BELLEAIR — Over the past several years many communities around the country have held discussions about the funding of police departments, an issue that’s been a hot topic in Belleair, also.
While recent survey results show most of the town’s roughly 4,000 residents are in support of keeping the Belleair Police Department, dissenting opinions have been voiced in various forums, leading some to urge local officials to take definitive legal action designed to preserve and protect the BPD.
“A few years ago, when the town was going through its strategic planning process, putting some additional protections in for the police department in terms of having the voters being able to opine on the matter should we decide to get rid of the police department was an item identified by the commission,” Town Manager J.P. Murphy said by phone Nov. 17, a day after the latest public meeting on the subject.
He noted that during the recent period of civil unrest in the country, the residents’ support of the department grew following changes and programs implemented by former Police Chief Tom Edwards and continued by current Chief Rick Doyle.
“A lot of the things people were asking for we were already doing,” Murphy said, including mental health training, “so we were able to stay out of the fray. But in the meantime, a bunch of people wanted to see additional protections put on the charter.”
Murphy said the urging came in the form of a petition signed by more than 400 residents for a charter amendment that would require a supermajority, or 4 out of 5 members, of the commission vote to abolish the department, and have that decision be ratified by at least 60 percent of the voters for it to be finalized. According to Murphy, the town charter currently states a 4-1 vote from the commission is required for the dissolution of any department, but no public vote is attached to the move.
“So, the commission instructed us to try to figure out a way to make both of those elements work,” he explained.
Murphy said while researching the item with newly installed Town Attorney Jay Daigneault, they discovered conflicts with state statutes that required a different approach to enable the proposed changes.
“We had to go to a 5-0 vote to be compliant with state statute,” he said. “And then the only thing we could do to give the voters the referendum powers or the ability to opine by way of the ballot box for the police department was to do it by ordinance. So, instead of it automatically going to the voters, if the commission votes 5-0, and the voters don’t agree, then they can put the question to the voters.”
During a public discussion of the item on Nov. 2, former deputy mayor Karla Rettstatt spoke for a room full of residents by stating they “feel that the police department is one of our greatest assets and one of our most important assets,” and during the first reading of an ordinance Nov. 16, Rettstatt asked for an explanation and clarification why changes were made to their original request.
“It’s real important that it’s clear what we’re doing today as opposed as what the petition was requesting so I don’t get 400 and something calls saying why didn’t we do what we asked,” Rettstatt said of the petition, which stated in part that in order to “dissolve or dilute” the Belleair Police Department, “there must first receive a supermajority of the commission to get a police change on the ballot.” Once on the ballot, the petition requested that it “must receive 67 percent passage by the voters to move forward.” Murphy later explained the 67 percent figure was deemed unrealistic by the commissioners, and he said the language calling to “dilute” the department was removed due to the potential “logistical nightmares” it could create.
Regardless of the complex legal wordplay involved, one thing was abundantly clear during the recent public discussions of the ordinance — overwhelming support for the proposal and the police department.
“I’m certainly in support of all the protections being put in place, and I certainly supportive of moving ahead with this,” Deputy Mayor Tom Kurey said.
Mayor Tom Wilkinson said he favored approving the item ASAP so they can get it finalized in time for the amendment to be on the March 2022 ballot.
“Let’s button it up tonight,” Wilkinson said, and with that the commission voted 5-0 in favor of the item on first reading, with the second and final reading scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 7.
Afterward, Wilkinson shared his thoughts on the hot-button subject.
“The charter amendment has come about through a resident-initiated petition with the goal being to make it more difficult to for the Town Commission to disband our police department,” Wilkinson said via email.
“As it stands now the commission could vote to disband the department, but if the charter amendment passes, not only would it take a 5-0 commission vote to disband, but it would then trigger the ability of the residents to put a referendum on the ballot for final approval.”
Wilkinson added that during the work on the strategic plan in 2018, “an overwhelming majority of our residents placed a high value on our police department and want to maintain it, and I am definitely in agreement with this.”