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Largo mayor, city manager apologize to police for prank

(ran NS S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

Mayor Thomas "Thom" Feaster and City Manager Steven Stanton, who staged a police TAC team invasion of a Paragon Cable TV office in St. Petersburg as a joke, have apologized to members of the Largo Police Department.

The prank, which took place in early December, involved Feaster, Stanton, Police Chief Richard Kistner, TAC team commander Jerry Bloechle and three other officers. The apology was made in a letter dated March 3, the day after an article about the stunt appeared in the Times.

Feaster said he apologized when he did because he was not aware of the police union's objections to the stunt until he read the article.

"Not that we felt we did anything wrong," he said, but if someone perceived there was any wrongdoing, then they wanted to apologize.

During the escapade, all the participants but Kistner and Stanton were dressed in TAC team gear: black jump suits and black hoods and masks. The police officers carried shoulder rifles. Bloechle has said the rifles were not loaded.

On Dec. 8, after attending a "strategy session," the group took unmarked police cars to the Paragon offices at 11500 M.L. King (Ninth) St. There, they invaded General Manager Bob Barlow's office, handcuffed him and escorted him back to Largo where he was placed in a holding cell.

After Barlow "confessed" to stealing a trophy that belonged to Feaster, he was freed on "bail": a promise to spend $45 for a brick for Largo Central Park.

Although Feaster, Stanton and Kistner called the prank a practical joke to raise money for Largo Central Park, others, including the union that represents Largo police officers, saw it as a violation of department procedures and a misuse of city equipment.

In a letter written to the city Dec. 10, Jim Lau Bach, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association, wrote that "the officers we represent are continually held to a standard which tolerates little or no deviation from work rules.

"It will be very difficult if not impossible for me to (explain) why senior management can break/and or violate rules for a practical joke," Lau Bach's letter said.

Feaster and Stanton said in their letter to members of the police department that the stunt was "in no way intended or believed to be an inappropriate use of police department resources."

"Perhaps in our enthusiasm to promote Largo Central Park and show the human side of local government, we offended or embarrassed members of the Largo Commission and Largo Police Department," their letter stated.

"If this is the case, it was not our intent, and we offer our abject apologies. . . . We also hope that any offense that may have been taken will be forgiven."

In the letter, Feaster and Stanton continued to call the gag a public relations effort. Paragon Cable holds the city's franchise for cable TV.

Lau Bach said Tuesday he was aware of the apology.

"If it had been written when we first brought the matter to their attention rather than after it appeared in the newspaper it would have been appreciated more, Lau Bach said.

He said his letter to Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert was written two days after the prank took place.