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Reasons for firing remain unclear

Details about the dismissal of Parks Director Diana Kyle are sketchy, and officials are tight-lipped.

Pinellas County's top brass remained largely silent Wednesday on why the leader of one of its most popular departments has been fired.

Parks Director Diana Kyle, who professed her love for snakes, alligators and even bugs when she was hired two years ago, was shown the door Monday by interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster.

Lancaster and county commissioners hedged Wednesday on why Kyle was dismissed, insisting that her departure is an internal personnel matter. It seems the spectre of a potential lawsuit over the whole ordeal is contributing to the silence.

"I think there are legal ramifications, and for that reason, I don't want to speak about it," said Commissioner Sallie Parks. "I don't think the public really needs to have any reason. In my opinion, this is a management decision."

Parks would say only that Kyle, 48, did nothing "immoral or illegal" before she was fired.

Lancaster said she was not trying to keep anything from the public, but she did not want to damage Kyle's reputation by discussing specifically why Kyle was fired.

"It was insubordination, plain and simple, and I'm just not going to elaborate on it. It's not fair to her," Lancaster said. "I have such strong feelings that it's not fair to deal with this in the pages of the newspaper. I'm trying to take the high road."

Lancaster said Kyle violated the trust of the county administration several times.

"It's fair to say it's not a singular issue," Lancaster said.

Kyle did not return phone calls to her Tampa home, and her attorney declined comment Wednesday. But shortly after her firing, she faxed a memo to park supervisors and employees saying that her dismissal was connected to a list of recommendations from the parks advisory board, a seven-member citizens group.

The advisory board, which worked closely with Kyle, had created a list of codes they hoped county commissioners would adopt to better protect the county's green space.

"It is with great sadness and regret that I announce that I have been terminated, a week after the following: I submitted to the county a rough draft of advice from the park board to strengthen protection for our Pinellas County parks," Kyle wrote.

"The county administration feels that I was wrong by not communicating with them sooner regarding the park board recommendations. I sincerely believe that I did not do anything wrong," she continued. "However, I have no ability to undo the decision which has been made by my superiors."

Lancaster has said that the park board's recommendations, which she has not seen, had nothing to do with Kyle's dismissal.

In Florida's most densely populated county, where green space is at a premium, Kyle watched over nearly 5,000 acres of park land from Tarpon Springs to Tierra Verde _ 23 county parks visited by nearly 16,000 people last year. She supervised about 270 employees.

Her personnel file includes no indication of poor performance, and in fact Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers, her immediate supervisor, recommended her for a 5 percent merit increase in her salary last year. That raised her pay to about $93,000 a year.

Citizens and park supervisors who worked with Kyle raved about her. On Wednesday, one supervisor compared losing Kyle to experiencing a sudden death in the family.

It appears that whatever troubles were brewing came to a head last week when the county attorney's office drew up an agreement for Kyle to sign. The document, given to Kyle on Thursday, would have allowed her to resign and remain on paid administrative leave through Jan. 1, 2001, if she had signed it by noon Friday.

After a request from Kyle's attorney, Ed Foreman, the county extended the deadline to 1:30 p.m. on Monday.

After the Monday deadline passed, Kyle faxed a request to Lancaster asking that she have more time to speak with her attorney. In that same fax, Kyle wrote, "I feel that the treatment I am receiving with respect to this matter is not in line with the discipline received by exempt male employees in the past who were in the employ of Pinellas County."

That statement apparently has county officials fearing a lawsuit may be in the works.

Stowers, her immediate supervisor, was at a conference Wednesday in Wyoming and did not return phone calls to his hotel. But Lancaster said that Stowers signed off on Kyle's firing.

Commissioner Calvin Harris said he planned to ask Stowers about the dismissal when he returned next week. The County Commission is not likely to get involved, though, he said.

"We try not to get involved in personnel issues because that would make things go haywire," he said.

Lancaster, who has been interim county administrator for two weeks, was not anxious to fire Kyle and gave her several opportunities to resign, Parks said.

"Frankly, I think (Kyle) was naive not to do that," said Parks, who told Lancaster to make the decision that was best for the county.

"I said, "Gay, you need to be fearless. Don't let decisions float along until they've got to be dealt with by somebody else,' " Parks said. "After I talked to Gay, I was very clear that that was the right decision to make, and that was her decision and I supported her."