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Flat-foot comment to stand

Retired police officers who are demanding that Superintendent Carl Austin apologize for a recent comment about "flat-footed police officers" will have a long wait.

Instead of offering an olive branch at Tuesday's board meeting, Austin accused his critics of playing politics and using the media to convict him of a comment they had taken out of context.

"I did nothing wrong," Austin said, "and I feel no remorse."

Earlier this month, at a news conference to introduce new sheriffs deputies assigned to the schools, Austin complimented the young officers by saying "what we didn't want was retired, flat-foot police officers with night sticks" in those positions.

Two groups of retired officers told the Citrus Times last week that they were insulted by the characterization. One of the former officers _ Robert Barchiesi _ wrote to ask Austin to explain himself just days after a Citrus Times story featuring the comment was printed.

Austin didn't respond.

So Barchiesi and another retired officer wrote School Board members asking if they backed Austin's comment about the school system's stand, since Austin had mentioned "we" in his statement.

As Tuesday's lengthy meeting was coming to an end, board member Janet Herndon said she thought Austin should respond to their concerns and she wanted to clarify that Austin's statement didn't include her sentiments.

"You're absolutely right I wasn't speaking for you," Austin snapped. "I was speaking for (Sheriff) Charles Dean and myself."

Austin said he has for years said positive things about the school resource officers who work in the Citrus schools and all he meant was that he wanted younger, college-educated officers working in those jobs.

"I think they (the retired officers) just wanted to feel respected," Herndon said. She said the officers wanted to talk to him about the comment.

"I've had no correspondence from anyone who has said they want to sit down and talk to me," Austin responded, noting that those complaining had instead chosen to go through a newspaper to lodge their complaint.

He said that, of the dozen police officers including the sheriff who were in the room when the comment was made, there was "no indication that anyone was offended by the remark made."

Furthermore, Austin said, the actions of the retired officers were "politically motivated and they've tried and convicted me of making a statement."

Another item on Tuesday's School Board agenda also targeted Austin and the recent decision by the board on Austin's salary. His salary had come under fire because each year, Austin is paid a 2 percent increase in his base salary, which is set by the state.

Because he is in his ninth year as superintendent, Austin's salary is 18 percent higher than the amount set by the state.

The board agreed several months ago to pay that supplement _ which amounts to a salary of $87,997 for the current year. But Herndon questioned that board action because the item had not been on the agenda and the board's counsel, Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, had not been at the meeting when the item was discussed.

Last week she wrote Fitzpatrick a letter asking the legality of the board's decisions and the decisions of past board's on Austin's salary. Fitzpatrick wrote back in a memo dated Monday that his preliminary opinion on her various questions is that the board's action was legal.

He promised a further clarification after listening to the tape of the July 20 meeting where the pay decision was made.