New chiefs up for challenges

Staff Writer

Last update: April 02, 2005

FLAGLER BEACH -- Today marks the first day for the city's new police chief, just one of many recent hires since the rash of city employee resignations late last year.
In three weeks, the new fire chief comes on board.

Flagler Beach residents, meet Police Chief Roger D. Free of Plantation and soon-to-be Fire Chief Charles "Rusty" Burnett of Ocala.

From the onset, both chiefs are faced with unique dilemmas. Free will take on moving the police department out of the trailer, where its 14 employees transferred in April 2003 to avoid the possibility of hazardous health conditions in the previous building. And Burnett will have to decide what to do with the lifeguards, a new responsibility since the City Commission wiped out the beach services director from the budget last summer.

But both chiefs, who have extensive experience, say it's nothing they can't handle.

Free, 52, has 23 years of law enforcement experience, starting with the Miramar Police Department in 1981 and most recently, as chief of police in Virginia Gardens, a small community near the Miami International Airport.

He said he left his job in November to retire, but changed his mind.

"I decided I was too young to retire," said Free, who is also pursuing a second bachelor's degree, this time in Criminal Justice Management at Florida Gulf Coast University in his spare time. Most of his classes are on-line, he says.

Free stressed the importance of "community policing," a term he concedes is overused and is often mistaken for a "kinder, gentler" method of law enforcement. But to Free, it means getting to know the people he deals with while doing his job.

"He strikes me as a genuine professional and good communicator," City Manager Bill Veach said of Free.

The city will pay Free $54,707 annually.

Burnett, a 55-year-old longtime firefighter and former fire chief, also had a change of heart in his professional life.

After working for Ocala Fire Rescue from 1978 to 2003, he later became an administrator with the Bureau of Fire Standards at Florida State Fire College.

"I missed being out in the street and the camaraderie in the (fire) station," said Burnett, adding he looked forward to going back to active fire service in Flagler Beach.

Burnett has trained volunteer firefighters throughout his career -- a background Veach said is especially important for the Flagler Beach Fire Department, which relies heavily on volunteer firefighters. The city will pay Burnett $45,483 annually.

Both chiefs step into positions vacated within a few months time late last year. In October, then Fire Chief Jon Macdonald left for another fire department, two months after writing a letter to city leaders expressing his concerns about last year's budget cuts to fire equipment, supplies, training and an additional firefighter. Former Police Chief Mike Plummer left in December, later criticizing city commissioners for not listening to his recommendations during the budget meetings.

For Free, the stormy political climate in Flagler Beach is nothing new.

In his job in Virginia Gardens, Free said, city leaders went over every bit of the budget -- including the cost of uniforms.

"(The city commissioners) have a responsibility to the residents and the business people there to pick apart the budget," he said.

During budget time, Free said, he'll handle requests the way he always has: by showing and explaining where the money is going to be spent and why it's needed.

As for getting the department out of the trailer, Free said it's one of his top priorities. Free said he's already toured the building, which is currently being evaluated.

"I'll see what can be worked out," said Free, adding his construction background would aid him in reviewing the reports on the building. "Anything we need to do to get the police officers out of there."

Burnett also said he looks forward to his first day as Flagler Beach's new fire chief on April 18.

"With the new city manager, it's a good opportunity to foster growth in the city government, . . . to regain everybody's confidence," he said.

Although he said he's never had to manage lifeguards in previous fire department budgets, Burnett plans to evaluate how much of his time beach services will take. He'll also examine the state of the fire department within three months of taking on the position. He said he'll look at what level of services the department provides, what level is expected and come up with a five to 10 year plan and present it to the commission.

"I'm sure we can operate to its efficiency," Burnett said.

Just last week, the city commission voted to raise funds for lifeguard salaries from $70,000 to $135,000.

Although both chiefs enter what some consider a shaky political climate, they remain eager to start.

"Politics are politics," Free said. "There's always going to be disagreements and agreements. Just take that with a grain of sand. The trick is to keep your nose out of the politics."