Police board under fire

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An attempt by some of Lewisburg's city councilmen to eliminate the Police Advisory Board "is pure small town politics," according to the board's chairwoman.

That's Lina Horner's assessment of the Jan. 12 attempt by Councilmen Odie Whitehead Jr. and Robin Minor to abolish the Police Advisory Board, a panel created on a request by then Mayor Bob Phillips.

Since the motion by Whitehead was not on the agenda, no vote could be taken on Jan. 12, so a special called meeting has been set for 3 p.m. Jan. 26 to consider the Police Advisory Board

"I don't know what the future will hold for this board," Horner said at the close of the panel's monthly meeting on Thursday evening, just two nights after the unscheduled attempt to eliminate the board, "but it serves a purpose."

Horner has learned a great deal about the Police Department by serving on the board and she invited the general public to board meetings and for visits to the department.

"See what's going on," she said. "Don't take other people's word... The chief's door is open."

Former Police Chief Wayne Coomes said the board is an extension of the widely held concept that Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) is worthwhile and that's self-evident.

"It's axiomatic to COPS," Coomes said.

"What this board will do is improve the relationship between the police and the community," the former police chief said.

Coomes' position on the board is a result of his former service as chief. Seats on the board are described for various walks of life.

"I think there's probably a lot of bad information out there" about the board, Coomes said. "The thought of the motion (to disband the board) is a bad idea.

"The board may not have an absolute need, but you have citizens to serve," he said.

It's to make Lewisburg a better place to live and those who haven't realized that "don't have a vision for the community," Coomes said.

Whitehead, the councilman who made the motion for abolition, succeeded Minor on the board. They have been the Council's representatives to the Police Advisory Board. Whitehead wasn't present Thursday evening.

Public service on such panels makes the board members public figures and their discussion reflected their awareness and support for open records and open meetings.

"Whatever you do," Board member Ronald Greer said, "somebody will say something."

If the board is eliminated, people will find other topics to complain about, he said.

"If they get off this, they'll get on something else," Greer said.

He also commented on job security. Last week two councilmen confirmed speculation among residents that there was a majority on the council who favored dismissal of the police chief. A series of calls, however, revealed three of five councilmen felt as though the chief was doing a good job.

The public speculation, however, included an alleged majority in favor of reinstating Doug Alexander, who was Chief Chuck Forbis' predecessor. Alexander had been a corporal, serving as Lewisburg Middle School's school resource officer. After Alexander declined to respond to questions at a city Council meeting, he was reinstated as the LMS SRO, but as a sergeant.

A long chain of events led to that confrontation at the Council meeting. More than a year later, Alexander's employment was continued on a 3-2 vote with a directive that he return money he was overpaid during several months working at LMS.

Meanwhile, the City Charter's organizational structure for the city has been repeated several times. The city attorney, city treasurer and city manager serve at the pleasure of the Council. One of the city manager's responsibilities is to be personnel director.

Greer has advocated a working relationship that doesn't include councilmen becoming involved in daily operations of the city, or direct oversight of the city's hired leaders.

"You cannot have an organization where people are constantly afraid that they may not have a job the next day," Greer said. "It's not fair."

Greer reported he was asked how much he's paid to serve on the advisory board.

The Rev. Steve Thomas, pastor of Belfast Presbyterian and one of the Police Department's chaplains, responded, "It's like singing in the choir. At the end of the year they double your pay but two times zero is still zero."