2 Holmes Beach commissioners square off over police chief

What was supposed to be an informal celebratory swearing in ceremony for new Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer turned hostile at an April 9 city commission meeting.

Tokajer was hired March 28, during a hastily organized special meeting where commissioners voted 4-1 to accept Mayor Carmel Monti’s recommendation to hire him over longtime HBPD veteran Dale Stephenson, who resigned after the meeting.

The lone dissenter was Commissioner David Zaccagnino, who presented past disciplinary issues in Tokajer’s personnel file that included covering for an officer who pointed a gun at his wife’s head, numerous at-fault traffic accidents and hindering a police brutality investigation.

Most of the incidents are more than 20 years old and Tokajer climbed the ranks within the Bradenton Police Department to become second in command before taking a position as captain with the Longboat Key Police Department in 2011.

He is a 26-year veteran of law enforcement dating back to 1979, when he served as a military policeman in the U.S. Army.

City clerk Stacey Johnston swore Tokajer into office April 9. The new chief thanked the commission and mayor for the opportunity and said he is looking forward to working with the community.

Tokajer and his family left, and the meeting went downhill from there.

During commissioner comments at the end of the meeting, Commission Chair Jean Peelen admonished Zaccagnino for what she said was a public bashing of Tokajer at the March 28 meeting called to confirm Tokajer’s appointment.

“I was distressed, very distressed that a candidate was publicly trashed by a commissioner,” she said. “I was disturbed that applying for a job gets you publicly condemned.”

Peelen referred to Zaccagnino pointing out Tokajer’s past disciplinary issues. While she said Tokajer did have two “notable” incidents, she made reference to lesser incidents in which Tokajer forgot to apply his vehicle’s emergency brake and another when he opened his patrol car door and struck a pedestrian.

Peelen demanded that Zaccagnino publicly apologize to Tokajer. That apology would not come.

“Of all the people here, it’s your responsibility to uncover the facts,” Zaccagnino told Peelen. “Do not kill the messenger. He failed a lie detector test and he failed to report an officer holding a gun against his wife’s head. These are the facts. It’s your responsibility to vet the facts.”

Zaccagnino said it was his job as an elected official to present all of the facts to the public and criticized Peelen for not doing her job and serving the public in an open manner.

Commissioner Pat Morton sided with Peelen and commissioners then began to speak over one another before Peelen said, “Let’s stop this back and forth.”

Zaccagnino told Peelen she was the one who brought it up. “You started it,” he said.

Commissioner Judy Titsworth called for reason.

“It wasn’t our decision to keep Stephenson on,” she said. “He was already not selected to be the next chief. Emotions should have been put aside and we need to look at Tokajer for who he is. It was a very hard decision, but I think every commissioner here vetted Tokajer.”

Not everyone agreed.

During public comment, resident Andy Sheridan criticized the city for hastily organizing a special meeting on an important decision, calling it an “affront to the citizens.”

Sheridan wanted to know if the commissioners read Tokajer’s file before or after they voted. Both Peelen and Morton had already said they read Tokajer’s file after the March 28 confirmation, but Peelen interrupted Sheridan saying commissioners would not answer his question.

Sheridan raised his voice, saying he had the right to ask the question and Peelen continued to interrupt him.

Monti then threatened to have Sheridan escorted from the chambers.

The mayor said Sheridan was reaching the point of becoming disruptive and uncivil, and Peelen then asked him to conclude his comments.

Monti then criticized Zaccagnino for comments published in The Islander regarding the mayor changing the locks on his office and on Stephenson’s office.

Monti said he had the right to protect his own privacy in changing his locks, and said Stephenson was aware that he had changed the locks “to protect his files.”

Zaccagnino said he failed to understand the mayor’s complaint.

“Are both of those (statements) not true? I was asked a question and I answered it,” he said, of the comments published in The Islander.

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