Pubdate: Thu, 26 Aug 1999
Source: Akron Beacon-Journal (OH)
Copyright: 1999 by the Beacon Journal Publishing Co.
Author: Gregory Korte, Beacon Journal staff writer 


 An Akron police officer who admitted to smoking marijuana was reinstated
yesterday after a divided Civil Service Commission ruled that his firing
was "excessive."

The decision means Kenneth Clark, an 18-year patrol veteran who was in line
to become the department's top traffic accident investigator, can go back
to work this week. He was reinstated without back pay -- meaning his
punishment, in effect, amounts to a four-month suspension. By a 2-1 vote,
the Civil Service Commission said Clark should not have been fired for "an
isolated use of marijuana."

City Hall quickly denounced the decision.

Matt Contessa, the deputy mayor for labor relations, said the two
commissioners who voted to reinstate Clark -- James Frost and Virginia
Robinson -- were "brain dead."

"That's the kind of message you send to taxpayers? That's the kind of
message you send to the new recruits who were just sworn in last Friday?"
Contessa said. "He's supposed to be arresting people who use drugs. And the
commission put him back to work."

Clark, 40, admitted to smoking marijuana with a woman in a motel room the
evening of March 21. The next day, his was one of 45 names randomly
selected for a drug screening test.

He admitted his drug use to police and city officials, and was fired April 15.

The commission said the "facts and circumstances" of Clark's case did not
warrant a firing, but did not elaborate on what facts and circumstances
they took into account.

In a rare dissenting opinion, commission Chairman Sidney Foster Jr. said
the Akron Police Department has ``a long, consistent past practice of zero
tolerance" for drug use.

"I am concerned that the decision by the majority of the members of this
commission today may be misinterpreted by members of the Akron Police
Department to believe that they will receive a second chance if they engage
in illegal drug use," Foster wrote.

The commission ruled that Clark would be immediately fired if he tests
positive again, and gave the Police Department the authority to test Clark
again at any time during the next two years.

Larry Vuillemin, Clark's Fraternal Order of Police lawyer, said the
commission's punishment was fair.

"It's not that he's gone unpunished in all this. He's in anguish over the
shame that he's brought on himself and his family and the department," he said.

During a two-day hearing last month, a half-dozen police officers vouched
for Clark's character. Other officials, some of whom were elected, wrote
letters on his behalf.

Vuillemin said the commission was right to take those statements into account.

"He loves the work that he does, and that's reflected by the feedback he
receives from the community," Vuillemin said. "I admire this fellow. I
think he's a man of integrity. He's got a great record. If any of my loved
ones were in peril, I would hope that an officer like Ken Clark would respond."

Contessa, the deputy mayor, said the commission's ruling would have no
effect on how he would enforce the drug policy.

"As long as I'm here, for whatever time that's going to be, our
recommendation on positive drug tests in the police and fire departments is
that they're going to be discharged," he said. "If the commission wants to
bring them back, so be it."

Members of the Civil Service Commission, who are appointed by the mayor and
serve six-year terms, hear appeals of disciplinary actions against
classified city or school employees.

Contessa said city lawyers would decide whether to appeal the Clark
decision in Summit County Common Pleas Court.

Hours before the decision was released, Mayor Don Plusquellic addressed the
city's drug testing policy at a news conference.

He said the city aggressively roots out "bad apples," and that the
zero-tolerance policy "ought to send a message that this is a clean
department and we're not going to tolerate wrongdoing."

Plusquellic said Akron is the only city in Summit County with mandatory
drug testing for police officers. In the four years since the city
implemented the policy, Clark is only the fourth to have tested positive.

"Does that mean that we're the only department that's bad, and the rest are
all good?" the mayor said. "I don't believe that." 
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