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Police rift threatens to scar town

Three months have passed since this town's police chief was suspended with pay, and the surrounding dispute is still exacting a toll.

It isn't clear how much longer Chief Jeff Walkowiak will get paid for staying home or how long an investigation into his two-year tenure as chief will last.

It is clear, however, that Walkowiak is at the center of a bitter controversy upsetting this enclave of 2 square miles and 4,500 residents.

"The confusion in this town is ludicrous," said Mayor Harold Paxton.

Walkowiak says he prefers working, but his boss and two other Town Council members want to get rid of him.

Walkowiak apparently isn't leaving without a fight. His supporters and detractors haven't backed down, either, as factions have accused each other of incompetence and malice.

Since March, debate over the chief's suspension and the events that followed have polarized residents and the five Town Council members.

But nasty politics and uncertainty about the Police Department aren't unusual in the town's recent history. The current rift marks another tumultuous episode in a series of episodes involving investigations of the Police Department and council members in the past three years.

The current dispute even has attracted the attention of the town's insurance pool, Public Risk Management of Florida in North Fort Myers. The friction could result in lawsuits, said Jim Hicks, executive director of the self-insured group, which comprises Kenneth City and 31 other municipalities.

"I can't say anything negative about Kenneth City because there are some good people up there," Hicks said. "But I don't want them to get into a position where they are considered a bad risk."

Hicks, who declined to discuss specifics, and the town attorney will meet with other town officials within days to discuss the group's concerns.

"It's a witch hunt,' chief says

Walkowiak, 43, an 18-year veteran of the department, has been the flashpoint of the recent controversy.

The movement to dump the chief began days after Gene Kouns was elected to the council in March. Kouns, who was assigned by the board to oversee the Police Department, suspended Walkowiak. The town's strong-council form of government allowed Kouns to do so.

The suspension was necessary, Kouns said, because he had received complaints from residents about Walkowiak. Residents have said they don't like the way Walkowiak handles subordinates or how he operates the department, Kouns said.

Walkowiak and his supporters say Kouns never had grounds for the suspension. The chief has maintained that the complaints are from disgruntled employees and residents with whom he has dealt sternly but fairly as an officer and chief.

"It's a witch hunt," Walkowiak said. "I wish they would knock all of this off."

Mayor Paxton and council member Elaine Vaughn, outspoken supporters of Walkowiak, have said the suspension is the result of personality clashes and dirty politics.

"I think he has done a good job. I don't like what is happening," Vaughn said.

In an attempt to prove his case against Walkowiak, Kouns in April invited the Sheriff's Office to do an investigation.

Nearly two months later, sheriff's investigators turned over 1,700 pages of its findings to the state attorney's office. A state attorney spokeswoman last week said its inquiry would take at least two more weeks.

Neither agency would comment on the investigations.

Three council members decided not to wait for the results.

Kouns, with the support of Harlene "Honey Bee" Bowie and newly elected council member Jack Knox, said the investigations were taking too long.

This month they voted to try to get rid of the chief by paying him to leave.

"This investigation has gone on long enough," Kouns said. "I feel the chief has been very ineffective in his job. He has been too political."

Dumping Walkowiak, whose salary is $36,500, apparently won't be easy. His three-year contract, which will expire in April, says that he only can be demoted to sergeant and not fired.

The only option left for the town is to buy out the contract, which it has offered to do.

Neither Walkowiak nor the town would comment on the ongoing negotiations.

Will department disintegrate?

A common fear surfaces often during the squabbling: Kenneth City could lose its police department. The factions agree that they don't want to hire the Sheriff's Office to replace the police, as officials in Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair Bluffs have done.

Some folks have said they suspect that Sheriff Everett Rice simply would like to extend his jurisdiction into Kenneth City.

"He's the chief law enforcement officer in the county," Paxton said. "If things continue going haywire, he could come in and just take over."

Rice denies that claim: "The suggestion that there is a conspiracy on the part of the Sheriff's Office to take over the Police Department in Kenneth City is just wrong."

The Sheriff's Office, he said, offers services when it is invited by a city or town to do so.

Rice didn't hesitate to offer an opinion and express frustration about the current climate in Kenneth City.

"I could do a better job for less money," Rice said. "Sometimes I think it could be easier to police the city than the Police Department."

Turmoil spreads

Rice's investigators have been in Kenneth City before. Nearly three years ago they investigated allegations of an illegally taped phone call, a sergeant's accepting dual pay, use of state computers to provide rap sheets to private companies, and renaming of police reports to make crime statistics look better.

The state attorney's office found no evidence to prosecute any allegation. But former police Chief Chester Kowalski resigned amid the turmoil.

Ironically, Walkowiak was promoted from sergeant to police chief to help the troubled department.

The troubles went beyond the police.

Last year, former Mayor Lester Eshleman and former council members Alice Kinney, Nancy Baker and Charles Knox pleaded guilty to violating the Sunshine Law. Each was fined $150 in court costs; a judge withheld a formal finding of guilt. Another council member, Carl Schleck, died in a car crash two days after he was charged.

Paxton pleaded no contest to the charge, and a formal finding of guilt was withheld.

The charges stemmed from accusations that the group held a series of unpublicized meetings in 1991 and 1992 to discuss the construction of a new Town Hall and Police Department building.

Hicks, of the town's insurance pool, said he hopes the pattern of contention will end. At worst, Kenneth City could be kicked out of the insurance pool by a two-thirds vote of its members, which include other cities and counties.

"It's obvious there's friction there," Hicks said. "We'd like to see harmony."