Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Dan Moffett
A tumultuous week of anger and allegation ended in hugs and farewells as Ocean Ridge said good-bye to its police chief on Jan.15.
Chris Yannuzzi and town officials agreed on a settlement deal that will cost the chief his job but should save both sides the high cost of meeting in a courtroom. Whether it helps heal the wounds exposed in the town in recent weeks is anybody’s guess.
As the standing-room-only audience exited Town Hall, residents armed with clipboards collected signatures for a recall petition aimed at Commissioner Richard Lucibella, whose feud with the chief had led to his resignation.
Yannuzzi, who became chief in 2010, said he was humbled by the outpouring of support he had received but believed resigning was his only choice. “It is greatly appreciated, beyond belief,” he told his supporters. “Did I make a mistake? Yes, I did.” Referring to his misinterpretation of a state statute regarding found property.
Others suggested another mistake was recording an eight-minute phone conversation with Lucibella in November without his knowledge during an investigation of a stolen credit card that was found on the commissioner’s property. When Lucibella refused to turn the card over, Yannuzzi took the recording to the State Attorney’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office and the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics.
Florida statute allows law enforcement officers to record telephone conversations when "the purpose of such interception is to obtain evidence of a criminal act." Yannuzzi said the recording was necessary because the case involved theft and stolen property; Lucibella and his supporters say recording the call was overkill, unwarranted and an attempt to undermine a town commissioner.
Yannuzzi has insisted he was acting within the law and that he treated Lucibella as he would any other citizen, despite months of contentious relations between the two over the department’s handling of trespassing on the beach.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Yannuzzi said of resigning. “The people I’m letting down are the people I’m looking at. And I really feel bad about it. But I cannot stay under these conditions. I cannot be worried about simply tripping over a crack and somebody jumping on me again.”
Under terms of the separation agreement the commission unanimously approved, the town will pay Yannuzzi about $82,000. The chief will leave office Jan. 16, but his resignation will take effect on March 1. He will receive $10,400 in severance pay and another $43,800 to do consulting work for the town as a civilian for the next five months. Yannuzzi will get about $28,000 more in vacation and unused sick pay.
As part of the deal, Town Manager Ken Schenck, who recommended Yannuzzi’s termination, will put a “positive evaluation” in his file. Both sides are to refrain from disparaging comments, and more important, neither Lucibella nor Yannuzzi are to take legal action against each other or the town.
“There have been so many inaccuracies, misstatements and out-and-out lies that I don’t have the time, the ability or the desire to address them all,” Yannuzzi told the commission. “I can tell you that on the day of this incident I was dealing with a citizen, not a commissioner.”
The commission’s vote for the settlement was unanimous, though Vice Mayor Lynn Allison and Commissioner Gail Adams Aaskov opposed the chief’s firing. Aaskov called the dispute “an embarrassment to the town,” and Allison made a motion for Schenck to rescind termination Thursday night but withdrew it after Yannuzzi announced his resignation.
“I still don’t understand — why not a reprimand or a grievance,” Allison said of sanctioning Yannuzzi, whose record as chief had been unblemished until the recent dispute. “Why we went from zero to termination, I don’t understand.”
Allegations of personal agenda
Through two long meetings, some three dozen Yannuzzi supporters rose and asked commissioners that question and others. Who baited whom during the eight-minute recording was a point of contention.
Former Commissioner Ed Brookes suggested there was an agenda to get rid of Yannuzzi over the beach enforcement issue. Brookes said he spoke with Schenck a week ago and the town manager told him Lucibella “had the votes” to oust the chief. Brookes claimed Lucibella baited Yannuzzi.
Commissioner James Bonfiglio thought that the chief was baiting Lucibella by dragging the call out. Worse, Bonfiglio said, Yannuzzi misunderstood the statute governing stolen property. “It was a created crime by the police chief,” Bonfiglio said, and the chief’s behavior undermined the separation of powers between the commission and police department in the town.
Lucibella said he was “proud” of his stand during the phone call, and the chief was wrong to make a “clandestine recording.” He said the chief had all he needed the first two minutes of the conversation. Toward the end of the recording, Lucibella said he would go after Yannuzzi’s job: “You want to play this will battle? I’ll tell you what, Monday, the first week of the month, I’m going to make a motion that we let you go, that we separate. I don’t think I have a second. I probably don’t have three votes. But I only have to win once, chief. I’ll make that motion every single month.”
Lucibella denied any agenda, however. “It’s no secret that I’ve been a critic of Chief Yannuzzi,” he said. “But I bear him no ill will.”
Nan Yablong, who was collecting signatures Thursday, said the movement to recall Lucibella was progressing well: “We’ll get all the signatures we need.”
In the end, neither the State Attorney’s Office nor county ethics officials have found reason to get involved in the lost credit card case — taking no action against either Lucibella or Yannuzzi. The card, which belonged to a Broward County woman, was canceled shortly after it was stolen.
“It saddens me that a town this small would become so divided over an issue like a credit card,” said Mayor Geoff Pugh, who lamented the lack of “humility” on both sides. “What’s deeper than that is that this town has two people in this room that didn’t think about the one thing that matters most. And that’s the people of this town. It doesn’t matter about your ego…It’s about the town and its people. That’s the whole point.”
Ocean Ridge resident, Joelen Merkel, hugs Chris Yannuzzi following a Jan. 15 special meeting to approve an employment settlement as part of his resignation as Ocean Ridge Police Chief. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star