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Kenneth City mayor, council member at odds over police chief

KENNETH CITY — When the police chief's boss, Town Council member Joanne DeSimone, evaluated his job performance, she gave him an almost perfect score and recommended he get a raise.

But instead of signing off on the evaluation, Mayor Teresa Zemaitis gave the chief her own ratings and recommended that he be put on probation for six months for doing such a poor job.

Zemaitis' evaluation has no real effect. Under Kenneth City's rules, it is the council member in charge of a department who determines whether an employee receives a raise and how much. The council has no say. That means police Chief Mike Rossi received a 2 percent raise, taking his annual salary from $63,500 to $64,770.

Zemaitis said she was aware of the town's rules when she wrote her evaluation but felt the concerns she, and others, have about Rossi's performance should be recorded so an incoming town manager will have all the facts at his or her disposal. Kenneth City voters last month approved a change in government to a council-manager format. Under that form, the town manager will be responsible for the chief's performance evaluation in the future.

DeSimone's evaluation "was just so far off of what I would have written" and was not reflective of concerns and issues that have arisen in the year since Rossi took over the department, that Zemaitis said she should set the record straight.

"It needs to be accurate," Zemaitis said. "It's really just a matter of putting it on the record."

She added that her criticisms are all supported with evidence and "we can't act like they're not there."

Rossi said he had not seen Zemaitis' evaluation and could not comment on its contents. Rossi said he would have appreciated having the mayor sit down with him to discuss the issues. The chief said the council has always praised his performance and he was surprised to hear there are issues.

DeSimone could not be reached for comment.

The sharply contrasting evaluations are the latest in a string of spats among council members concerning the Police Department. Some of those revolved around Rossi's apparent difficulty adhering to town purchasing policies. Other spats have involved Kenneth City residents who have asked for information about the department and its calls, but have failed to receive answers to their questions.

Zemaitis referred to some of those issues in her evaluation:

"Rossi has required much training and continually needs to be reminded/retrained on procedures, especially those pertaining to purchasing."

Other issues Zemaitis cited include Rossi's "sometimes aggressive behavior. Specifically, after a resident complained about the chief at a public meeting, chief asked said resident to 'step outside.' It was a spectacle to the point that city attorney Brandon Huffman jumped up from the dais to intervene." She also criticized the amount of time officers take for lunch, saying, "When he office closes for two hours so that sergeants and the administrative assistant can all go to lunch, this looks unprofessional and is uninviting to the community, especially when residents have seen them well outside the town limits at eating establishments."

Zemaitis awarded Rossi an average score of 3.07 out of five possible points, or meets expectations, on the 15-item scale.

DeSimone, however, gave him an average of 4.8 points out of the possible five. She gave him 5's on all but two of the 15 items.

Among her comments:

"He is required to make all law enforcement day-to-day decisions on his own as he is chief of the Police Department. Since I have been the department head, I have found his decisions to be sound and well thought out. … He sets an excellent example for all the other officers in the Police Department."

DeSimone also praised Rossi's attempts to upgrade the officers' training and equipment: "Chief Rossi has made sure that the police officers have all of the necessary equipment needed to keep them as safe as possible in their duties. Some of this new equipment includes ballistic shields, nonlethal beanbag, shotguns and patrol rifles."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Kenneth City mayor, council member at odds over police chief 12/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 3:25pm]

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