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Lee's about-face leaves public safety post unfilled
Joseph Lee
During a June 11 meeting, Joseph Lee, the Post 3 member of the Guyton City Council, explains his reasons for not voting for the hiring of Richard Zapal as public safety director. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

 GUYTON — While sitting in the audience at Guyton City Hall, Richard Zapal fully expected to be named Guyton’s public safety director.

Instead, he departed a contentious June 11 city council meeting early with his status up in the air. Joseph Lee, the council’s Post 3 representative, opposed Zapal’s hiring despite being on the committee that determined that the retired Savannah police officer was the best candidate among three finalists for the job.

Zapal, 57, retired from the Savannah Police Department on Jan. 1. He has 36 years of law enforcement experience.

He remained baffled by the meeting’s turn of events a few days later.

“It’s just a matter of explaining certain things, I guess,” Zapal said Friday. “I don’t know what happened to be honest with you.”

While Mayor Jeff Lariscy was in the process of asking for a motion to approve Zapal, a citizen intervened. He said, “I’d like you to tell us why you find the present officer, (Joseph) Coppola, incompetent or, in other words, why can’t he do the job?”

In response, Lariscy said that he couldn’t comment because it was a personnel issue. City Attorney Ray Smith affirmed the mayor’s stance.

Coppola, a Guyton police officer for two years, was named interim public safety director Feb. 28 following the resignation of  Kenny McDonald. He wants the job on a permanent basis but his resume was not one of the final three the mayor submitted to the committee for consideration.

The job drew six total applicants.

“My point is, yes, (Zapal’s) was the best of the three applications that we interviewed,” Lee said, “but my point is now, after looking at the six, my mind has changed because I see some other ones out of the six who might be a better option as our chief of police.”

At that point, another citizen voiced support for Coppola.

He said, “... I know the city has invested quite a bit of time and money into Officer Coppola. Why would we not offer him the job?”

Again, Lariscy replied that he couldn’t comment on a personnel matter.

Before the vote, Michael Johnson, Post 4’s council member, said he wanted to discuss all the candidates. Lariscy then asked council members if they wanted to query Zapal since he was at the meeting.

No one afforded themselves of that opportunity and Zapal and his wife left the meeting a few minutes later.

Zapal hopes the deadlock will broken soon and he can get to work. He liked what he heard during the interview process.

“I think what they are doing is trying to make it a more professional police department,” Zapal said.

The Guyton Police Department has endured considerable tumult recently. Its next chief will be its fourth since 2017. Two were fired during that span.

“I have a lot of law enforcement left in me if I so choose — and I do,” Zapal said. “I’ve got a lot to teach people. I’ve got a lot to mentor people.

“If they want a chief from Guyton, I can groom one. I can mentor one so that when I really retire, in five years from now or whenever, they will have one ready. I just hope they will do that.

 “Hopefully, it will turn around. I’m still willing to take the job if they will give it to me. ... I will start as soon as I can.”

On Thursday, Coppola said he still wants the job and was moved by the show of support he received during the June 11 meeting.

“I’ve been with the police department for two years and the (Guyton) fire department for four years so most of the citizens know how I do my job,” he said. “I was not expecting (the support) at all.”

Late in the June 11 meeting, Chris Huntley was named interim fire chief, a post Scott Stringer surrendered at the end of May. 

Stringer served 90 days. Hunter’s appointment is also for 90 days.

“I’ve been (with the department) a little over six years now,” Huntley said Thursday. “In November, I took over as administrative lieutenant. I’m happy to help where I can.”

Huntley, who has entertained thoughts of becoming a paramedic, is proud to be a part of the department.

“We’re rocking,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who are dedicated and are trying their best to honor the tradition of this department, which has been around for 64 years. We’ve had some great people walk through those doors, including David Starling and C.D. Dean.

“We are trying to keep that legacy going. That’s all I want to do.”

In another move, the council is considering hiring an engineering company to run its wastewater treatment plant for at least 90 days. The superintendent of the plant resigned.

City Manager Daniel Hofman is leading the search.