Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Response to police chief's affair shows Plant City is maturing

PLANT CITY — Not in every town would the disgrace of a police chief caught in an extramarital affair be a sign of civic progress. In this respect, as in others, Plant City is unusual.

For years, this municipality of 36,000 has been stuck in an uncomfortable transition between agrarian past and exurban future. Some of its small-town virtues evolved into big-city vices: Mistrustful of outsiders and led by an entrenched political class, the people of Plant City have at times seemed surprisingly tolerant of government cronyism and secrecy.

So it was unclear what reactions might await the scandal that emerged in recent weeks. Police Chief Steven Singletary, a 45-year-old father of three, was caught cheating on his wife on the city's dime. His close friend, City Commissioner William "Billy" Keel, was accused of trying to discourage the chief's lover — also married and a mother — from cooperating with a misconduct inquiry.

What's remarkable, judged against Plant City's history, is what happened next. Instead of looking the other way, the city manager (by his own admission, still a newcomer after more than seven years) ordered a thorough and impartial inquiry, enlisting the aid of an outsider, a retired police officer from Sarasota.

Tuesday, when Singletary and a subordinate who covered up for him were fired, city officials released the sordid details of their investigation, including videotaped interviews and phone records. The disclosures represent an abundance — even an excess — of transparency in a city that has never relished sharing its secrets.

The affair's denouement is particularly striking when contrasted with Plant City's last homegrown scandal.

During a federal investigation of civil rights violations by the Police Department 15 years ago, residents bridled at the unwelcome attention lavished on the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. Congregants at the First Baptist Church of Plant City offered prayers at Sunday services for an end to scrutiny of their public employees.

So it is that some today are grasping at an unlikely silver lining in the city's bad news. None would say the chief's downfall was welcome. But they do say the crisis' outcome is a measure of how far Plant City has come since the last time official misconduct had TV news vans encamped in front of City Hall.

"What I was impressed most about was the way we handled it," Randy Larson, a politically connected businessman and former city commissioner, said of the police chief's affair. "I think that leadership really shows the maturity the city has developed in the face of crisis."

'A circle of power'

Twenty-five miles east of Tampa, Plant City is still a place of uneasy transitions.

The road into town passes cattle pastures dotted with live oak and dwarf palmetto. Farther in, strawberry fields crowd against strip malls and tiled-roof starter mansions leap up blocks away from road signs pocked with bullet holes. Downtown is dominated by three churches — First Baptist, First Presbyterian and First United Methodist — that are bigger and more beautiful than City Hall.

Unlike suburbs such as nearby Brandon, an unvarying province of condominiums and car dealerships, Plant City self-consciously preserves a sense of small-town identity — often construed as insularity by outsiders — and has bred political and business dynasties.

There is Buddy Johnson, the former Hillsborough County elections supervisor and brother to the proprietor of Plant City's most popular Southern buffet joint, dogged during his time in office by allegations of financial improprieties. There is Ron Alderman, the former county property appraiser, who toward the end of his tenure jokingly called himself "the most investigated man in Florida."

Alderman's daughter, Melissa Hardwick, a married, 35-year-old schoolteacher, has now come into her own notoriety: She was the police chief's paramour.

"Plant City's no different from any other small town," said Jerry Lofstrom, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe, a popular downtown lunch spot. "It has its blue-bloods. There's a circle of power."

If the circle has held, the territory around it has changed. Plant City's population has grown at a modest rate compared with Tampa's, but it has experienced a marked demographic shift.

Latinos made up 30 percent of the population in 2010, compared with 18 percent a decade earlier. The city's balmy climate and proximity to the Gulf Coast have brought Northern emigres. South of the railroad tracks that bifurcate the business district, a golf course and luxury subdivision have sprung up.

One steward to these changes has been City Manager Greg Horwedel. Tall and angular, with dun hair and pale eyes, Horwedel has a formal, slightly Gothic demeanor; a casting director might pick him for the role of a solicitous undertaker. He likes to tell deadpan jokes, such as this chestnut he offers to prospective residents: "All I can tell them is, 'Wait 200 years, and with global warming you might have beach-front property.' "

But Horwedel said he takes the city's new constituencies seriously, and recognizes that their expectations are different from those of past generations.

"They're not interested in how we used to do things," he said. "They're interested in the best way to do things."

Blowup at the Breeze

The way they used to do things, many would argue, left room for improvement.

Plant City's defining civic scandal erupted in 2000, when a group of the Police Department's officers were caught illegally searching a motel room in a sting by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A hungry federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Del Fuoco, picked up the case and eventually made it clear that his sights were set on the mayor and police chief, whom he believed were complicit in the officers' tactics.

Three officers ultimately pleaded guilty to civil rights violations or perjury, and the city manager resigned. At one point, a U.S. magistrate judge upbraided city officials for their secrecy, telling them the town's affairs needed "an airing out."

The circumstances of the current scandal were different. So was city government's reaction.

The matter was brought to a head by Jason Hardwick, Melissa's cuckolded husband. He started spying on his wife, slapping a tracking device on her car and following her to Orlando, where he confronted her and Singletary as they dined at a Bahama Breeze restaurant. (Singletary was visiting town for a police conference.) Afterward, he told investigators, he posed the police chief with an ultimatum: "I want you to resign and I want you to leave this town."

Singletary, who according to investigative documents worried that Jason Hardwick might be preparing "to conduct a press conference" to announce the affair, called Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel — the former police chief and his old boss.

McDaniel had headed the department during the federal investigation, from which he emerged unscathed. Today, his lasting legacy at the Police Department is widely viewed as his modernization of the force and replacement of its pencil-and-index-card records system with laptop computers.

"Even police departments are composed of human beings, and human beings make human being mistakes," McDaniel said. "First and foremost, that's what we've got here."

But sweeping the incident under the rug was not an option. McDaniel said he waited less than two minutes after hanging up with Singletary before calling Horwedel and setting the investigation in motion.

Horwedel called in retired Sarasota Police Chief John Lewis to partner with McDaniel. The pair discovered that Melissa Hardwick and Singletary had been romantically involved with each other since 2011, sometimes meeting on days when Singletary was supposed to be working. (Singletary admitted the affair to investigators but denied that he had met with Melissa Hardwick while he was on the clock.)

Hardwick supplied the affair's not-too-glamorous details. According to the investigative report, sometimes she and the chief met for sex during off-hours at the police force's pistol range; sometimes they went to an industrial park.

At the latter location, they were once caught by the owner of a nearby business, who reported that Singletary flashed his badge and said "it would be in your best interest to let us leave." Sgt. Mark Mathis, accused of falsifying a dispatch record related to that incident, was fired along with Singletary.

The announcement of their dismissals was accompanied by a release of investigative materials that included tearful confessions and desperate, recriminatory text messages among the couples involved. It was a dossier that could have been (and still might be) assembled by a preproduction team for Dr. Phil McGraw.

"Don't participate in further sin," Courtney Singletary, the chief's wife, wrote to Melissa, urging her not to say anything that could cost her husband his job. "It's not just your fault but you now can fix it by not participating in a witch hunt."

A number of those interviewed in Plant City on a recent weekday said they found the full disclosure of facts refreshing.

"If it got into his work life, which it sounds like it did, then I think the firing is justified," said Jacob Meadors, 25, who moved to Plant City from Tampa about five years ago. "I like the fact that they brought in somebody outside of the police force to do the investigation. With a tight-knit community, everybody knows everybody."

'Let truth come out'

Not all agree. Brenda Gunter, 56, a lifelong Plant City resident whose uncle once worked for the police force, said she doubted Singletary's mistakes should have cost him his job. She also doesn't understand why Jason Hardwick, after uncovering his wife's affair, let it become a public matter.

"If he knew his wife was having an affair, why didn't he just go and confront her, and confront him? Instead, you're going to go and blow it out because he's the police chief," Gunter said. She said she pities Singletary, but that "this whole thing's going to be between him and God anyway. That's all that matters. This too shall pass."

Life is already returning to its normal rhythm.

The search for a new police chief is under way. City officials say they have no plans to further investigate Melissa Hardwick's claim that Keel, the city commissioner, tried to silence her.

The commissioner himself, who has refused to talk about his involvement, has issued a statement declaring that "it is now time for the city to move forward."

In just four weeks the Florida Strawberry Festival gets under way; amid days of livestock shows and nights of live country music, the residents of Plant City, in a ritual almost a century old, will bow before their young Strawberry Queen.

By then, former property appraiser Ron Alderman will no longer be chasing reporters off his daughter's lawn.

At First Baptist Church, house of worship for the Singletary family, the senior pastor, Brian Stowe, said his flock has already begun the work of lifting up a wayward neighbor in his hour of need.

"We are seeking to fulfill Galatians 6:1, which tells us to help restore those who have fallen," Stowe tells a reporter standing in his office lobby. "The prayer has always been to let the truth come out, whatever it may be."

Galatians 6:1: Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Asked whether he knew of the police chief's love affair before city officials did, the pastor narrows his eyes and smiles. He said this:

"You don't need to know everything."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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Published: 01/20/18