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Short-term chief in line to earn the long term

(ran West, Beach editions)

The city manager speaks of the police chief's ideas for the future, and one council member says the job is "hers to earn."

With talk of long-range changes in the police department, the city manager seems to be regarding "interim" Chief Dorene Thomas as more of a permanent fixture.

"Every day I'm more impressed with the work she's doing," Pinellas Park City Manager Jerry Mudd said Friday. "I have no intention in the near term to advertise at all. There are too many issues to resolve."

Among them is an ongoing survey of department morale. The results are expected in October.

The survey became necessary after three female officers filed state and federal complaints that they were victims of sexual discrimination and harassment. Those complaints were followed by union grievances filed by two male officers who alleged they were named on a departmental "hit list" of employees targeted for dismissal because of their ages and willingness to speak out against the status quo.

The situation became increasingly touchy until Aug. 31, when Mudd suspended police Chief David Milchan without pay and gave him five days to explain why he should not be fired. Milchan resigned.

That afternoon, Mudd appointed Thomas as acting chief. The next day, he changed that to interim chief.

On Thursday, toward the end of Thomas' first full week in office, Mudd officially presented her to the council and city residents during a special meeting.

He praised her and spoke of her ideas for changing the department. Some changes would be visible in six months, he said. Others in a year. Still others in three years. By the fifth year, Mudd predicted the Pinellas Park Police Department would be a model for other departments across the country.

"We want to be a model for how a police department should operate," he said.

By Friday, after meeting with her to discuss future plans (that he declined to share), Mudd announced that Thomas would be the department's spokesperson for code enforcement. In the recent past, code enforcement head Lisa Pezone talked with the public about that part of the Police Department.

When making the announcement, Mudd had more fulsome praise for Thomas.

"I'm encouraged already by many of the positive comments I hear in the police department," he said. "They're supporting Dorene Thomas. They know that she's sincere. . . . that she's going to effect a change in our police department."

Thomas, he said, understands Vince Lombardi's saying that the "difference between a good team and a great team is the relationship between the players."

"We'll follow that in the future and see how that develops," Mudd said.

As for Thomas' future, Mudd was coy, saying merely that she'd been presented with challenges.

"Out of challenges come opportunities," he said.

Selection of the next chief lies completely in Mudd's hands. But council members will have the chance to comment, at least in private, about who they might want in that position, one of the most visible in city government.

It's unclear at this time if there would be support for Thomas as permanent chief should Mudd select her. But council members do agree it's Thomas' job to lose.

"I think it's far too early to tell," Ed Taylor said. "I thought it was a terrific choice, and she's a very talented young woman. . . . It's certainly hers to earn."

Rick Butler agreed it's a time for caution.

"Let's get through our problems first and see what we need to deal with," he said.

Butler said he thinks a permanent chief should not be appointed for six months to a year."

"By no means are we done in the police department yet," Butler said. "We've got work to do. . . . Right now, the last thing in my mind is to appoint a new chief until we get through this climate assessment."

He conceded that Thomas is best placed to become the next chief.

"Her job interview is going on right now," Butler said. "If she can turn this thing around, she certainly deserves it."