"Even a blind man can see this is wrong"
Before voting 5-2 last Wednesday to dissolve the Department of Public Safety, Clinton City Council members heard four people ask them to vote no (or at least delay the vote) and one person, a retired Clinton police officer, asked them to vote yes. Council held a special called meeting at 8:30 a.m. to give second and final reading to the ordinance proposed by City Manager Bill Ed Cannon. Most of those opposing the separation of DPS into police and fire departments questioned the process and quickness of the action more than the actual separation of the departments. But the first speaker, Rev. Jerry Harris of Clinton, was more direct. “Recent events have caused me to be embarrassed and ashamed,” he said. “The behind-the-scene maneuvers, the lack of transparency. Doing things behind the scenes. It scares me. “I know the mayor desires a strong mayor (form of government),” Harris said. “With the recent city manager buying in, our mayor is trying to do that. Somebody has an agenda they want to put across. I plead with you. Stop. You were elected to represent the citizens. Have you talked to them? Don’t let our city become a city of the mayor, by the mayor and for the mayor.” Mayor Bob McLean responded to Harris’ comments. “I have no desire to be a strong mayor. That will not happen while I’m mayor,” he said. “Next time you quote me, talk to me.” Harris also asked council several questions. “Why the rushed meetings? (Both readings were given at special called meetings.) Why couldn’t this be addressed at a regular meeting of city council? How much study has been put into going back to the way it was (with separate police and fire departments)? How much better off will we be if we go back? How many new firemen will have to be hired? How many new policemen will have to be put on the road?” Former Clinton Public Safety Officer Scottie Peay of Joanna said the action by council was “a fly-by-night, gangland type vote. Why are we here at 8:30 a.m. to vote on something so important? We should all be at work. No thought has been put into this. This is heart breaking. You need to think.” Peay said if the ordinance is approved, “it’s probably going to have serious repercussions. This is someone’s personal agenda.” He said when the two departments were combined into a Department of Public Safety 13 years ago, “it almost fell apart. It will happen again. You will have three firemen per shift. The ISO rating will go through the roof.” Veteran retired police officer Jerry Campbell said he fully supports dissolving public safety. “I was against public safety in 2005. I’m against it now. In 2005, when the change was made, we had one of the best volunteer fire departments in the state.” He said the move to combine the departments was a “political thing, a power thing, a money thing. Public safety didn’t work and it’s not working now. There are people trying to drive fire trucks who are not qualified to drive them.” He said The Chronicle was against combining the departments in 2005 because city council was in favor of it. “They’re against it now because y’all are for it. It’s a political thing,” Campbell said. Laurens County SAFE Home Executive Director Dawn Ardelt asked council to delay the vote. “We need to be assured there will be adequate police and fire fighters. Without a plan, how will it be executed? I’m asking for a plan. A quick dissolution will affect myself, the people I serve and the revitalization of Clinton. I need to know there will be adequate officers to protect victims of domestic violence.” Susan Galloway of Clinton said she has no opinion as to whether DPS should be done away with. “I don’t have enough information. I want to address the process.” She said she is concerned about the “unexplained urgency. It may be legal, but it’s odd. It invites questions. Why the rush? What has happened? Why wasn’t it brought up at a regular meeting? “There was substantial public discussion (when council considered) a dog leash ordinance,” she said. “This affects $3.2 million of council’s budget. Will it cause a tax increase? I would expect to read and to have more public discussion about this. We have had none of that.” Later in the meeting, City Manager Cannon said, “At no time have I ever had secret meetings with three council members. But I can meet with three council members and still stay in the sunshine. Everything I’ve done has been done legally and aboveboard. City Attorney Allen Wham and Columbia attorney Lawrence Flynn, who drafted the ordinance approved last week, said council’s actions were legal and met the requirements of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Council member Danny Cook asked for more time and more information. “I do not feel I have enough information,” he said. “There is still a lot of information I need. I want to sit down with the city manager and the director of public safety. It will affect our budget. I’d like to see the plan. How will it be divided? Who will be in charge? How will it affect our budget?” Council member Shirley Jenkins said, “We’re going too fast. We need more study.” She urged Cannon with get with “the chief” and development the organization chart and the written policies and procedures. “I disagree,” Mayor Bob McLean said. “It’s already separated. This will allow us to have more staff, more trained staff.” Council member Ronnie Roth said he has had plenty of opportunity to study the ordinance and he has talked to a number of citizens. “There are a lot of rumors. This is a significant, emotional event making a dramatic change. There were no secret meetings. Integrity has been questioned. I don’t appreciate that. We are strengthening our fire service and our police service.” “During budget (discussions), public safety asked for more staff,” Jenkins said. “They weren’t given more staff. I suggest we hire more staff and get them the certification they need.”