TARPON SPRINGS * Police blame a local developer for installing "no parking" signs around a popular city restaurant that resulted in 233 tickets being written in a two-year span.
At the same time, acting Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen acknowledged his department's failure to properly handle the matter in 2007.
"We messed up," Kochen said. "We did not look at this thing like we should have."
In a 23-page report released this week, Kochen said developer Mike Bronson admitted recently to installing the signs along the city's right of way after initially denying it.
"Mike Bronson advised that back around April of 2006 he installed all of the 22 signs due to the parking problems caused by customers of the Tarpon Turtle," Kochen wrote in the report.
Bronson could not be reached for comment.
The investigation was prompted by Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who recently had concerns about how the situation was handled in 2007 during an ongoing dispute over noise and parking at Jack Willie's Tarpon Turtle.
"I'm glad Mr. Bronson admitted to the act and the Police Department has been very proactive in this matter," Dalacos said. "I still have concerns about what action we can take to, at a minimum, have Mr. Bronson reimburse those tickets that were paid."
The report says criminal charges against Bronson would not be feasible at this time, but makes no mention of other possible penalties.
The signs installed by Bronson were mounted on round poles and had no city sticker on the back of them. The city's authorized signs are mounted on galvanized U-shaped poles with holes.
"The Police Department's patrol officers were doing their job and they had no reason (at the time) to believe any of these signs may have been unauthorized by the city," Kochen said.
Tarpon Springs is now working with the Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Courts to identify any outstanding parking ticket warrants that may have been issued for nonpayment. The city wants those tickets purged from the system. The city also wants to see if it can "remedy (or reimburse) the fine amounts that have been charged for the tickets."
The parking tickets were $20, with $15 going to the city and $5 going a fund that supports school crossing guards.
During a City Commission meeting earlier this month, Don Alvino, the owner of the Tarpon Turtle, alleged that Bronson was using the "no parking" signs to harass his customers.
Alvino and Bronson were business partners with Alvino initially leasing the Tarpon Turtle from Bronson with a five-month option to buy. In September 2006, Alvino exercised the option and purchased the restaurant for $3.4 million.
Since that time, Alvino says, Bronson has been out to destroy his business.
The investigation of the parking signs led Kochen to conclude that the city made several missteps.
In May 2007, Alvino had a meeting with the head of the city's code enforcement, Ed Hayden, about complaints being lodged against the restaurant. In that meeting, it was learned that the signs were fake.
During the investigation, Bronson told police he received permission from Sgt. Allen Mackenzie, who at the time handled all traffic-related matters involving signs and traffic studies.
Mackenzie, who retired from the department on Feb. 14, 2007, said he had no such conversation with Bronson, the report said.
Bronson was ordered to remove the signs in May 2007, but code enforcement officials never documented the incident and they never followed up.
"Apparently some signs were removed back in May of 2007 at the request of code enforcement, but the issue was not fully resolved because the signs remain there today," Kochen wrote in his report.
"Although I believe Officer Hayden was acting with good intentions, he did make some mistakes in this matter."
Kochen said a traffic study is currently being conducted to see where signs will actually be placed in the area.
For safety reasons, Kochen asked Bronson to leave his illegal signs up until a determination is made for the placement of city signs.
Officers were told not to write tickets in the area until the study is complete. Kochen said the matter will be completed quickly.
But the decision to keep the illegal signs up incensed Alvino, whose business was limited to 177 seats and weekend-only outdoor entertainment at a recent City Commission meeting.
"The city is not pro-small business," he said. "They already have taken away the number of seats I can have, they took away my ability to have outdoor entertainment during the week and now they are depriving me of on-street parking, even though they know the signs are illegal. It just doesn't make sense."