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Poor performance leads to pastor's firing from police

The Rev. Ronald Clark lasted just 146 days as a Zephyrhills police officer.

Chief Russell Barnes fired him Tuesday, citing a host of job performance issues.

"There was no one incident," Barnes said Wednesday. "I'll let the personnel file speak for itself."

According to those internal memos and reports obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, superiors complained that:

+ Clark was found taking a break parked on the tarmac of the Zephyrhills Airport, with his cruiser's lights off, watching a DVD movie on an agency laptop. The report did not list the movie's title but said the content was not objectionable. Breaks should be taken in public areas, the memo said.

+ He once claimed to be patroling an area, but fellow officers saw him speed by without stopping to get out of his police car.

+ He often missed work, especially Sundays, the day he was at his other job as pastor at the Sanctuary of Tampa Bay.

+ Clark failed to show up for a Jan. 16 late shift and had his wife call in sick for him; she claimed her husband was too tired from morning testimony in traffic court and that he had taken a sleeping pill.

+ He affected the morale of officers who had to cover for his frequent absences.

+ He failed to complete reports on time and turned them in late without explanation.

"The reasons were numerous minor but cumulative personnel issues that we really should not have encountered," Barnes wrote in a memo to City Manager Steve Spina, "particularly with an experienced officer of his age, but did - repeatedly."

Those issues follow complaints about Clark at his last law enforcement job, as an unpaid reserve deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

His superiors there wrote in 2003 that Clark failed to turn over his weapon when a temporary domestic violence injunction was filed against him; entrusted his cruiser and agency-issued shotgun to a civilian; failed to show up for duty; failed to return agency equipment; and failed to report a deputy's attempt to cover up an accident.

Controversy also dogged Clark as a pastor that year. His now-defunct Living Water Church of Tampa underwent bankruptcy during a bitter and public divorce with ex-wife Belinda Clark. His current church said its own investigation has cleared Clark of allegations of wrongdoing brought up three years ago as his old church imploded.

He resigned as a volunteer sheriff's deputy after nine months. Then-Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson told the Times in 2003 that he was concerned by allegations that Clark broke department rules and performed poorly.

The sheriff's memos, though, were not in Clark's Hillsborough personnel file when Zephyrhills conducted its background check. While Barnes said Clark told him he didn't know about the memos, the former officer did discuss those issues with the oral review board before his hiring.

Barnes stood by the 49-year-old rookie officer, saying he wasn't concerned because the memos detailed violations of department policy, not disciplinary policy.

The chief said Clark performed well in the field-training officer program, even finishing the 14-week trial two weeks early. But the chief was at a loss to explain what happened to Clark once he was cleared to patrol on his own Nov. 29.

"I don't know what the cause of it was," Barnes said. "I don't know why there was a change in performance."

Barnes said he had been thinking about firing Clark before Tuesday, when the probationary officer handed over badge No. 397.

Clark's attorney, Dennis Alfonso, said Wednesday the chief told Clark there had to be an internal affairs investigation into allegations of poor job performance.

"Rob just said "I'm not going to submit to another internal investigation,' " Alfonso said, "and the chief said "Well, you're fired.' "

Clark had previously told the chief he was unaware of any internal memos criticizing him as a Hillsborough deputy. He failed to list them and his finances on his Zephyrhills police application. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated Clark's application and hiring at Zephyrhills and cleared him in December.

Clark defended himself after the written admonishment he received for missing his Jan. 16 shift and said he was concerned about "repercussions" from his sergeant. But Barnes' Feb. 2 response chided the officer to be more organized.

Alfonso said his client wants to spend more time with his children and has given up on a career in law enforcement. Clark also said he didn't want the agency to endure any more scrutiny because of him.

Sanctuary of Tampa Bay spokeswoman Sue Bull said they're not concerned about Clark's being fired from the police force.

"We're just really happy that he is going to be full-time working as our pastor."