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Critics fault chief for stance at forum

But city officials say the police chief has a right to speak up as he did at a debate for mayoral candidates.

In a memorandum to city police employees last summer, Chief Goliath Davis III told them to "avoid even the appearance of any participation in the political process."

Last week, Davis stood front and center during a debate for St. Petersburg mayoral candidates.

He took issue with candidate Kathleen Ford's remark that his department falls short on staffing levels.

Now Davis is taking some heat from critics who say he violated city policy, though city officials disagree.

"I thought it was inappropriate for any high-ranking city official to interject themselves in a political process," said Darryl Paulson, professor of government at the University of South Florida.

Davis said Monday that it was his responsibility during the forum March 12 to correct the record. The forum was sponsored by the Coalition of African-American Leadership. Davis said he would have done the same if the other mayoral candidate, Rick Baker, distorted facts.

"I wasn't participating in a political forum," Davis said. "I was there as a private citizen. I'm just trying to make sure the public understands that their Police Department is being managed. I have a duty to put out appropriate information."

Baker has said that if elected, he would keep Davis as the chief "going forward." Ford, a vocal critic of the chief, has said she sees problems in the Police Department, but she would wait until elected before deciding which city department leaders should stay or go.

In her opening statement at the forum, Ford said the Police Department has "never attained our full, authorized strength, and it makes it hard to serve folks (who call for an officer) timely if we don't have enough people."

Davis, who was out of uniform, took the lectern and told the audience of about 100 people that the department's authorized strength is 538 sworn officers. It currently has 550 officers, 12 more than the authorized level, under a policy that lets the department hire extra trainees to anticipate upcoming retirements, records show.

"Don't distort the record," Davis told Ford at the forum.

"The larger issue for me is, it was a packed house," Davis said Monday. "People were going to leave that forum with false information."

Last July, Davis issued a two-page memo to all personnel, asking employees to remain "mindful of how the public might perceive our words and conduct. It is important that we do not become embroiled in political activities in our official capacity."

Davis wrote, however, that political activity is allowed as long as it is done off-duty. The city's policy says employees, in private capacities, can express their opinions.

"However, they are prohibited from using official authority or influence for the purpose of aiding or interfering with an election or nomination . . . " the city policy says.

The memo was issued about a week after PBA president Jack Soule announced that he would run for Pinellas County sheriff.

Paulson, the university professor, as well as the police union, which endorsed Ford, said Davis should have had a hands-off policy because the mayor hires and fires the city police chief.

"The advantage is, it was done for a political purpose to try and mobilize the African-American community," Paulson said. ". . . to put out the call that, "If Kathleen Ford becomes the mayor, I will not be chief.' "

Davis said he did not endorse a candidate and will not.

Ford declined to comment about Davis or the July memo Monday and referred questions to the police union, the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

The police union has taken sides in the mayoral race.

Soule, who also is a St. Petersburg officer, wrote to union members on union letterhead, asking each officer to donate $100 to Ford's campaign and to help turn out votes for Ford. The union also asked each officer to contact 10 voters and ask those voters to each contact five people to vote for Ford.

"As I like to say, sometimes he considers himself above the law," said Bill LauBach, the union's attorney and executive director. "I think in this case, he certainly demonstrated that."

But S. Wayne Smith, the Police Department's legal adviser, and City Administrator Tish Elston said Davis did not violate any policies.

"Generally, off-duty you don't lose your First Amendment rights," Smith said.

Elston agreed: "I believe he was there on his own time, and I'm not pursuing the issue of any violation of city policy."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.