Police Board abolished; both sides cite Charter, duties

Friday, January 29, 2010

An "undercurrent" of unrest surrounds City Hall, Lewisburg's senior councilman said Tuesday night after a 3-2 City Council vote to abolish the Police Advisory Board.

"There's an undercurrent that I can't put my finger on," Councilman Hershel Davis said, explaining his vote against the board Tuesday was with 60 percent of the people who called him and shared their opinions about the board.

[See how other councilmen voted on page A-?.]

Created by the Council in 2007, the unpaid board that was appointed by then-Mayor Bob Phillips recommended Chuck Forbis to become police chief. It's reviewed police job applications, heard officer grievances and could have done the same for the public.

Davis would "hate to see" City Manager Eddie Fuller retire, the councilman said when asked about that prospect made public during Council discussion that night.

"The police chief has done a good job, too," Davis said.

"But I don't think that's what the undercurrent is," he said.

Elimination of the board was "insanity," according to Wayne Coomes, a member of the board who was appointed because he's a former police chief. The board's only chair, Lina Horner, said the 3-2 vote "went down just exactly as I thought it would."

Horner, Coomes, and the Rev. Steve Thomas, Ronald Greer and Emily Darnell, others on the now-disbanded board, included councilmen's phone numbers with a letter to the editor on Wednesday, pointing out that some councilmen had no comment on why they'd eliminate the board. They asked residents to "demand accountability" from the Council.

"Government by whim smacks of backroom deals and petty power politics," the then-board members wrote.

"The letter to the editor," Davis said, "helped me make up my mind. He received phone calls and concluded, "In terms of the number of calls - that's about the way this (vote) went;" 3-2 and 60 to 40 percent.

Mayor Barbara Woods traced the Council split on this issue back to "when the Police Advisory Board questioned the city manager for not hiring their recommended candidate" for a police patrolman's job. She qualified her assessment, saying, "If my views are correct."

"It escalated," Woods continued, "People were saying the board can't do that and some saw it as the council interfering."

However, she noted, councilmen can express an opinion.

Opinions expressed were that it might be better and cost-effective if an experienced and certified police officer was hired to fill an opening on the police force, instead of Police Chaplain Shaun Grant, senior associate pastor at First Assembly of God.

"It came to everyone's attention because a councilman asked if there was anyone more qualified and Eddie (Fuller) said, 'Well, let's give it some time.'

"I'm not sure there was opposition to Grant," the mayor said.

The Rev. Don McCullough, pastor of First Assembly of God, attended Tuesday afternoon's Council meeting and said that "being involved politically is totally contrary to my normal role in the community. My job is to be a spiritual influence, but this community is too important to say nothing.

"Calling a 3 p.m. meeting [instead of the normal meeting time of 6 p.m.] speaks of petty politics and a desire to circumvent the public in this community from seeing an issue as important as the Police Advisory Board," McCullough said.

Much of the discussion between councilmen included recurring observations that the charter assigns the manager duties including those of a personnel manager, and that the council's hiring and firing decisions are limited to the manager, treasure and city attorney.

As for other personnel issued, "I tell Eddie what I think about somebody, but I always say, 'Eddie, you run the city.

"I don't think anybody had threatened him with his job," said Woods, although there was more than an implication of that consequence, according to at least one councilman.

"Eddie is really the only one person who they (councilmen) could go to" for answers, she said.

Asked how she would have voted on the Police Advisory Board, the mayor replied, "I'm glad I didn't have to." She declined to say more, other than her vote would have been in the best interest of the city.

Woods did, however, point out that the board was created when there would have been a lot of pressure surrounding the selection of a police chief.

Councilman Ronald McRady said he believes councilmen have gone to Fuller to persuade him to take one course of action over another with regard to personnel issues.

"That's a misuse of power entrusted to them by the electorate of their wards," McRady said.

Councilman Quinn Brandon Stewart said during the afternoon meeting that she didn't know who called it or why it started at 3 p.m., but she "couldn't help but think that it's to keep the public from knowing."

She noted Minor said councilmen had concerns when the Police Advisory Board was created, but she didn't. Creation of the board "took a little pressure off Mr. Fuller," but the conflict appears to be over "control."

During an interview after the Council meeting, McRady said he's "seen nothing but positive things from the board."

The people who served on the board "have nothing to apologize for," McRady continued.

"The policemen I've talked with have not said anything negative about the board," McRady said.

He takes issue with Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. "sitting in on a meeting" regarding the prospective hiring of Grant.

That "meeting" was not of an appointed panel. Rather, it was a conversation among city administrative leaders, but McRady said a councilman's attendance would create pressure. Remarkably, members of the advisory board have reviewed applications from prospective new hires as police officers. Whitehead was appointed to the police board to succeed Minor, and Whitehead has objected to the advisory board reviewing documents submitted by job applicants.

"What I'm getting pretty straight," McRady said, "is that: Phase 1 is to get rid of the Police Advisory Board; Phase 2 is to move Doug Alexander [a school resource officer who had been chief] into David Ray's job [as captain] and eventually put Alexander as chief."

Attempts to obtain Alexander's opinion of circumstances during a previous controversy resulted in no comment. More recently, as his name resurfaced, he was asked again and he repeated his position that he would not respond.

Speculation had swirled in Lewisburg of such a plan to reinstall Alexander as chief, including claims that three councilmen would vote to oust the chief, but calls to all five councilmen found a majority saying he's doing a good job.

As for the three-phase plan, McRady reports that "Police don't like that and they don't like today;" the vote to disband the board.

"It doesn't bother me what those three councilmen said" during the special meeting on Tuesday, "and I won't refrain from repeating it.

"They're violating the Sunshine Law," he alleged of coordinating votes between themselves before a meeting.

That state law requires deliberations by elected officials on public issues to be conducted in the "sunshine," meaning in open public meetings so voters can understand why their elected officials do what they do.

Responding to McRady's remarks during the meeting - that "councilmen ought stay out of the departments ... [and are] not supposed to be ... dictating to any department - Whitehead said he "felt disturbed... Councilmen have a right to ask questions."

Whitehead also said it's "a downright lie" to say he's interfered, and he will continue to speak with the city manager and ask the police chief questions.

"I don't take that lightly," Whitehead told McRady.

Minor also indicated he felt insulted.

Within an hour of the vote and such heated words, the mayor concluded that this contentious issue on the existence of the advisory board has been decided.

"What I'd like, though, is for us to come together and work on some positive issues for the city," Woods said.