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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

City Council chairman tries to silence Chuck Harmon; council fights back



HARMON MUGUPDATE: Police Chief Chuck Harmon had his say.

And what the chief (left) told the City Council was this: He wanted, once again, to challenge "gross misrepresentation of the facts" about his police department and crime in his city by a "specific" yet unnamed mayoral candidate.

That, of course, would be real estate investor Scott Wagman, who recently sent out a mailer comparing plummeting crime in Tampa to rising crime in St. Petersburg.

The chief addressed the mailer in a letter to the community earlier this week and did so again Thursday. He said Wagman unfairly compared Tampa's 46-percent drop in reported crimes over six years to St. Petersburg's 9-percent rise in crime over the first six months of the year.

He also refuted candidates' complaints about his community policing and high-speed pursuit policies, then launched into his usual spiel: yes, property crimes are up 10 percent, but violent crime is steady, murders are down and his officers are doing the right things to fight crime in the city.

"Sometime we're criticized as not being very aggressive," the chief said. "I think that's the furthest thing from the truth."

He also pointed out that his officers are on track to make 16,000 arrests this year -- the most in city history.

And for once, the council and chief seemed to be on the same page. Back in February they didn't seem to get along too much. But the chief has been regularly meeting with them ever since. They all seemed joined at the hip Thursday, those running the city pushing back against those who want to run the city.

"If we start correcting misinformation from the candidates," said Council Chairman Jeff Danner, "we'll be doing that from now until November."

Harmon also clarified comments he made in a St. Petersburg Times article Sunday that compared crime in St. Petersburg and Tampa. He reiterated that comparing the cities is not comparing "apples to apples." He also said the article lacked context about his discussion of annexation, that it alone should not be blamed for rising crime. It is just one of many factors that can raise or lower a crime rate, he said.

The chief said Council Member Leslie Curran invited him Wednesday to address all this campaign "misinformation" in front of the council. Danner tried to keep the chief from speaking.

But Harmon was determined to have his say, even reserving a spot during the public comments portion of the meeting. Danner relented, but there may have been good reason for trepidation:

Was this an inappropriate time for city leaders to wring their hands about crime and the police department while Tampa mourned an officer killed in the line of duty Wednesday night?

No one seemed to think so. The chief and council members all expressed their condolences. Mayor Rick Baker asked for a moment of silence.

"It's a nightmare that all of us hope we never have to face,” the mayor said.

* * *

One amusing moment came out of Council Member Bill Dudley's effusive praise of the police for putting together a neighborhood meeting with officers 24 hours after a recent crime took place there.

When a City Council member personally calls a police major, does he expect any other kind of response?

* * *

ST. PETERSBURG --- The City Council has frequently invited police Chief Chuck Harmon to talk about crime during its televised meetings, to mixed results.

On Thursday, Harmon was the one who wanted to come speak at the meeting.

But council Chairman Jeff Danner wasn't having it.

Danner said he would not let Harmon address a recent story in the St. Petersburg Times that compared crime in St. Petersburg to crime in Tampa because the story had turned into a political debate between mayoral candidate Scott Wagman, who says he will replace Harmon and hire 100 more cops, and Harmon, who says it is unfair to compare Tampa to St. Petersburg.

Allowing Harmon to speak would set a precedent that could open the door for all city employees to address information put out by the candidates, Danner said.

Mayor Rick Baker said Harmon was capable of discussing crime without naming a candidate or referring to campaign literature.

The City Council voted to overturn Danner's decision and allow Harmon to speak.

"We always hear, 'Let the chief be the chief,' and we want him to be more open," said council member Leslie Curran. "So to now not allow him the opportunity to do so, I think is completely wrong."

Harmon will address the council soon. Check back here for updates.

Cristina Silva, Times staff writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:04pm]


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