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Council members mostly OK with Bob Buckhorn decision to hire within TPD for new chief

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Of all the relationships that a big-city mayor has, the one with their police chief is considered paramount.

Last summer in St. Petersburg, Rick Kriseman alienated some City Council members who felt they deserved more of an opportunity to weigh in on a replacement for outgoing chief Chuck Harmon. The mayor then surprised everyone by chucking his four finalists and picking Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway to lead the SPPD.

Now it’s Bob Buckhorn’s turn.

Although the recently re-elected mayor said back in January that he had not ruled out a national search to replace outgoing chief Jane Castor when she departs in May, Buckhorn now says there’s “nothing broken” in the department, as he contemplates between three internal candidates to succeed Castor, who leaves the TPD after 30 years of service later this spring.

“I’m a big believer in promoting from within,” Buckhorn said on Wednesday. “I want the men and women of the Tampa Police Department to know that there’s upward mobility. That if they excel at their job, there’s going to be opportunities for them to move up the ranks.”

Calling it the most important personnel selection he’s had and probably will have as mayor, Buckhorn says he has confidence in the three people “that we have groomed for this position.”

They are Assistant Chief Eric Ward and Deputy Chiefs Brian Dugan and Mary O’Connor.

Not everyone believes staying inside the department is beneficial.

In an editorial last month, the Tampa Bay Times strongly suggested Buckhorn is going about it wrong in limiting his choices to within the TPD. The paper referred to the fact that six officers have been fired on misconduct charges in the past two years, there was a scandal in the DUI unit, and there were strong indications of “sloppy mismanagement of confidential informants.” Ultimately, the editorial warned that the city was limiting itself by not making a national search:

The question isn’t whether the department is “broken;” that would be an immediate crisis for the mayor to resolve. The question is whether the chief’s job in the 21st century should be reserved for a connected insider instead of being opened to the widest field of qualified candidates.

Buckhorn strongly disagrees with any idea that there are any serious problems within the TPD.

“Obviously when you have a thousand employees, there’s always going to be folks who do the wrong thing, but I think for the most part this is one of the highest-performing, most competent, most culturally correct departments in the country,” he says. “So it’s not in need of an overhaul. It’s not in need of drastic change. It is in need of finding somebody to replace Jane Castor,  who can fill those shoes and take us to the next level.”

A sampling of opinion among some City Council members shows a similar faith in a replacement coming out of the department ranks, but it’s not unanimous.

“Originally I was supporting the mayor in establishing a national search,” says Councilman Frank Reddick. “I was hoping that was the direction he was going to go, and I think that even though you have three candidates currently in house, I just felt it would have been wise to broaden that base.”

Councilwoman Lisa Monteleone disagrees.

“I think we have a unique culture here in Tampa, and I’m not sure that someone from the outside would really understand the culture that we have here,” she says. Referring to how both the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization and the Hillsborough County Planning Commission recently promoted from within, she adds, “If we had people who were not qualified to take the helm, then I would say, absolutely, we need to do that national search. But when you have people who are not only qualified, but have been groomed and trained to take the helm, why would you spend taxpayer money to look for somebody else that needed to be groomed and trained?”

Those were almost the exact same words by Hillsborough County School Board members last week in voting to hire interim superintendent Jeff Eakins to succeed the ousted MaryEllen Elia, though others in the community (and three of the seven board members) felt it was wiser to delve into a national search.

Two other Council members — Mary Mulhern and Yolie Capin — say that their own personal choice to succeed Castor was former Assistant Chief John Bennett. However, Bennett retired last month.

“He was very, very good,” says Capin. “But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others (within the TPD).” She expresses surprise that Buckhorn hasn’t already made up his mind yet, noting how this decision has been a long time coming.

Castor was scheduled to retire a year ago but opted to stay an additional year due to Buckhorn’s cajoling.

“I think a chief from outside would be better at rooting out bad apples,” says Mulhern. “But that is not going to happen, and it doesn’t mean that an insider won’t be a good chief in other ways.”

The decision on a new chief also exposes the differences in how the Tampa Bay area’s two biggest local governments work.

Although the city charter flatly prohibits St. Petersburg City Council members from having any say in who their mayor picks as police chief, council members’ complaints led to their getting the opportunity to meet and engage with the police chief candidates on a one-to-one basis last summer (before Kriseman went outside the system).

There is no such clamor to do the same in Tampa. In fact, after offering  her opinion, Councilwoman Yolie Capin said, “I don’t think the mayor cares about my opinion.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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