Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Politics

The FHP trooper behind quota on speeding tickets will retire Sept. 5

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Highway Patrol official's call for troopers to meet ticket quotas has cost him his job.

Maj. Mark Welch submitted a one-sentence letter of resignation from his $117,000-a-year job Wednesday, mere hours after Attorney General Pam Bondi called his actions "stupid.

Welch will retire Sept. 5, ending a law enforcement career of more than 35 years.

Previous coverage: Did FHP break the law in setting a 'goal' for the speeding tickets?

Col. Gene Spaulding, director of the patrol, accepted Welch's decision and said: "I appreciate his dedication to the state of Florida and to FHP's mission of saving lives."

Welch's July 28 email to troopers in an eight-county region in North Florida, including about 100 miles of heavily traveled I-10 through Tallahassee, unleashed a controversy after the Times/Herald published it last week.

"The patrol wants to see two citations each hour," Welch wrote to troopers who work on an overtime detail known as SOAR. "This is not a quota; it is what we are asking you to do to support this important initiative."

Welch attached a report that showed troopers in Troop H were issuing 1.3 tickets an hour, "so we have a goal to reach."

FHP union representative William Smith said Welch's email was clearly a quota and that it violated state law. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who in 2017 chaired the budget panel overseeing the patrol, said it was illegal.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, also a member of the FHP budget panel, called on Spaulding to publicly repudiate Welch.

Seeking to contain the political fallout, Terry Rhodes, director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, issued a memorandum reiterating that state law bars ticket quotas.

On Wednesday, Rhodes faced her four bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet — and said all troopers will be reminded that quotas are illegal, and that they have "never ever" been used to reward or punish officers.

"We will immediately designate that quotas are prohibited by Florida law," Rhodes said at a Cabinet meeting. "You have my commitment here today that no quotas will be tolerated in the Florida Highway Patrol."

Rhodes added that FHP's policy manual will be revised to make it clear that quotas are illegal and that online training seminars will include the prohibition. She said troopers work "tireless and selflessly" to make the state safer.

Spaulding told reporters that troopers have never been rewarded "for strictly writing citations."

In two recent cases, Miami-Dade troopers were allowed by their superiors to switch their days off to more desirable weekends for writing the most citations in their unit, according to emails obtained by the Times/Herald.

"That was not for citations," Spaulding said. "That was for overall monthly performance."

In Welch's email, the major also told troopers that tickets are more effective than warnings in getting drivers to slow down, which made matters worse.

"That's absolutely wrong," Spaulding told reporters.

After Welch's email went public, FHP Lt. Col. Mike Thomas, the agency's No. 2 official, downplayed its significance, calling it "a want."

Rhodes' appearance at a Cabinet meeting came on a day when she made a pitch for a 10 percent raise for state troopers next year, boosting their starting salary to $42,000 a year. The raise already has a lot of momentum behind it with a strong endorsement from Scott, who will enter his last year as governor in 2018.

FHP has nearly 2,000 sworn positions, but nearly 200 are vacant.

Turnover has been rampant, and traffic deaths have been on the rise in Florida for the past three years.

The pay raise is even more likely to win legislative support in an election year when most politicians want to be seen as pro-public safety.

Scott did not address the quota issue publicly, but Cabinet members voiced strong support for Rhodes.

Attorney General Pam Bondi called Welch's email a "stupid statement." Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, reiterated confidence in Rhodes.

The Cabinet's newest member, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, recalled getting a speeding ticket from a trooper a couple of years ago.

"I think you write plenty of tickets," Patronis said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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