Bluffs Firefighter Suspended as Sheriff Continues a Probe
by Leo Coughlin
BELLEAIR BLUFFS - Charles Barlet, a member of the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department, has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending further investigation by the Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's investigation has been going on now for several weeks, at the request of Mayor Chris Arbutine.
Barlet's suspension from duty was learned last week. He holds the rank of lieutenant in the department.
Barlet has been the center of controversy in the department and has been severely criticized by at least one Bluffs official, Dave Shimkus, a member of the commission.
Shimkus circulated an e-mail that was highly critical of Barlet when controversy erupted in the department, a set of circumstances that began in mid-summer and resulted in the Largo fire chief, Karry Bell, losing his job.
Largo is the administrative agency of the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department under a contractual arrangement between the two cities.
There was a confrontation between Bell and Barlet at the end of July. Bell was accused of using improper language. He got no backing, as usual, from his Largo superiors, but Arbutine came to his defense.
It did no good and Bell, getting no support from the weak willed Largo administration, left. A new chief has been subsequently been thrown into the mix - the third one in the past year.
Following all that brouhaha, Arbutine requested Sheriff Jim Coats to investigate the situation and the Sheriff's Office Investigative Division has been working on it.
When Bell became the focus of an investigation last summer, it was Shimkus who insisted on a local investigation of Barlet, urging his fellow commissioners to support his stand.
In his message to his colleagues Shimkus said, "As we try to better this department there is no room for this kind of leadership, or lack there of. We don't need our department heads or city commission challenged on a daily basis through grievances, in person, or in the newspaper.
"I would ask that Lt. Barlet be given the same option that Chief Kerry Bell from Largo was, the option to resign now, pending dismissal. We need positive people in leadership roles in our fire department, responsible leaders that have their crews ready to spring into action at a moment's notice with the proper equipment and uniform, it is clear Lt. Barlet can not do this, or more importantly, chooses not to."
This came after a flurry of grievances that had been filed by Barlet. This actually was nothing new because over the past 10 years he has been in the center of a lot of contention in the fire department.
Months ago, when the Bell-Barlet controversy was red hot, a local tabloid weekly reported that Barlet said that the city clerk of Belleair Bluffs, Debra Sullivan, had become involved in fire department grievances.
Bartlet said that Sullivan ordered him to go through her rather than the Largo fire administration with complaints.
All Barlet's assertions were called "totally false" at the time by Arbutine.
Shimkus said at the time, "Barlet clearly and deliberately lied to a newspaper reporter about the status of grievances, the union contract and attacked our city clerk."
Discussion of improvements to the firefighters pension fund was taken up by the Bluffs commission last week. The firefighters want increased pension benefits and the subject is still under scrutiny.
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