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Under fire, Zephyrhills police chief quits

Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, right, made the recommendation to fire Barnes.

Times file photo

Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, right, made the recommendation to fire Barnes.

ZEPHYRHILLS — In the wake of a report that said he created a "flex time" policy that violated city rules, police Chief Russell Barnes resigned Tuesday morning.

Barnes quit an hour before a City Council meeting to decide whether to fire him, which was the recommendation from City Manager Steve Spina.

"I think when the investigation came back sustaining the charges, I just thought it would be too difficult for him to go back in there and have the authority and the trust that he needs to carry on as the police chief," Spina said.

Asked if Barnes had lost his trust, Spina said yes.

According to a report released by the city Monday, Barnes created a "flex time" policy that allowed employees to receive time off instead of overtime pay for extra hours worked. The policy violated city law and possibly the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Barnes said his policy justified why Sgt. Rob Perrault received city pay for hours he did not work at the department and was instead teaching at Pasco Hernando Community College's police academy.

City law says Perrault, a former administrative sergeant, could accumulate no more than 40 hours of compensatory time after which he must be paid overtime.

But Barnes allowed him to accumulate more than 100 hours of "flex time."

The Fair Labor Standards Act says that officers who work more than 86 hours in a 14-day period should be compensated at 1.5 times their regular pay.

In his letter to Spina, Barnes wrote that his resignation should not be taken as "an admission of guilt of any kind to the allegations that I falsified any city payroll records, created any official document or practice concerning flex time or in any way attempted to cover up any employee's faulty payroll practices or any other accusation that I am accused of."

Barnes also wrote that his own inquiry into payroll practices showed some "unnecessarily complicated" methods of determining overtime pay. He added: "I ordered the employee to use the more common method to compute his overtime and he has done so ever since."

Barnes said he resigned so as not to "cause a rift between (Spina) and the City Council."

At Tuesday's meeting, Spina announced Barnes' resignation to the council. Capt. David Shears will continue to serve as interim chief until the city finds a permanent replacement.

That task has proven difficult since the retirement in 2002 of longtime Chief Robert Howell. His replacement, Jerry Freeman, lasted just nine months before Spina lost confidence in him over what he thought was a lax and inconsistent supervision style.

Barnes, a former criminal investigator for the Public Defender's Office in west Pasco, was hired in 2003. Morale in the department, which had suffered since Freeman's departure, never recovered as Barnes ran into problems of his own, including two breaches of city purchasing policies.

Spina said he plans to meet with Police Department employees to hear their concerns and ideas before starting the next search.

"I know the person's out there. There's a lot of people that have the ability" to do the job, Spina said. "Maybe now I'll have a better idea of what is needed here."

Also Tuesday, three contenders entered their names to join the Zephyrhills City Council.

Manny Funes, Mark LaMonte and Lance Smith want to fill the seat left vacant by former council member Danny Burgess, who resigned in July to attend Barry School of Law in Orlando.

Smith is a former council member who served one term before losing re-election in 2004 amid a controversy over the renaming of a city street for Martin Luther King Jr.

The names of Funes, LaMonte and Smith will appear on the ballot in the November general election.

Under fire, Zephyrhills police chief quits 08/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:51pm]
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