Accountability for a recent dog drowning death near the Casino was the issue that began the Gulfport city council meeting as Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent read a special two-part statement on December 6.
Though his presentation was not scheduled on the formal meeting agenda, the chief spoke first by invitation from Mayor Sam Henderson. Vincent added clarity about law enforcement procedure while admonishing members of the public for creating disparaging information that has been reverberating on social media and throughout much of Gulfport, which some locals have nicknamed “Dogport.”
“We tend to be quite a rumor mill as a city, especially with social media,” said Henderson. “But, I’ve never seen it quite to the level of the misunderstandings about the dog that died down at the beach around Thanksgiving. As a dog-loving community, people want to know.”
It began on November 23 when Gulfport police officers were dispatched to a call about a drowning dog in Boca Ciega Bay and “when they arrived, they found a man hunched over the animal that had already expired,” said Vincent. “The owner was cooperative and his statements confirm what witnesses observed and reported.”
According to the police report, a muscular, 2-year-old pit bull was wearing a heavy metal chain, estimated to weigh between 10 to 20 pounds, which caused it to struggle to survive after the owner threw it off the Casino’s dock and into the water. “The owner went into the water, pulling the dog to shore where he tried to perform CPR,” said Vincent.
After their investigation, the officers consulted with the state attorney’s office on the topic of animal cruelty and “the decision was made to process the case as a ‘non-arrest invest,’” he said. “Because there was no arrest, the right to speedy trial does not apply, which means the prosecutor can take his or her time before making a decision.”
City Attorney Andrew Salzman said, “The process is that arrests or information on criminal violations are brought to the state attorney’s office. The state attorney’s office is the one who decides what the ultimate charge will be, whether it’s the same as [what is] being brought in the information or not. What the chief described is a typical way these matters are handled. The police can make a recommendation, but the state decides what to charge.”
The police report suggests the owner should be charged with the Florida statute that prohibits animal cruelty and at the level of a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
“I am confident that the officers made the right decision in this case,” said Vincent. “The suspect is local [to St. Petersburg] and is not a flight risk, and he can be held accountable for his actions with less risk of errors being made in haste.”
In reaction to some statements being made about law enforcement, he said, “I am saddened by the public comments suggesting that the Gulfport Police Department does not care about animals. This could not be further from the truth.”
He referenced five years of postings on the department’s official Facebook page that provide examples of how officers help lost pets and rescue wildlife.
“We are extremely compassionate when it comes to animals, and this case is no exception,” said Vincent. “The officers who responded to this scene were personally affected by what they saw, but they acted professionally without letting emotions dictate their decisions.
“Everyone in the department is upset, but we all stand behind what was done and what is being done to ensure accountability.”
Council members expressed support for the department.
“I know this is a very emotional issue,” said Councilmember Christine Brown. “I’m sad there were posts that degraded the department. I feel so relieved to have this department in our city. Sometimes, when we don’t know what to do, we need to leave it to the professionals. I trust and believe in you.”
“It’s good to hear that,” said Vincent.
Tomlinson Park Playground Equipment Approved
The council passed a resolution, which City Manager Jim O’Reilly described as “another step in the improvements to the park. We received a $17,000 grant award from the Pinellas County Health Department and this just keeps moving the process along. Young families are excited there will be playground equipment for two age groups there.”
Brown added, “Three if you count the adult fitness center.”
“The exercise equipment is similar to what is available at Azalea Park [in St. Petersburg] and it [will have] wheelchair accessibility. It’s really great stuff,” said Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich.
He added, “Have we decided what we’re going to do with the pad right now?” The pad is the location of the former skateboard park that has been the topic of controversy over the past nine months regarding noise issues for nearby residents.
“The pad will be removed and be made into a green space,” said O’Reilly.
“Fantastic,” said Fridovich.
“That leaves room for a beach volleyball court too,” said Councilmember Dan Liedtke.
“I’d like to see us incorporate sails for shade on as many playgrounds as we possibly can,” said Brown.
“Once we receive the cost for the removal of the pad, then we’ll work through that,” said O’Reilly.
Mayor Proposes Draft LGBT Legislative Recommendation
“I am basically asking for the state to remove barriers to the LBGT community being able to have equal housing, equal employment and the ability of same-sex couples to adopt children,” said Henderson. “It’s short enough to be read. This is just a draft. It addresses the major concerns. The steps we have taken here in Gulfport and then the steps that have been taken at the federal level, I’d just like this state to go ahead and drop the other shoe just say, ‘We’re all the same.’”
Council has the choice of making this a resolution, which the mayor says he prefers, or it can be in the form of a letter that members can choose to sign.
“I’m in favor of a resolution,” said Fridovich.
“It’s absolutely terrific,” said Councilperson Yolanda Roman.
With consensus, council members directed the city staff to prepare a resolution for future consideration.
City Priority List Numbers 52 Items
“This is a very long list,” said Brown. “We’re not being very kind to you.”
The two-page, single-spaced memo outlines what council members have indicated are priority topics since August, said O’Reilly.
He provided the document as a “one location” reference to council members to use as an organizational tool for the next nine months.
“Some of these are in progress like the marina building,” said O’Reilly. Others will become part of a three- to five-year planned timeline.
“We always provide a five-year financial plan, as we move toward the budget process, to show where our strengths and weaknesses are as we apply these [topics],” he said. “Every week, we try to leverage our dollars. We wouldn’t be able to buy some of these things without major impacts on our budget” without also seeking grant monies.
Registration Opens for the 2017 MLK Day of Service
Registration for participating in the city’s third annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is now open and it will be held in Tomlinson Park, located at 19th Avenue S. and 54th Street S., on Saturday, January 14 in conjunction with similar events nationwide.
“Dr. King devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and economic opportunity for all,” said Henderson in a city video prepared for the event and showcased at the council meeting. “Gulfport residents, community groups and organizations will step up and serve as volunteers on a variety of projects throughout the area.”
To register, visit mygulfport.us/mlkdayofservice. Registered projects will be added to Gulfport’s official list and will be recognized during the opening and closing ceremonies.