Laughter trumps politics; Audience applauds Forbis

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nearly 40 people laughed in Lewisburg City Hall on Monday night when a city councilman said he didn't know if elected officials have tried to influence the Police Department.

"I don't know if politics play into this," Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. said during a fact-finding meeting of the Police Advisory Board when it seemed clear that Whitehead spoke with City Manager Eddie Fuller to stall the Board's recommendation.

"I don't know," Whitehead repeated, only to be asked by someone in the audience if politics wasn't involved, then: Why did the councilman talk to the city manager about the Police Advisory Board's nomination of Shaun Grant, an associate pastor in town?

Whitehead wasn't heard to refute the implication that he tried to influence Fuller on the Board's recommendation to hire Grant as a police officer.

"The only political intrusion I see is from the City Council," said Wayne Coomes.

Coomes is a member of the advisory board who's a former police chief here and that remark from the retired U.S. Marine drew support from the audience: "That's right."

Police personnel hiring decisions are made by the city manager, according to the City Charter. The City Council hires the city manager, the city attorney and the city recorder. A few years ago the Advisory Board was created by the Council on a request from then-Mayor Bob Phillips who appointed all members of the Board except Whitehead. He succeeded Councilman Robin Minor, the first representative from the Council on the Advisory Board.

Board chairwoman Lina Horner opened the 45-minute meeting saying it was held "to find out why the board's recommendation was not carried out. We think we have a right to know."

It was reported here on Friday that the city manager "polled" the Council. Rather, he received input from councilmen. Fuller on Monday and Tuesday said he didn't "poll" the Council, but that it was his opinion that a majority of the Council wanted to look more closely at the applications and preferred someone with more experience and training. As a result, Fuller put Grant's nomination "on hold."

Whitehead wanted an explanation and Fuller replied to the Board, "It's real simple. You made a recommendation. The majority of the Council didn't agree."

Councilman Ronald McRady attended the Advisory Board meeting and said he wasn't consulted on Grant's nomination by the Board.

"What I would say, if I was called, is that they need to keep City Hall out of the Police Department," McRady said Friday afternoon. "They brought a man (Police Chief Chuck Forbis) all the way up here from Florida to manage it (the department). They ought to let him manage it.

"My understanding is that the reason that board was set up was to keep politics out of it," McRady said.

Brent Smith - a member of the First Assembly of God on Ellington Parkway who was on the church's board when Grant was hired as an associate pastor - endorsed the police applicant: "He's a visionary and a leader. I guarantee he will bring improvement."

The Advisory Board and the public discussed experience and training of all applicants left for the opening that materialized when a recently hired officer had to go home to care for her mother.

The police chief's recommendation of Grant and the pool of other applicants were also discussed and it seemed clear that the audience consisted of police, their relatives and friends, members of First Assembly, and a number of residents who usually attend City Hall meetings.

Whitehead wanted to know if Fuller knew Grant and whether Grant was pre-approved. Fuller said he knew of Grant, but said he'd suggested to Forbis that the next-best candidate be recommended to fill the opening. The Police Advisory Board agreed as it was explained that some officials felt that would be better than advertising for more applicants.

The Board's chairwoman remained open to all comments but after exchanging how she remembered a chain of events in contrast to Whitehead's, Horner said they'd just have to agree to disagree.

Whitehead later said, "Politics gets into everything," and he indicated that maybe the police chief was involved. He also sought answers to clear the air.

The Rev. Steve Thomas, a member of the Board, said he saw the chain of events as "a collaborative process" that's worthwhile.

Horner and others defended Forbis.

She does "not think there's politics within the department. It doesn't have any place there."

Her remarks were met with applause and Horner continued by praising police for risking their well being when on duty. Whitehead said he didn't accuse the chief of anything; that the meeting was held to get answers.

As the meeting was in its last minutes, residents thanked officials for their service. Horner and Whitehead encouraged people to attend Board and Council meetings.

There was no vote Monday night. Tuesday, Fuller said Grant's application and/or hiring were still "on hold."