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Departing Largo police Chief Lester Aradi leaves legacy of leadership

After 36 years in law enforcement, police Chief Lester Aradi is ready to move on.

Aradi, 58, wants to give his second-in-command, John Carroll, a chance to lead. And he wants to spend more time with his wife, Diane, and family.

If Aradi stuck around, it would be for selfish reasons, he said.

"It would deny (Carroll) an opportunity to become police chief and deny someone else an opportunity to be deputy chief," said Aradi, who announced Wednesday he will leave at the end of May.

City Manager Mac Craig, who has lived in the community since 1983, said he's never seen another police chief contribute so much.

He praised Aradi for having coffee sit-downs with residents, for having a major hand in the state's Silver Alert program and for working with numerous nonprofits.

"And he did all that while running a great department," Craig said.

Aradi's law enforcement career began during the Nixon administration. He came to Largo in 2001, after 25 years in the Buffalo Grove Police Department in Illinois, where he worked his way up to deputy chief.

As Largo's chief, he earned a reputation as a warm-hearted, approachable leader.

Joseph Stefko, who lives and works in downtown Largo, said the chief attended Old Northwest neighborhood meetings and was always willing to listen to his concerns.

"You can go right up to him and talk to him," Stefko said.

He credits the chief with helping clean up his neighborhood.

"He definitely changed the crime rate," Stefko said. "When I lived here 15 years ago it was pretty bad."

But Aradi said his accessibility, coupled with his responsibilities, came with some drawbacks.

"No matter where I am, the BlackBerry is constantly going off day and night," Aradi said.

Messages range from residents telling him that their cars were stolen to announcements about the community garden getting manure.

Other law enforcement leaders say they've enjoyed working with Aradi and consider him a friend.

"It's clear Lester is a man of integrity and maintains high ethical standards," said Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats. "That is reflected in the staff that works underneath him."

"Lester's always been on the cutting edge," said recently retired Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein. "He's not afraid to take chances. He's just a real top-notch professional."

When Aradi came to the department, its image had been tarnished by a sexual misconduct scandal involving officers. There were tensions between the former city manager and the officers.

"I think he brought the community and the Police Department closer together by being visible himself, by being conscious of the officers, and by being respectful and doing good customer service," Mayor Pat Gerard said.

Last year, Craig ran into friction with the chief over Aradi's choice to suspend, rather than fire, an officer who fixed a ticket. Some have speculated that Craig's decision to suspend Aradi led to his departure.

"I'm not surprised because of the incident a year ago where he was publicly reprimanded by the manager," said former Mayor Bob Jackson.

But Aradi adamantly denies that.

"That's water so far under the bridge it's out there in the Caribbean Sea," Aradi said.

There were no major controversies in the department during Aradi's tenure. But that's not to say that Aradi avoided controversial issues.

Three years ago, he received flak for his support of former City Manager Steve Stanton's personal choice to become a woman. Some called for an investigation of Aradi and all officials who knew of Stanton's choice but didn't make that information public.

He tackled the issue head-on, choosing to talk about it at a local Rotary meeting.

He also took strong positions, defending his officers even when his opinions clashed with city administrators.

Last year, during budget talks, he told Craig and other city leaders he couldn't agree to furloughs, which would remove more officers from the streets.

Aradi's influence also extended beyond the community.

Last year, Aradi was recognized by the Area Agency on Aging for his efforts that helped create the statewide Silver Alert program.

Aradi says he's done with law enforcement and is not sure what he'll do down the road.

"I want to go fly-fishing again," Aradi said. "I want to ride my horse."

He's ready to live on 10 acres of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, visit his children and new grandson, and take a permanent vacation from his BlackBerry.

About a year ago, Aradi and his wife adopted a former racehorse, Haggis Hanover, who had been neglected. They hope to adopt one or two more and move to Tennessee, Georgia or North Carolina, where one of his daughters lives.

"We've made good friends here," Aradi said. "I'm going to miss the people of this community."

But he'll be fine not being chief, anymore.

"I don't need the title," Aradi said. "My family is much more important."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Departing Largo police Chief Lester Aradi leaves legacy of leadership 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 2:17pm]

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