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VENICE -- In this 11-hour battle between mud and man, the mud won.

It beat Chris Sharek, the director of Venice's utilities department, whose job is to ensure that the city obeys environmental regulations, though he apparently failed to do so himself.

A judge slapped Sharek with 25 hours of community service and probation last month for off-roading through a protected wilderness preserve with his wife and father-in-law.

When their vehicles got stuck in the mud at Myakka River State Park, Sharek phoned for help. Friends arrived and dismantled a fence so they could drive in to free them. Their cars, in turn, got stuck. Another round of calls went out. Another round of cars were trapped.

Deputies arrived about 11:30 p.m., including Florida Fish and Wildlife officer Louis Hines IV.

"After talking with the deputies, I was able to get a picture of what was going on," Hines wrote in his report. "By the time it was all said and done, there were two Jeeps, two Fords, one Hummer and one tractor in an area closed to vehicles."

Sharek and the others had driven past several "No Trespassing" signs and others that labeled the area a protected wilderness preserve open to foot traffic only, the report said.

Police charged Sharek, 34, and five others with three misdemeanors: damaging public land with a motor vehicle, driving off road in a parks and recreation area and illegally entering a state park.

City Manager Marty Black said Thursday the incident would not affect Sharek's job, since Sharek called to inform him the next day, Sept. 17, and since the incident occurred off the job and carried a relatively minor penalty.

"I think it reflects poor judgment on his part," Black said. "It is not an action which relates to his employment with the city, so there is no need to take any disciplinary action."

Sharek said the off-roading trip was a mistake.

"It was a bad decision. I took responsibility for it," Sharek said.

He pointed out that the state demanded no payment for damage to the land and that the group had followed a trail.

But did Sharek know he was breaking the law?

"I suppose," he said.
 
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