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St. Petersburg police troubles hashed out

City Council members danced along the edge of their authority Thursday as they discussed the controversy swirling around embattled Police Chief Ernest Curtsinger.

The City Charter says council members cannot "direct or request" the hiring or firing of most city employees, including the police chief.

Yet on Thursday, council member Edward L. Cole Jr. said that since he had read in the newspaper that another council member was calling for the firing of Curtsinger, he was going to add his opinion.

Cole said that if Curtsinger and top-ranking black officer Goliath Davis, an assistant chief, could not get along, both should leave the department.

"I want to say now that if one man goes, both men should go," Cole said. "We cannot have in our city Police Department two prima donnas who are destroying" the department.

Council member Ernest Fillyau, the council member quoted in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times as having said he would fire Curtsinger, said he was misquoted.

Fillyau said that if he were Curtsinger and had faced the controversy that Curtsinger had, he would resign. "I never said I was calling for his resignation."

Fillyau's comments in Thursday's Times were in response to questions from a reporter.

Fillyau had said that he was forbidden to make personnel decisions and would leave the matter up to the city manager.

The reporter asked Fillyau if he would fire Curtsinger if he had the authority to do so, and Fillyau answered: "My gut feeling, yes." The comment was paraphrased to read that Fillyau "said he would fire Curtsinger if he could."

After a short discussion, Fillyau and other council members said they were content to leave the police personnel matter with the person empowered by the City Charter to deal with it: Interim City Manager Don McRae.

McRae said Thursday he planned to meet with Davis and Curtsinger to settle the matter. He said he had no plans to fire anyone.

The council got to hear more about the problems between Curtsinger and Davis during an open forum Thursday night.

Garnelle Jenkins, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, said the group is disturbed by the rift between Curtsinger and the black community.

She said the NAACP wants progress and redevelopment for the city, but those things will not happen unless something is done about the conflict.

Also Thursday night, Curtsinger, some of his top officers and McRae met with eight ministers from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA).

The Rev. John Copeland, president of the IMA, said he called the meeting because committee members had continued to hear complaints from officers. In addition, he said he had heard rumors that police were following members of the NAACP, the IMA and neighborhood groups.

Curtsinger later strongly denied that police were following any members of the various groups. "I told him that about four dozen times," the chief said of Copeland.