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Veteran probation officer fights for his job

George Kranz's work as a probation officer has won him commendations from the White House, Gov. Lawton Chiles and civic groups. One of the programs he founded to educate offenders has been the model for successful imitators in other states.

After spending more than 20 years as a front-line soldier for the state's probation office, Kranz is one of the most experienced probation officers in Florida.

So why is the Department of Corrections trying to get rid of him?

On Jan. 9, Kranz was ordered to attend a meeting with three supervisors, sparked by a complaint that he had been disruptive at the New Port Richey office. Kranz, a veteran union representative, asked to tape the meeting or have his own witness present.

His supervisor refused. Kranz refused to go into the room where the managers waited. On Feb. 10, he was fired.

"Insubordination" was his transgression, the firing letter said, followed by "conduct unbecoming a public employee, failure to follow written or oral instructions, and willful violation of rules, regulations, directives or policy statements."

After an April employment hearing, a hearing officer accepted the supervisor's statement that Kranz was not going to be reprimanded or asked any questions in the meeting. Under law, the referee found, Kranz therefore did not have a good reason to refuse.

But Kranz was also a good employee, the referee found. He did not, in fact, have a history of disruption. Instead, the referee found, Kranz "dedicated his on-duty and off-duty time to better the probation and correctional system."

Because of his record, the discipline was far too harsh, the referee ruled. On June 9, she recommended a two-month suspension followed by reinstatement with back pay.

Kranz accepted that the suspension would cost him about $7,000 and got ready to go back to work. Then the state appealed the referee's decision to the Public Employees Relations Board, which may rule on it by August.

Meanwhile, Kranz stays home. "I can't say I'm doing anybody much good here," he said, "but it's not like I have a choice."

No glamor job

Probation officers don't get as much respect as police officers, or even prison guards. But they are as vital to a properly functioning justice system.

There are roughly 55,000 inmates behind the walls of Florida's state prisons. More than twice that number of felons _ about 130,000 _ are outside, under the supervision of probation officers. Without the probation system, offenders would either be freed altogether, outraging victims, or imprisoned, further bloating the state budget.

The job of a probation officer is centered on supervising a caseload of offenders, mainly by seeing that they have met the conditions of release, such as finding a job and staying off drugs, in addition to collecting mandatory fines. Sometimes it includes late-night visits to offenders' homes to prove they are complying with curfews or orders not to drink.

The pay is not high _ Kranz said he made $29,500 in his 20th year of service _ and turnover is running about 30 percent a year.

Most officers leave after two or three years or move into supervisory positions, Kranz said. He chose to stay with field work. "I enjoy doing this job," Kranz said. "The reward is seeing people change their lives around."

Out of his own program

In September 1988, Kranz, working in the probation department's New Port Richey office, met a probationer who could not read well enough to fill out the required monthly report. It was not a unique event, but it gave Kranz an idea.

If offenders couldn't read, what chance did they have of getting an honest job and avoiding crime?

Kranz worked out a program with the Pasco School Board and applied for a state grant. The Probationers Educational Growth program was born. Since the program was in addition to his regular duties, most of the hours spent on PEG were off-the-clock, Kranz said.

In February 1990, the department took it away from him. As Kranz remembers it, he returned from testifying about the success of the PEG program before the House Criminal Justice Committee in Tallahassee to find that all files on the program had been removed from his office.

Kranz was ordered by Probation and Parole Regional Administrator Joseph Papy to have nothing more to do with the program he had created, an order that still rankles Kranz.

Kranz said no one ever told him why. Papy did not return phone calls.

PEG would later be developed further and tried in Texas and Oklahoma, Kranz said, as well as more than 40 Florida counties. But it seemed to be department policy that none of the program's success was supposed to reflect on George Kranz.

It was not entirely Kranz's imagination. At the April hearing, Kranz's attorney asked Papy, the ranking Department of Corrections official at the hearing: "Who thought of the PEG program?"

"I believe the Pasco County School Board did," Papy said.

"Whose first idea was it?" the lawyer pressed.

"Probably John Augustus, the father of probation back in the 1700s," Papy replied.

The complaint

In 1994, four years after being booted from PEG, Kranz got the state comptroller's office to investigate what he thought was possible abuse of the program's travel budget.

The head of the program, Brenda Glass, filed her own complaint against Kranz, according to the transcript. It alleged that Kranz was uncooperative and that he was interfering with faxes sent to the PEG program at the New Port Richey office.

It was that complaint that resulted in Kranz's being called into the January meeting, while the comptroller's investigation continued. An internal investigation against Kranz was under way.

Both investigations turned up nothing, Kranz said. No results, that is, except his firing.

Personnel problems

The legal ruling on Kranz's dismissal hinged on the nature of the meeting that never took place.

If Kranz was to be asked any questions or reprimanded at all, then he was legally entitled to representation. Walking into a meeting prompted by a complaint against him and finding three supervisors there, Kranz argued, meant he probably needed a representative or at least a record.

At the hearing, department officials insisted that Kranz was not supposed to be reprimanded, disciplined or even questioned at the meeting. Circuit Administrator Ike Brown, the top person at the aborted meeting, went a step further. Kranz really did have a representative there, Brown said.

"All of the people in that office were his representatives. His supervisor was there. The deputy circuit administrator was there. They were all his representatives."

Kranz did not agree. In his role as a union representative, he often battled the department's management. He has been though the disciplinary process himself a half-dozen times.

The last time discipline was sustained against him was 1986, according to his personnel file. Kranz was suspended without pay for two weeks after he was held responsible for the escape of a man in custody. The felon was recaptured.

More than his disciplinary record, Kranz's file demonstrates him to be willing to file grievances over matters large and small. In 1985, he filed one over the removal of union material from an office bulletin board. In 1992 he filed one over being passed over for a promotion.

Kranz acknowledges that he could be seen as a chronic griper. He prefers to see himself someone who knows his rights and exercises them. He may be considered a stubborn pain in the neck, Kranz said, but no one can say he's not doing his job and doing it well.

He wants to stay a probation officer, doing his best to turn lawbreakers into wage earners. That's why he is still fighting for his job. "I consider that my profession," Kranz said, "my life's work."