Mascotte couldn't resist: It just had to jump into the boat with two other south Lake cities whose police departments are in turmoil.
The question of whether white officers are the targets of discrimination by a new Hispanic police chief started more than a year ago in Mascotte, but it ramped up with the recent filing of federal lawsuits against the city.
Clermont, Lake's largest city, is still trying to sort out a lawsuit from a former officer and adjust to a new chief, and Groveland, also with a new chief, is facing a union movement. Those controversies will be going on for a while.
Neither is as intriguing as the claims filed by former Lt. Gregg Woodworth, a 15-year veteran officer with Leesburg before he came to Mascotte in 2009; and Officer Scott Thompson, a young man seeking a second chance after being dismissed from a South Florida agency.
Each is seeking more than $75,000 from the little city, which is struggling to stay afloat financially.
Mascotte City Manager Jim Gleason said the city hasn't yet been served with the lawsuits.
But, he said, "The city maintains that none of the officers were terminated based on workplace discrimination, harassment or retaliation, and the city has not violated any person's civil rights under federal and state law."
Police Chief Ronaldo Banasco, asked last year about the reverse-discrimination accusation, said the charges were "absolutely false."
However, Woodworth's lawsuit says the city violated his civil rights by discriminating against him because he is white and disabled. It alleges that Banasco openly stated he intended to "flex his Hispanic muscle and pave the way for Hispanics and make room for Hispanic officers" in the department with about a dozen sworn employees.
Then, the suit says, Banasco became hyper-critical of Woodworth, screamed at him, took away his vehicle, lowered his performance appraisals and put him under tight scrutiny. No Hispanic officers were treated that way, the suit claims.
One count of the lawsuit accuses Banasco of defamation for bad-mouthing Woodworth to other officers in the department. The ordeal caused Woodworth to suffer insomnia, acid reflux, vomiting, anxiety attacks, hair loss, diarrhea, chest pain, headaches and depression.
Woodworth complained to city officials, who did nothing to stop the harassment, the suit states. Rather, they retaliated by firing him in May 2012.
Thompson's claims are similar — he says Banasco went after him for "non-incidents and falsities." He was reprimanded for petty violations that went unnoticed in other officers.
The suit claims that Banasco ordered Thompson to make false complaints about Woodworth and that the city finally fired him in February 2012. The city ripped him off for 300 hours of vacation and sick time he earned, the suit says.
Time to take a breath.
Certainly Mascotte is to be commended for pushing to hire Hispanic officers and a Hispanic chief to relate to Hispanic residents. When it dismissed four white officers last year, the city replaced them with two Hispanics, one black and a white officer.
Still, it's not OK to run any competent officer out of a job. It's bad for the department and worse for the people who turn to the police to keep the peace and set the tone of the community.
The truth is that Mascotte should be having an open discussion about abolishing its police department. Mascotte is the Lake city hardest-hit by the economic downturn, and its property tax rate is the highest in the county.
The question should be whether a tiny police department that can't afford to hire officers with the best skills is in the long-term best interest of the city.
These two lawsuits should be a wake-up call for elected officials.
The city needs to make a change.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.