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Feds Review Pinellas S.O.

The U.S. Department of Justice has begun a review of whether the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and other county agencies adhere to a consent decree requiring at least 10 percent of deputies to be minorities.The review follows a formal complaint made by sheriff's Deputy Lendel Bright, president of Minority Law Enforcement Personnel of Pinellas County. Bright alleges that the law enforcement wing of the sheriff's office does not comply with the 1979 decree and that minorities often are passed over for promotions. (See "Minority Report," www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-07-10/news_feature.html.)

Kathleen Toomey, a civil-rights attorney for the Justice Department, interviewed minority deputies last week as part of the federal review.

In October, Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said his organization would attempt to intervene on the part of African-American deputies.

If Sheriff Everett Rice can't satisfy the NAACP's demands, Rouson said, the association would consider litigation. "We will employ all methods, traditional and current, to assist the employees," said Rouson.

The federal inquiry has been a long time coming for Bright, who has fought for more diversity at the sheriff's office for six years. Of 582 sworn personnel in law enforcement, the sheriff's office has 44 African-Americans, 16 Latinos and five deputies of other minority race. The agency has had particular trouble recruiting and retaining black deputies. In 1996, the sheriff's office had seven more African-American deputies than it does today.

According to the county Office of Human Rights, however, the sheriff's office has not violated the consent decree. Of 1,468 total deputies, including jail personnel, 232 (18 percent) are of minority race. On the law enforcement side, 65 of 582 deputies (11 percent) are racial minorities.

Should DOJ officials find fault with Rice's administration, federal officials could force the agency to hire and promote additional minorities. Robert Kidd, an African-American sergeant at the sheriff's office, believes the feds need to step in to level the playing field.

"Until we make them ... they're not going to fix it," said Kidd. "They're going to go business as usual."—Trevor Aaronson

Under the Influence

Sad to say, public officials sometimes get picked up for drunken driving.Occasionally, they also get big raises, which taxpayers have to cover.

Seldom, though, does the latter happen three months after the former to the same public official.

But Luanne Panacek is no ordinary civil servant.

The executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County was given a 6.5-percent raise on Nov. 14, the latest in a series of substantial hikes that have lifted her annual pay to $122,500. As recently as 1998, Panacek had to get by on a meager $78,109.

The property tax-supported children's board has shown remarkable compassion for Panacek, despite some criticism of the director even before her Aug. 14 arrest. (See "Not Child's Pay" at www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-02-06/cover.html.)

Panacek, who turns 49 this month, was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol last summer. She blew a 0.186 on a Hillsborough sheriff's breath test, more than twice the legal limit for motorists in Florida. A sheriff's deputy reported her Acura swerving on Dale Mabry in Tampa before the car was pulled over.

Carolyn Bricklemyer, a county school board member who also chairs the children's board, called an emergency meeting after the arrest. The children's board came out with a statement of support for Panacek, who was placed on paid leave for 30 days and allowed to return to work after two weeks.

The board's understanding attitude continued with the recent evaluation of Panacek's job performance during the past year.

A majority of the 10-member board raved about Panacek. Overall, she was rated "far above average," a 4.5 on a scale of 5.0.

Some youth agencies funded by the board were less enthused. But only one children's board member, Deborah Tamargo, dared to oppose Panacek's raise. Two other members, Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms and state child welfare administrator Lynn Richard, were absent for the vote.

The raise was Panacek's smallest in three years. Her 2001 raise was more than 25-percent. Still, most public employees would jump at a 6.5-percent pay increase in any year, especially with the budget problems facing Florida government in 2003.—Francis X. Gilpin

No Hard Feelings

Apparently, Gov. Jeb Bush harbors no ill will toward Weekly Planet for a pre-election slam by Staff Writer Rochelle Renford titled, "10 Reasons Not to Vote for Jeb Bush." (See www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-10-23/cover.html.)Another of our Planet staffers, Lisa Scheeringa, encountered the governor and his entourage during some last-minute, down-home campaigning at the Cracker Barrel in Manatee County on Nov. 3, two days before the general election earlier this month.

Scheeringa had the opportunity to ask Jeb's son, politician-in-the-works George P. Bush, if the younger man was familiar with the Planet. She also asked George P. if he had gotten a chance to read the recent cover story about his dad. P. responded to the question with two enthusiastic thumbs up.

"Yeah, I read it," said P. "Great piece, great piece."

Then Gov. Bush, before finishing his rounds at the restaurant, agreed to pose for a photograph with Scheeringa and her family. Coincidentally, Scheeringa was decked out in a Planet T-shirt for the occasion.

Who says the Bushes can't roll with the punches? We must confess, however, we're a little concerned about P.'s reading comprehension.

Anyhow, we'll be waiting on that engraved invitation to the governor's second inaugural ball in Tallahassee. Thanks, Governor.—Natasha Del Toro

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