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Kenneth City erred in firing officer, a Florida hearing officer concludes

KENNETH CITY — The town had no legitimate reason to fire a veteran police officer earlier this year and must pay her unemployment benefits under a ruling by a state hearing officer.

Kenneth City had argued that police Chief Doug Pasley fired Venus Michaud Chase-Rhonomus for "allegedly telling untruths, allegedly changing (a job) evaluation and allegedly being insubordinate," according to the officer's June 2 decision.

But the hearing officer, Wade Pierce of the unemployment compensation appeals division of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, found the charges to be false.

Chase-Rhonomus "did not tell untruths, did not change the job evaluation and was not insubordinate," Pierce wrote. He added that Kenneth City's testimony was "vague" and "inconclusive." Chase-Rhonomus was fired without cause, he ruled, and is entitled to unemployment pay.

Had the town shown cause, it would not have had to pay her any unemployment compensation. The compensation will be retroactive to the day she was fired in April. It is unclear how much money she will receive.

Kenneth City Town Council member Troy Campbell, who oversees the Police Department, declined to comment until he had a chance to consult the town attorney. It is unclear, he said, whether Kenneth City plans to appeal the decision.

Ken Afienko, one of Chase-Rhonomus' attorneys, said the decision "verifies what we've always believed, that her firing was unjust (and) baseless." Afienko said Chase-Rhonomus is also trying to get her job back.

Chase-Rhonomus, 38, had worked for the department since 2004. She was reprimanded in 2007 for pepper-spraying a Muscovy duck. On Nov. 22, she filed a complaint of sexual discrimination against the Police Department with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She received a job evaluation in March that said Chase-Rhonomus "had difficulty admitting she made mistakes," Pierce, the hearing officer, said.

She asked both her supervisor and Pasley to have the comment removed from the evaluation. Pasley told her he would speak to the person who wrote the evaluation, Pierce wrote. Then Chase-Rhonomus was fired April 2. She was earning about $41,191 a year at the time.

After she was fired, Chase-Rhonomus amended her EEOC filing to include a charge that she was fired in retaliation for complaining to the feds about her treatment. The EEOC claims are being investigated.

Pierce's decision comes at a time when Pasley has come under fire for allegations of poor management.

A sheriff's investigation showed numerous instances in which on-duty Kenneth City officers left the town for lengthy periods. One went as far away as his home in Clearwater. Others did not have their GPS systems turned on while on duty. And at least one on-duty officer used his town laptop to troll dating, bodybuilding and other sites on the Internet.

And Pasley last month conceded during a council workshop that the department's standard operating procedures and emergency management manual were not up to date.

The Town Council turned down a request by Campbell to spend up to $12,000 to have an outside expert do an in-depth study of the department. Council members instead said they would trust the outcome of a sheriff's investigation. That investigation includes such items as morale, training and equipment. It should be concluded sometime this month.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Kenneth City erred in firing officer, a Florida hearing officer concludes 06/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 3:20pm]
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