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Police chief is shown the door

Tension has been building for months between the city's Police Department, its critics and its supporters.

There have been complaints of overzealous police officers and inaccurate budgeting. And a City Council decision to dissolve the emergency dispatch center could be headed to court.

Amid that and more, there has been a largely behind the scenes struggle between City Manager Vince Lupo and police Chief Bill Downs.

Friday, the dispute came into plain view when Lupo fired Downs, saying he has been "insubordinate" and "engaged in misconduct."

In a two-page letter, Lupo asserted numerous shortcomings in Downs' leadership in recent months, including the budget session that resulted in the demise of dispatch and a shouting match with a city employee.

The 57-year-old Downs, who became chief in 1996 and has worked for the city since 1993, declined to comment. But at times in the past he has characterized complaints against him as false and politically motivated.

He implied Friday that he would challenge the dismissal. "My attorney," he said, "is handling the matter."

Lupo was out of the office much of Friday and did not return calls. He sent copies of his letter to Downs to the five City Council members.

"I don't know what to say," said Council member Pat Guttman, who was among the majority in a 3-2 vote to turn dispatch over to the city of New Port Richey. "I know there was a lot of problems and controversy with some of the police officers."

Other council members could not be reached or said it was too early to comment.

To be sure, 2003 has been one of the more difficult years for the Police Department. Much of the anguish stems from a consultant's report that recommended the dispatch center be trimmed and several other police positions be eliminated. There currently are 11 sworn officers.

Those cuts went through but not before Downs and others suggested the Police Department's roughly $1-million budget had been inflated to make the savings seem greater than they are. On the other hand, Downs was accused of delaying the process and presenting false figures himself _ something he denies.

The Police Department drew scrutiny after incidents of alleged abuse of power by Officer James Ruland. On Labor Day, Ruland arrested a woman whose car he determined to be improperly parked. Ruland arrested her, he said, after she threw her identification in his face and yelled at him.

Before that, Ruland got permission from his shift supervisor to take a patrol car out of jurisdiction to investigate the theft of his girlfriend's purse. Ruland and the supervisor, Ronald "Gene" Blythe, who retired from the department this month, were disciplined by Downs as a result.

In both instances, the people who were arrested have submitted claims with the city seeking money for damages.

Downs has defended Ruland as a young but hard working and honest officer. Shortly before the April city elections, Ruland stopped mayoral candidate Bob Leggiere on suspicion of drunken driving; a trial is set for December. Downs supporters accuse Leggiere and others of putting pressure on Lupo to hack away at the Police Department, ending with its demise. Leggiere has denied working to that end.

In July, Lupo issued a forceful reprimand to Downs for giving a resident records showing how much property taxes City Council members pay. Lisa Vayre said she planned to use the information to show some residents pay more taxes than the council members and, therefore, decisions about the future of the Police Department should be done with the community in mind.

Though the information is available to anyone, Lupo reasoned that the chief sent the wrong message by providing the information.

Lupo also was upset with an argument between Downs and Lou Barba, the city's code enforcement officer. Barba accused Downs of verbally accosting him after questions arose about a rally of pro-police forces.

In August, Lupo, citing the budget crunch, ordered Downs to devote 40 percent of his time to uniform patrol and supervision. On the same night Lupo disclosed the move, he asked the council for permission to consult a labor attorney about an issue involving Downs. He declined to elaborate _ and still does _ referring only to Chapter 112 Florida law that spells out procedure for investigations of police officers.

The law could serve as a basis for Downs' legal action against the city or Lupo. He could, in theory, make a claim that he was denied due process.

In his letter, Lupo states that Downs fought or ignored disciplinary measures. "You have been consistent in your rejection to use progressive discipline to alter and improve your performance and conduct."

_ Alex Leary covers the city of Port Richey. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is learysptimes.com.

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