By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge commissioners went to a goal-setting workshop thinking their biggest challenge was rebuilding the town’s drainage and wastewater systems.
Then Police Chief Hal Hutchins told them how desperately relations between his officers and residents need rebuilding.
“Right now, unfortunately we’re at a breaking point and I need to come up with a solution to fix the problem,” Hutchins said.
The chief asked the commission to spend about $20,000 to equip his officers with body cameras so their encounters with residents can be recorded.
“There is an air of distrust of the police in the town of Ocean Ridge,” he said during the April 18 workshop. “I continue to hear that. I have been receiving complaints against officers from members of the community that I believe are probably directed at a specific group of officers, for whatever reason.”
Hutchins said he polled his officers and they unanimously supported getting body cameras. He told the commission he “never felt that it is more necessary than now” to use the recording devices.
“I would say the officers are not feeling well and safe in their job,” the chief said.
Mayor Steve Coz and Vice Mayor Don MaGruder echoed the same response to Hutchins’ request: “It’s disturbing.”
Commissioner Kristine de Haseth said giving police the cameras was a way of giving “a vote of confidence” to the department.
“I want that message to be very loud and clear,” de Haseth said. “Because the small faction in this town that is being divisive and disruptive is shameful and I’m embarrassed by it and it should not be affecting morale.”
Relations between residents and police have been strained since October 2016, when Ocean Ridge police arrested former Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella at his home after a shooting incident. Lucibella accused the arresting officers of overreacting.
On Feb. 1, a six-person jury found Lucibella guilty of a lesser charge of misdemeanor battery but cleared him on felony charges of resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer. Lucibella is appealing the misdemeanor conviction. One of the arresting officers, Nubia Plesnik, is suing Lucibella in civil court, accusing him of battery and claiming injuries.
Commissioners agreed to put Hutchins’ request for cameras in the 2019-20 budget discussions. Coz said the commission also “should discuss some form of communication” with residents to improve relations with police.
In other business:
• The commission unanimously agreed to raise acting Town Manager Tracey Stevens’ salary to $108,000 and building official Wayne Cameron’s to $91,000, effective immediately. Commissioners also approved an immediate $6,500 raise for each of the town’s two police lieutenants and approved a raise for their lead full-time maintenance employee to $51,000.
• Stevens said the town expects to have about $600,000 in uncommitted funds for the next fiscal year that could go toward capital projects.
Town Engineer Lisa Tropepe gave the commission a list of 22 possible storm drainage projects to consider, totaling about $180,000. Among the highest priority are improvements to Spanish River Drive and the Inlet Cay neighborhoods.
“We’ve decided we’re going to put a lot of money toward drainage,” Coz said.
Tropepe also recommended beginning a maintenance program for the town’s 143 fire hydrants.
• MaGruder proposed paying $22,246 — Ocean Ridge’s share of a vulnerability assessment study — to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The study results would help the town develop a long-term plan to defend itself against sea rise, he said.