The Top Choice Food Mart on Hamlin Boulevard near Largo was a handy gathering spot for Pinellas County Water Department workers. It's right across the street from their maintenance yard, good for after-hours beer drinking.
But after a private investigator filmed six of them drinking in their work uniforms, and sometimes driving county trucks afterward, three of them were fired. Their bosses also said some of the workers were on emergency stand-by and technically were drinking on the job.
Now, the trio could be getting their jobs back.
The county's Unified Personnel Board voted 4-3 in February to ask County Administrator Fred Marquis to consider a lesser punishment against crew chiefs Michael J. Dean, Raymond H. Frease and James A. Kubek.
Tonight, Marquis is set to meet with the personnel board to give his recommendation. He won't say what it is, but acknowledges that the matter is serious enough to warrant only his second personal appearance before the board in his 15 years as county administrator.
The personnel board could order the men reinstated, regardless of what Marquis wants.
At the heart of the case is the videotape, shot over five nights in August and September 1993 after county officials got an anonymous tip about the drinking.
The tape shows:
Workers walking across the street from work after 5 p.m. and staying inside the convenience store for hours, chatting with the store manager and apparently drinking beer from paper cups or cans hidden by brown paper bags.
Several instances where the workers later got into county trucks and drove away. In one case, involving a man later identified as Dean, the worker still has a paper cup in his hand when he gets into the truck. The private investigator said the cup contained a golden carbonated liquid that smelled and looked like beer.
The drinking was broken up on the last night of the taped surveillance, after the private investigator and county officials enlisted the Sheriff's Office to raid the store. The six workers were not charged with a crime. The store owner was given a warning about illegal drinking, because the food mart doesn't have a consumption-on-premises license.
The three supervisors and their colleagues perform both routine and emergency maintenance on county water lines. They are permitted to drive county trucks home on occasion.
The men, their lawyer and county officials all were unwilling to discuss the case Wednesday, citing a Unified Personnel Board hearing scheduled for tonight that could decide how the trio is punished.
"If you run a story, it will have an adverse impact on them," said Ted Culbertson, a Clearwater lawyer who represents the workers.
"Since this is a personnel matter, I don't feel comfortable talking about it," said Dan Christy, operations director for the Pinellas water system.
Christy did say the other three water workers on the videotape were reprimanded and given paid leave to consider their actions, just one step away from being fired. Christy would say only that the men were punished differently according to their "depth of involvement."
Culbertson told his clients not to talk about the case. But Dean gave a brief interview Wednesday in which he said he and his colleagues don't deny drinking in uniform but don't deserve to be fired.
Dean also said the crackdown on the three may have been in retaliation for being "rabble-rousers" and trying to start a union. Both allegations have been denied by county officials.
Kubek declined to comment. Frease could not be reached Wednesday.
Jack Houk, the director of the county's personnel system, said the reversal is unusual for the personnel board, which normally sides with management on issues of firing. He said a majority of board members felt that Dean, Frease and Kubek had broken county rules but didn't deserve to be fired.
Dean, 40, of St. Petersburg, has been fired before on alcohol-related allegations. He was accused of drinking on the job in October 1990. The personnel board voted 5-1 at that time to reinstate him, saying the county hadn't proven its case.
Dean has worked for the county since 1982. According to county records, he taught seminars in substance abuse for the water department before being caught on the 1993 videotape.
Frease, 49 and a Kenneth City resident, joined Pinellas County government in 1973 as a maintenance man. Kubek, 37, of Seminole was hired by the county in 1987.