ST. PETE BEACH — If anyone had any doubt, it has become clear that debate over closing the city's police department is an emotionally fraught issue.
After listening to virtually unanimous opposition from a packed audience, the City Commission on Tuesday unanimously decided to invite Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to answer questions at its June 26 meeting.
And if Mayor Steve McFarlin has his way, the audience will not be allowed to participate at that session.
Thursday, he sharply criticized the tone and content of Tuesday's audience comments, saying "it is our duty to not allow this to happen again."
The possibility of closing the police department and contracting with the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement arose during a budget discussion in the spring. That was when the city learned it will be $1.25 million in the hole next year.
By switching to the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services, the city could save $1.35 million a year.
The question the commission and voters will have to answer is whether it is more important to save money or to pay more taxes to keep the department. Voters will have the final say since the police department is protected by the city's charter.
To get the matter on the November ballot, the commission must vote on referendum language in July and notify the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by mid August.
Tuesday, that prospect did not please many residents.
Bruno Falkenstein, a former city commissioner and owner of the Hurricane Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille, cautioned the commission about switching to the sheriff.
He cited a recent incident when two deputies disrupted a wedding party at his restaurant to arrest an employee on a misdemeanor warrant.
"It ruined that bride and groom's night and it ruined my night," he said.
Commissioner Marvin Shavlan contacted the mayors of all communities served by the Sheriff's Office and reported they were consistently positive in their evaluations of the service.
He also criticized many comments made by audience members at Tuesday's meeting as "serious deception and misinformation."
One thing was clear, however — the majority of the audience strongly supports the police department.
Closing the department "would take a piece out of our city's heart," said Millard Gamble, owner of Island's End Resort.
Police Chief David Romine called the city's police force "the finest group" he has worked with in 41 years with law enforcement.
Danielle Micklitsch, who said her father recently retired after 38 years with the department, tearfully begged the commission to consider its decision carefully.
"I just ask that you use not only your minds and financial budget, but your hearts, too," she said.
Commissioner Lorraine Huhn explained the three key issues that must be addressed: "the quality of service and who can best provide that service, how much does it cost, and are we willing to pay the cost."
Shavlan agreed: "We don't have all the answers yet and there is too much money at stake. We have got to take the emotion out of this."
Only one resident defended the commission's decision to continue investigating closing the police department.
Michael Lehman, who was appointed to the planning commission by McFarlin, told commissioners they have the "responsibility" to look at the potential savings.
"You have a lot of courage to look at these things," Lehman said.
Only a few in the audience applauded.