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Police dispute finding of bias

(ran West edition)

The Pinellas Park city manager and former police chief take issue with a ruling of sexual discrimination.

Former and current police officials may have their differences with the city manager, but they all agree on one thing: The Pinellas Park police did not discriminate against a pregnant officer.

They're holding to that, despite a finding by a federal agency that the officer was a victim of sexual discrimination when she was forced to become a dispatcher while pregnant.

"Examination of the evidence indicates that (Shirley Atherton Marsh) was given less desirable light-duty job assignments due to her pregnancy than male employees who required light duty for medical reasons," Manuel Zurita of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wrote in his letter announcing the decision.

Zurita added, "The evidence further indicates that (Marsh) was retaliated against when the employer posted her original charge of discrimination for other employees to read and when she was denied the opportunity to be a reserve officer."

The city now has a chance to negotiate with Marsh or wait until she files suit against it.

The ruling dismayed Pinellas Park officials.

"We continue to feel there has been no discrimination or retaliation, although there may have been a perception of mistreatment there," Pinellas Park City Manager Jerry Mudd said.

Mudd declined to comment whether the city would negotiate with Marsh or let the case go to court.

Former Pinellas Park police Chief David Milchan was outraged by the EEOC finding.

"That is ridiculous," he said Tuesday.

Marsh had said that when she became pregnant, she had to become a dispatcher, a civilian position that she said was a demotion.

After she filed her EEOC claim, she filed a second alleging retaliation, saying that Milchan had posted her first claim on the bulletin board.

Later, she filed yet another claim of retaliation, saying that Milchan had denied her the opportunity to become a reserve officer, a non-paid volunteer position that would have enabled her to maintain her certification. She was the first officer turned down for that.

Milchan said Tuesday that he encouraged Marsh and helped her rather than discriminated against her. In fact, he said, Marsh was one of the few officers for whom the department paid the costs and salary while in the Police Academy.

That was done, Milchan said, because a sergeant who is now gone from the department had told her she was "too feminine to be a police officer."

Milchan's response to that was to ask if she wanted to be an officer and find a way to see her dream come true. She was a dispatcher at the time.

Thus, when Marsh became pregnant, he said, it seemed a good idea to send her to dispatch. Dispatchers were needed, Marsh had the experience and as an officer, she had been working overtime in dispatch, he said.

"For her to turn around and say she was demoted," Milchan said, "she was not demoted. She was still a police officer. She was getting police officer salary."

After Marsh filed her EEOC complaint, Milchan talked with Tom Owens, the head of personnel, to let officers know what was going on, he said. Owens said that was inappropriate.

But later, after the Neighborhood Times made a public records request for the information, Owens called Milchan and told him. Milchan said he again asked that he be the one to let his employees know.

"I would rather my employees find out from me rather than read it in the newspaper," Milchan said. Owens "agreed. He said, and I can quote him, "Just make sure you write the memo in your usual diplomatic style.' "

Later, Marsh decided to leave the department. She requested to be made a reserve officer.

"I simply told her I wasn't putting on any more reserve officers," Milchan said. "She felt like that was some kind of right she had, even though she had already resigned from the department. That's like me going back to (interim Chief) Dorene Thomas and saying, "I want to be a reserve officer.' Like that's going to happen."