Most residents of Holmes Beach at the March 28 special meeting to appoint the city’s new police chief left unhappy.
Outrage over the hastily organized meeting and the leak that Mayor Carmel Monti would be recommending Longboat Key Police Lt. Bill Tokajer over Holmes Beach Interim Chief Dale Stephenson was apparent.
In the ensuing days, Stephenson was locked out of his office by the mayor, resigned effective April 4, and was told by the mayor to collect his things April 1.
He was dismissed.
At the March 28 meeting, resident Andy Sheridan said, “This meeting needs to be moved to another date and time. There is no reason to rush unless there is something to hide. The citizens of Holmes Beach may forgive your choice, but they will never forgive your tactics.”
Islander publisher Bonner Joy questioned the mayor’s choice, as well as the three-months the mayor took to review informal inquiries about the job, which had no deadline and was not advertised.
“I’ve had applicants call and ask me what’s going on,” said Joy. “There were no deadlines, and some of them were not contacted.”
Joy said she feels Stephenson served the city well for 26 years and did not receive a fair chance from the administration to prove his value as chief.
“I was told that he was required by the mayor to fire people and refused and I believe this is a vindictive action,” she said.
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore was unable to attend the meeting, but submitted a letter asking commissioners to table the issue, and for the mayor to reconsider his choice.
“I respectfully suggest you delay the appointment of the chief of police,” wrote Whitmore. “Dale deserves a chance and has the major support and respect of the community. He has proven himself in highly visible situations.”
Whitmore said Stephenson deserved the time to establish his leadership.
Monti said it wasn’t a “slam on Dale. I saw no plan for a second in command to take over the chief’s role.”
Monti said retired Police Chief Jay Romine did not recommend a replacement, but did submit a recommendation letter for Stephenson during the review process. The mayor said he found it “bizarre.”
“He’s done an exceptional job as lieutenant, and I have asked him to stay on, but that’s his decision,” said Monti. “I’m recommending Tokajer because we have issues in the police department that need to be addressed.”
Stephenson resigned after the meeting, opting to take retirement.
Former Commissioner John Monetti, voted out of office in November, took exception to the mayor’s comments that there are issues within the police force, and that Stephenson did not have the support of the staff.
“Let me offer an inside view,” said Monetti, referring to his past experience. “I know a lot more than you do, mayor, and a lot more than some of our commissioners.”
Monetti criticized the hastily organized special meeting, saying special meetings are reserved for emergencies, not to select a department head. He said Stephenson did have the support of the department, “but this isn’t about Dale. This process is flawed. Why do you feel the need to have a special meeting without vetting the public?”
Commissioner Marvin Grossman left the meeting before it began, saying outside the meeting room he was experiencing an elevated heart rate, which he monitors with his smartphone. Grossman has a pacemaker.
Commissioner David Zaccagnino was the lone dissenter in a 3-1 vote to confirm the mayor’s appointment of Tokajer as the city’s new top cop.
“This has been one of the top three decisions I’ve made in eight years as commissioner,” said Zaccagnino. “Dale is the real choice. He has the integrity and trust of the citizens. He deserves the position as permanent chief.”
Commissioner Pat Morton moved to approve the mayor’s recommendation. Commissioner Judy Titsworth seconded the motion, she said, to open the floor for discussion.
Zaccagnino claimed the mayor did not perform due diligence in recommending Tokajer.
“This gentleman has applied for many, many chief jobs in the last several years,” he said. “He wants to be chief more than his interest in this city. His allegiance to us may not be what we think.”
Zaccagnino presented Tokajer’s personnel file — a 4-5 inch stack of papers, from which he had added up 16 disciplinary actions in just the top third of the stack from Tokajer’s career with the Bradenton Police Department.
In contrast, the commissioner displayed Stephenson’s file, a 1-inch stack of papers with no disciplinary actions in 26 years of service to the city.
“And two police chiefs told me ‘anybody but Tokajer,’” said Zaccagnino. “This is not the right choice.”
Titsworth said her duty as commissioner is to support the mayor unless she feels the mayor is doing something wrong. She said she was torn in her decision because both men “are great guys.”
Commission Chair Jean Peelen said Tokajer would not have been her choice, but also said it was important to support the mayor’s decision.
“It should never be an automatic that someone gets promoted to a top position just because they are a wonderful person,” she said. “This would not have been my decision, but I do need to support the mayor.”
Titsworth, Morton and Peelen voted to support the mayor’s recommendation to hire Tokajer. Morton was absent.
Tokajer’s personnel file shows a two-week suspension from duty without pay, an at-fault traffic accident and failing to report a domestic dispute between another office and his wife, for which he was suspended from duty, as well as other at-fault traffic incidents, improper paperwork and safety violations.
In other matters, commissioners unanimously approved temporary building official Tom O’Brien as the building department inspector effective April 15.