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Friday, Aug 29, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Head hurting over law-enforcement academy turf dispute

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Every time the topic comes up about the prolonged rancor between two prominent Pasco entities — the sheriff’s office and the state college — I want to reach for the Excedrin. I probably am not alone in admitting this.

I mean, the dispute is so deeply bureaucratic and so layered in distinctions without apparent differences, you’re tempted to wonder if the fuss isn’t simply over territory that ranks somewhere between Vladimir Putin’s designs on eastern Ukraine and whether your neighbor’s new fence fudged the property line.

At issue — since last summer — is operation of the joint police academy at Pasco-Hernando State College.

Sheriff Chris Nocco claims the school is ethically challenged (there have been some unflattering incidents) and its staff is an unhealthy repository of disgruntled ex-employees determined to prejudice trainees against him. In January, Nocco proposed establishing an academy in partnership with the Pasco County School District; in March the sheriff issued a memo blocking current employees from being employed by PHSC.

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By way of response, PHSC President Katherine Johnson brandished a sterling audit by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Nocco dismissed the audit, which failed to include classroom visits or a review of training equipment. Would the health department inspect a restaurant without spending time in its kitchen?

Nonetheless, the bickering parties resumed negotiations at the urging of other influential Pascoans, among them Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning and state House Speaker Will Weatherford, but soon arrived at loggerheads over a single issue: Who would appoint and have responsibility for the academy’s director?

PHSC argued it couldn’t surrender authority over the director without risking its accreditation. Nocco replied his proposal was simply modeled after the partnership between Polk State College and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

That was how things stood as the Legislature entered the home stretch of its annual session last week, and Weatherford — his term-limited time commanding the gavel running short — had had enough, an eye-popping break from self-imposed precedent. In two years as speaker, he’d acted as its advocate and ably directed unprecedented public dollars toward Pasco, but had scrupulously avoided stomping around in hometown politics.

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That was then. This was after PHSC had risen from state budget afterthought to among the most favorably funded on Weatherford’s watch, making it part of his legacy and giving him a fair amount of skin in this otherwise intramural match. Saying it was time for Nocco and Johnson — both of whom he calls “my friend” — to “act like grown-ups,” Weatherford slipped an amendment into the final budget setting an Oct. 1 deadline for settling their dispute, or the state would revoke PHSC’s law-enforcement certification.

Calling it a “Solomonic solution” designed to extract the best possible offer from each side, Weatherford described the baby at stake: “If the college and the sheriff can’t agree, we won’t have an academy. Why should the state spend the money” if there’s no partnership?

Picking the winner here is a tough call, although members of the sheriff’s staff seemed positively upbeat while PHSC’s public pose was measured.

In a move suggesting confidence, Nocco immediately lifted the moratorium on employees teaching at the academy, accompanied by a news release predicting creation of “a partnership to develop a world-class academy and training center.” PHSC spokeswoman Lucy Miller said, less enthusiastically, “We look forward to a positive outcome.”

Which, you can bet, is public-relations-speak for “Pass the Excedrin. Make it migraine strength.”

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