Castell out, city scrambles to replace chief

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By Jenna McKenna

Cedar Key City Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday against continuing its contract with police chief Bubba Castell.

Island and area residents filled the City Hall commission room, overflowed the porch and packed the lawn on two sides of the building, trying to hear the proceedings in the first commission meeting since the May 6 election.

Due to an erroneous headline in the Gainesville Sun, some may have thought there would be commission action on the April 28 incident in which two officers were involved in the Taser stunning of an area fisherman, but no such item was on the agenda.

The commission, with outgoing members Vanessa Edmunds and Paul Oliver, opened the meeting that would admit the newly-elected commissioners to their seats. City clerk Frances Hodges swore in Heath Davis and Scott Dennison, who took the chairs vacated by Edmunds and Oliver.

When nominations for mayor opened, Commissioner Sue Colson spoke in favor of Heath Davis, apparently expecting opposition. None came, and he was elected. Colson was elected vice-mayor.

The police chief's contract was the first voted on among all city department heads. Commissioners Pat O'Neal and Gene Hodges voted to continue Castell's contract; commissioners Colson, Dennison and Davis voted against. The commission then moved quickly through the rest of the contracts, unanimously voting to retain Hodges as city clerk, David Coffey as city attorney, James McCain as fire chief and deferring the cemetery board liaison.

The expectant crowd seemed almost at a loss at the anticlimactic proceedings. For a while, Castell stood against the wall near the podium, surrounded both by supporters and detractors. Hodges asked Davis if he wouldn't mind letting some of those gathered make their comments, since they'd gone to the trouble of coming to the meeting.

Davis pointed out that the chief's contract had not been renewed, but Hodges pressed.

Danny Beckham, the man subdued in the Taser incident, was present but did not speak. Dan Holland, who is assisting Beckham in his planned lawsuit, did.

"We're all here in a show of support for the change of direction in the police department," he said.

"Not all of us!" countered Jan Allen, who expressed her support for Castell's strict policy concerning DUI.

Dottie Haldeman also expressed support for Castell's DUI policy, telling of the accident with a drunk driver that, in 1968, caused her then-17-year-old brother to be paralyzed from the waist down. "If all that happens to you if you cross the white line is that you are stopped by an officer, that is a minor inconvenience compared to spending your life in a wheelchair," she said.

Tonya Witt recounted the story of her son's ordeal over a golf cart traffic stop, a stop she says was not based in the law.

"We went to court and it was proved wrong," she said. "I just don't want to see an abuse of authority."

Several in the audience said they welcomed a change of direction, even as they were sorry to see Castell go.

"Nobody wants drunks on the road," said Nina Calvert. "But the problem is when our visitors quit coming to Cedar Key. Some of our restaurant employees can't pay their rent because they don't have enough customers to tip them. I love Bubba - he's family - but our visitors are scared of the police department.

Hodges reminded those in attendance that with Castell out, the commission would still have to find a new police chief, and he would be expected to enforce the laws.

"If anybody's intoxicated and they get behind the wheel," he said. "I want them arrested. Or if they're speeding - especially in a school zone - I want them arrested. If he don't arrest them, I'm looking to fire him."

"What about the old days," Calvert asked, "when they used to take them home and talk to them so they wouldn't do it any more?"

Pat Deverin expressed a worry that with Castell out, some officers might take vindictive action against some of those speaking in the meeting. Davis, incredulous, assured her this would not happen.

Following the meeting, commissioners remained to determine how to move forward on an acting police chief.

Coffey said he had read the charter and determined the city had some options. First, he said, the action taken on the chief's contract was merely to not renew it.

"You didn't remove him from office, you just didn't renew his contract," he said.

This means the commission could ask Castell to remain in office for a "reasonable period of time" (not defined) in order to give the commission time to find a suitable replacement.

Another option would see the commission selecting an acting chief from the officers currently in the department. Commissioner O'Neal, in his capacity over the police department, said the two ranking officers remaining were, in rank order, Sgt. John McMullen and Cpl. Eddie Merritt.

"Either of these would make a fine acting chief," he said.

Holland was recognized again and said he felt the people would not have confidence in McMullen, but would accept Merritt. O'Neal then noted that Merritt was on vacation.

Coffey said one more alternative existed - that of the mayor himself taking on the duties of acting police chief in a purely administrative role.

"You wouldn't be allowed to make arrests," he told Davis.

Davis was strongly opposed to the last option, but on considering the three, was gradually persuaded that it might be the only viable plan. Merritt was on vacation, and would have to be contacted and persuaded to return. Castell, he was told, had already cleaned out his desk and was unlikely to return for temporary duty.

Reluctantly, Davis said he would start immediately, making sure the officers scheduled for the night and following day would adhere to their commitments.

Officers David Reinstra and Steven Ippolito, on duty until 6 a.m. Wednesday, said they would certainly fulfill their shifts, but added that they feared for the security of their own jobs.

"I don't know how much longer they'll let us stay," Reinstra said.

Presstime update

Mayor Heath Davis said Wednesday afternoon that Cpl. Eddie Merrit has been maintaining the schedules for CKPD and will continue to do so until he returns Saturday from his vacation, at which time he and Davis will meet.

All shifts are covered until then, and citizens should rest assured that whether they dial 543-5180 or 911, their call will go to LCSO dispatch in Bronson and be answered promptly.

Davis added that he has met with Sheriff Johnny Smith, and Smith has offered the city the services of a deputy.