City needs rules for police, fire appeals

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Once the Blytheville City Council wraps up the budget process, one item that deserves the attention of the Police and Fire Committee is developing a set of rules for the police and fire appeals board.

That's something that should have been done well before now, quite frankly.

The appeals board, which includes the Council plus human resource director Judy Andrews, is expected to hear an appeal early next week from terminated officer Rodney Richardson, who was fired last month for allegedly abusing sick leave.

Like the hearings of the five other officers who have appealed since the Council dissolved the Civil Service back in December 2006, there are no real guidelines for board members to go by.

Basically, what has been done in the previous appeals is the individual or his attorney is allowed to make an opening statement, for lack of a better term, and then the Council goes into executive session with the mayor, the chief of police, the terminated employee and his immediate supervisor.

Executive session rules prohibit the officer's attorney or even Andrews from going back and participating in the closed discussion.

It seems odd that one of the potential voting members -- Andrews -- would have to make a decision without hearing from the parties involved in executive session. The way it is set up, Andrews is there to break a tie, something she hasn't had to do during the other five hearings.

Fortunately for the city, the decisions have been unanimous with all agreeing Chief Ross Thompson made the right moves in each case.

Of the previous four terminated officers, only officers Earnest Frye and Jason Wolfenbarger were allowed to return to the force through a settlement agreement with the city in December 2009.

City of Blytheville building inspector Rick Ash was actually the first to appeal a decision in November 2007, after being moved from BPD captain to Code Enforcement, where he has been ever since it was upheld.

Ash was the only of the five who was not appealing a termination.

When he appealed, Ash's attorney expressed concern that there were no appeal hearing guidelines in place and the other four's attorney made a similar argument.

On several occasions, former members of the Police and Fire Committee said they planned to work on a set of rules that were to be proposed by the police chief and fire chief, though it sort of slipped through the cracks each time, even after just being part of an appeals hearing.

The only real discussion came in the Police and Fire Committee meeting prior to Ash's appeal, when they basically set up the parameters for the first hearing.

I suspect that type of inaction was one of the fears of the police officers and firemen who fought hard to keep the Civil Service Commission. Those men and women, who risk their lives to protect and serve, deserve some layer of protection themselves.

Current Blytheville Mayor James Sanders, who was a city councilman and in law enforcement at the time, and former Councilman John White were the only two opponents as Councilman R.L. Jones and former Council members Shirley Connealy, Shirley Overman and Mylas Jeffers cast the four needed votes to get rid of Civil Service.

When it was evident Civil Service was on the way out, to avoid politics playing a role in the decision-making, police officers and firemen asked for the new appeals board to include four retired representatives; that a Council member abstain from voting if there is a conflict of interest; and if the issue involves termination, the decision should be unanimous to be upheld.

Instead, the Council went a different route, making itself the appeals board and adding Andrews as a tie-breaking voter.

Initial talk of cherry-picking from the Civil Service guidelines never materialized.

Being lax has invited lawsuits and probably opens the city up for more in the future. Those lawsuits cost the city a minimum of $3,000 each time, a fee the Arkansas Municipal League charges.

I believe the majority of police officers are honest, hard-working and in that profession to make the city a safer place. I also understand there are a small percentage that dishonor the badge -- and they should be in the back of the patrol car, not in the front. However, the majority shouldn't lose their protection because of the minority.

It's time to do what should have been done several years ago -- either establish a set of rules, or appoint a new board.