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As chief-manager dispute shows, Largo's disciplinary code needs clarifying

A dispute between Largo's city manager and police chief that resulted in the chief's three-day suspension hopefully has ended without long-term damage to their relationship. The episode leaves two lessons: The city's disciplinary code needs work, and both men miscalculated the impact of their decisions.

The dispute grows out of an incident a year ago, when Officer Anthony Citrano agreed to do a favor for two other police department employees and void a ticket he had given a woman for running a stop sign. In a phone conversation with a fellow officer that was recorded in his patrol car as he drove a DUI suspect to a breath-testing facility, Citrano agreed to fix the ticket as a professional courtesy. He wrote the clerk of court that the ticket had been issued by mistake and he told the court to void the ticket.

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi learned about the incident recently after the DUI suspect's public defender reviewed the patrol car recording.

A police internal affairs investigation confirmed Citrano's guilt. Aradi suspended him for 10 days and withheld eligibility for promotion for a year, taking into account Citrano's remorse and unblemished nine-year record.

However, City Manager Norton Craig hit the roof when he later learned of Aradi's decision. Citrano committed two violations — he used his position to provide a special favor and he falsified an official document — and both require dismissal under city and police department disciplinary codes, Craig said. Craig decided Aradi had shown poor judgment and suspended him for three days under a code category defined as "negligence or carelessness in carrying out job duties."

Craig seems taken aback by the uproar that has ensued. Perhaps he was not aware that police chiefs are rarely suspended in Pinellas County, or he had not counted on the backlash from calling Aradi, a widely respected chief, "careless" or "negligent" at his work. Craig says Aradi is an outstanding chief, but he had to act because Aradi was "required" to fire Citrano.

For his part, Aradi is "devastated" by the suspension — his first in a 35-year career, he says — because it affects his record and damages his authority. Some have wondered whether Aradi would quit his job, but it would be an overreaction for Aradi to walk out on his job and his legacy over this issue.

Aradi contends that the disciplinary code consists of guidelines and that he was right to use his own judgment and save a valuable officer. He has authority to hire and fire and believed he also had authority to discipline as he saw fit.

While Craig is correct that the disciplinary code lists only one action for those offenses — dismissal — the code itself does not say that dismissal is required, but merely "applicable." The very title of the disciplinary code, "Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Guidelines," implies that there is room for discretion.

However, Aradi, in saving an officer he clearly liked, seems to have underestimated the severity of the violations. Citrano's nonchalance when he spoke about fixing the ticket is disturbing, and that he would lie to the court to accomplish the act makes it worse. Both actions were a violation of the public trust and warranted Citrano's dismissal. Craig's discipline or counseling of Aradi should have targeted that issue, rather than whether Aradi followed the instructions on a disciplinary chart.

As the tempest blows over, city officials should launch a review of the disciplinary code to clear up its many ambiguities.

As chief-manager dispute shows, Largo's disciplinary code needs clarifying 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 4:30am]
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