Council moves on police board, but not on termination threat

Friday, October 12, 2007
Bob Phillips

Like a Tennessee two-step, Lewisburg's public debate over its police department has taken a couple of steps forward and two back.

City council members on Tuesday made decisions leading to:

* Ads for a new chief, including candidate criteria;

* A 4 p.m. Oct. 23 workshop to discuss creating a police advisory board;

* Reversal of a policy for random drug testing of all city employees instead of just police, firefighters and those who have commercial drivers licenses and those whose behavior gives probable cause for such a test, and;

* The lack of a second council member supporting a personnel policy that would have allowed immediate dismissal of any city employee refusing to answer a council member's question.

The developments came on the heels of Doug Alexander's reassignment from being police chief to Lewisburg Middle School where he's a sergeant. On Sept. 11, he declined to answer Councilwoman Quinn Brandon's questions about a state investigation into enforcement of public drinking and police officers' discretion.

Alexander let Walter Bussart speak for him and the Lewisburg-based attorney said Alexander was a good chief and had let officers down the chain of command deal with the under-age drinking case.

At least five people stood up during the council's meeting Tuesday night to endorse Police Capt. David Ray who has three decades of service with the city department.

"I'm big on hiring someone local," Lewisburg resident Dan Allen told the council during a public comment period. "If we don't take care of our own, who will?"

Former Councilman Gary Middleton, resident Billy Harwell also endorsed Ray.

Advertisements calling for applicants to be chief are to be placed in a daily Nashville newspaper, the Marshall County Tribune and a newspaper for municipalities, according to a unanimous vote by council. Applications are due by 9 a.m. Nov. 30.

Applicants must: be a certified police officer; live in the city, or more here within six months of being hired; have a high school degree and preferably a college degree; pass a background check; have at least five years of supervisory experience, and; be among the top five recommended by the proposed police board.

The "proposed police board" would be appointed by the mayor and include one councilman, a former police chief who served five years, three residents of the city and the police chief who would join the board after being named, according to a document issued by Councilwoman Brandon.

It recommends board members be paid $100 per month, "plus incidentals,' and $50 for special called meetings and workshops.

Meetings would be monthly, or as needed.

The panel would hear grievances against the police department and those from officers after their grievances were considered through the department's chain of command.

Police board duties include approval of hirings, firings, promotions and demotions.

It would develop and recommend policies, recommend a chief, decide the chief's pay and develop and recommend its own bylaws.

Its meetings would be advertised and open to the public once the new chief is hired.

Those proposals came from Brandon who also recommended a policy change that was not adopted.

"We are accountable to all the people out there," she said as she prepared to make the motion to make employees subject to dismissal for not answering questions from council members. "We need to be able to get answers."

However, no other member of the council seconded Brandon's motion for such a policy. Normally, a second is required to open discussion on a motion.

"I'll break the tradition and discuss it without a second," Mayor Bob Phillips said.

Lewisburg is an "at-will" employer like all employers in Tennessee, meaning employees can be discharged any time, Phillips said.

The city has no civil service provisions, but City Manager Eddie Fuller would check with at least a majority of the council before terminating an employee, the mayor said.

Questioning employees "gets into the investigative area," Phillips said, later endorsing council's role as a policy-setting panel.

Furthermore, Brandon's proposal would give each employee at least seven bosses, the mayor said.

"If anybody is unkind to a council member, I think we're covered," Phillips said.

Brandon acknowledged Phillips' points, but said it's the council's job to make Fuller do his job, although, "I'm not saying now that he's not doing his job."

If a water department employee was asked for information and they replied they'd find the answer, then "that covers it," Brandon said.

Phillips replied: "It hurts our employees if the mayor and council are out after them. I don't feel that we need to find out if he (Fuller) is doing his job. Half a dozen people will say he's not because they don't like him."

The mayor then noted that without a second, Brandon's motion died, but it could be reconsidered at another time.

Furthermore, if the mayor doesn't get an answer from a city employee, then he will get an answer some other way.

The workshop on the proposed police board was anticipated for next Tuesday. It was postponed one week.

As for the council's policy to have all city employees randomly tested for drugs, Council Secretary Connie Edde reported the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service had been consulted and it reported such tests could be conducted only on employees working in a public safety capacity and those with commercial drivers licenses.

City Attorney Bill Haywood said people can't be forced to testify against themselves. Other constitutional protections for privacy and against unreasonable search and seizure prevent random testing of employees. It's different when public safety is an issue or when there's probable cause because of suspicious behavior.

Councilman Robin Minor was the only member of the city panel voting no, saying if some are tested, all are tested.