May 18, 2020
BRADENTON — Tensions erupted during Wednesday's Bradenton City Council meeting when the council returned to the subject of a proposed charter referendum to remove mayoral oversight of the city's police department. Councilman Patrick Roff, who favors the referendum, said he was outraged to learn that despite a recent evidence room scandal, the BPD was storing evidence in a room adjacent to the city auditorium.
Roff said he was only informed of the matter when a neighbor, who'd tried to book the auditorium for an event, told him that it was the reason she was given as to why it wasn't available.
"That's outrageous," said Roff. "It's outrageous. We've already had a crisis. We had the FBI come in, and we're doing it again? And you're wondering why I'm concerned? We give that department $20 million, gentlemen. That's taxpayer money. That's our responsibility to oversee."
Roff then turned to Mayor Wayne Poston. "I am outraged with your behavior," said Roff. "You're supposed to inform us of this crap."
"You get about half of a story and you go crazy," responded Poston.
Roff said he didn't receive any story and accused the mayor of "running a secret organization."
There was then some discussion about whether the council had ever been informed of the practice with councilmen Gene Gallo and Gene Brown saying that they could recall the matter being discussed previously, though they couldn't be completely certain it was in a council meeting.
Councilman Bill Sanders, who was elected in 2018, said he was certain it hadn't been discussed during his tenure, to which Gallo asserted that he believed it may have been prior to his election.
"That's not the way that it should work," said Sanders. "That's not transparent."
Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan was then called in to respond.
"Yes, I think we started that maybe about three years ago," said Bevan. "Obviously, we expand, (we) have no expansion area that's necessarily secure enough, so we had the opportunity to use an upstairs area that's never been used. We fortified it. We sealed it off. We alarmed it. It's been one of our secondary evidence facilities. We actually have four, but this happens to be one that's a little bit more secure than the other ones."
Roff said that he shouldn't be learning of something so critical from a neighbor who didn't even work for the city, reminding the chief that he was elected to oversee the treasury. Roff said he was not comfortable with the "cozy relationship" between the chief and the mayor, to which Poston responded, "that cozy relationship is in the charter, and until you change that, she reports to me, and that's just the way it is. I understand you don't like that, but you haven't changed it yet."
"You do not have the authority for the $20 million that goes to the department, sir," said Roff. "That's the flaw of the charter. You don't have a dime without three votes of the council."
"Yet the council has always voted for that without an issue in the 20 years I've been here," said Poston.
"That's what I'm trying to fix," replied Roff.
Bevan then addressed Roff's comments.
"I will tell you I don't appreciate the comment that I'm in a cozy relationship," said the chief. "I'm not sure what you're insinuating, but I will tell you that I'm putting you on notice that that's inappropriate to say to me."
Bevan added that since she became chief, there had been three audits to the evidence room, and each had 100 percent accountability to evidence and property.
Roff apologized and said that "cozy" was the wrong word to use and said that he meant communication that did not involve the council. He agreed with Chief Bevan's assessment of the audits but said that if it happened once, it could happen again.
"No, it can't," Bevan interrupted. "I have checks and balances set up. I have a very clear audit system that passes the muster with FDLE, that passes muster with everybody. I can't speak to what happened before, but what I will tell you is that it won't happen on my watch and if it does, somebody is gonna go to jail for it. It means someone has overtly stolen, but even then we have checks and balances to ensure people are held accountable."
In February of 2017, two civilian employees—husband and wife Jake and Cynthia Zaagman—were charged with theft after stealing at least $20,000 in cash over a five-year period from the department's evidence room. The FBI assisted Bradenton Police detectives with an investigation that took close to one year. The financial discrepancies were discovered during an internal audit. Chief Bevan ordered the criminal investigation. The acts themselves took place before she'd been hired, under former chief Michael Radzilowski.
If placing the mayoral question on the charter referendum passes 3-2, as expected, Poston would have the opportunity to veto the ordinance, in which case a 4-1 vote would be needed to override. Roff hinted at Wednesday's meeting that was that to be the case, he'd then move to put the question of switching to the city manager form of government, in which the council hires a top administrator to have oversight of all departments. The manager would report to the board and the role of "mayor" would be reduced to a figurehead title that rotated among council members, empowered to do little more than run the council meetings.
Gallo, who has said he's open to the idea of a city manager referendum, warned that there would be less oversight of department heads by councilmen were there to be a city manager. He gave the county administrator as an example and told Roff that if he had a problem under such a system, he could only talk to the city manager who had direct oversight of the department heads.
Roff responded that he wasn't looking for a "power grab," and that he had no desire to micromanage department heads.
"I want everything to be a transparent, functional form of government," said Roff. "I don't run around trying to control department heads and I don't want to control department heads. I think they know what they're doing, and I support them in their actions, and I'm not trying to seize power. I don't want any power, Gene. I'm not running again. That's how much power I want. I'm gonna finish up my two and a half years and get out of this mess. I don't want power, and I don't want control. I just want good government. I just want to do the job that I was elected to do."