day as best as we could. I shudder to think of what it would have been like if we did not get that personal touch from our PD and their families. The Fisher family wishes to thank all the officers, investigators and commanders of APPD and FD including your families as well. Your commitment to our community is certainly clear to us. You are all men and women of honor and integrity. You all are truly unique and un- replaceable.
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