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Column: New Port Richey police chief shouldn't be dog catcher, too

New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens didn’t react to angry comments regarding his department overseeing the city’s new animal control unit.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens didn’t react to angry comments regarding his department overseeing the city’s new animal control unit.

In early August, I met New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens for the first time. By coincidence that day, he had something really big going on. His officers had busted an imposter who dressed in police and military gear and flashed badges and blue lights.

As Steffens tried to tell me about this man, his phone kept ringing. Steffens had every media outlet in Tampa Bay arriving, but his boss, then-City Manager John Schneiger, kept questioning him about dogs and cats.

Steffens didn't let on, but it seemed odd a veteran law enforcement officer should now find himself chief dog catcher. That's the role the City Council carved out when it decided it could save some money and maybe get better service if it stopped depending on Pasco County to handle its animal problems. Bad idea, it turns out.

Steffens, who had a highly successful career at the Clearwater Police Department, knew this would be part of his duties when he accepted the job as chief in December 2011. Had he realized exactly what he was in for, he probably would have run for the exits.

He found himself dealing with a shoestring budget and a city manager determined to cut expenses by enlisting an army of volunteers to handle animal complaints. It didn't work, as evidenced Tuesday night at the council meeting, when the leader of that army orchestrated an attack on Steffens, who had to sit there and take it without one word of defense from council members or his new boss, interim City Manager Susan Dillinger.

Dog killer! Liar! Monster! One by one, audience members trashed the chief, following the lead of Sharon McReynolds, the head volunteer. Mainly they were upset that Steffens, following an expert's advice, had ordered a pit bull euthanized. McReynolds ignored the chief and ran up a $1,400 bill for the dog's medical care.

It became clear at the council meeting that the volunteer-run animal control unit is too dysfunctional to carry on. And news got even worse the next day with the revelation of a parvo outbreak that killed 10 dogs that had been held at the SPCA next door to the city's kennels. The SPCA director, expressing much the same frustrations as Steffens about McReynolds and her lack of communication, decided to quit letting the city use the kennels it had borrowed pending construction of their own.

The city is only five months into this experiment. It has identified some selfless volunteers who truly love animals, and McReynolds certainly falls into that category. But this program can't succeed if she ignores the boss and does what she wants.

Council members must be wondering if it's too early to go running back to the county which, in retrospect, did a pretty good job by comparison.

This won't be Steffens' problem much longer, since he leaves next week for a command position with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco. Kim Bogart, a former sheriff's captain who campaigned unsuccessfully twice to lead that office, has applied to replace Steffens. He sat in the audience Tuesday night, and you couldn't help but wonder how he might like mixing police work with animal control.

Steffens never reacted to the angry comments. Shortly after he left his final council meeting, he went home briefly before the phone rang. He's the commander of the county's unified SWAT team. He had to assemble in Dade City to serve a drug warrant. Dangerous work.

Column: New Port Richey police chief shouldn't be dog catcher, too 03/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 9:06pm]
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