It’s unfortunate that a process has compromised the safety of citizens.Tammy Stringer, Guyton resident
GUYTON — Richard Zapal and Guyton’s city charter have something in common. Both were rejected by the Guyton City Council for the third and fourth times on Tuesday.
Twice by a 3-2 margin, the council defeated Mayor Jeff Lariscy’s recommendation to name Zapal, a longtime officer from Savannah, chief of the Guyton Police Department. The council also spurned the mayor’s recommendation during June and September meetings.
The nays were cast by Dr. Franklin Goldwire, Michael Johnson and Joseph Lee. Steve Collins joined Lariscy in support of Zapal.
Before voting, Lariscy said, “I am going to ask this council not to consider the issues that you have with the process but consider the applicant before you who has agreed to come, bring thirty-plus years of experience in police work as a community-policing individual, for the $50,000 that the city allotted in the budget for that position” Lariscy said.
According to Guyton’s charter, the mayor is charged with trimming the total field of candidates to a select few finalists, which is submitted to a committee for interviews. There were six candidates overall, including Joseph Coppola, the interim police chief.
The committee, which included Interim City Manager Alison Bruton, Russ Deen, former City Manager Daniel Hoffman, Effingham County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Richard Bush and Lee, named Zapal the top choice. Lee, however, has maintained adamant disapproval of the hiring process and Johnson has joined him.
Goldwire didn’t voice his opinion on Zapal on Tuesday or during the mayor’s other attempts to hire him.
During a June meeting, Lee said, “My point is, yes, (Zapal’s) was the best of the three applications that we interviewed 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.”
In a Sept. 11 email that was published in the Sept. 18 edition of the Effingham Herald, Lariscy asked Lee to identify the candidate he thinks is better. It said, “At your earliest convenience, please provide me with the name of the candidate for police chief that you feel was more qualified than Major Zapal. I’d love to review the qualifications again. Perhaps I overlooked something. Thank you.”
Lee clearly didn’t appreciate the publication of the email.
“Mr. Mayor, here you go,” Lee said while tossing the candidate’s information packet in Lariscy’s direction. “You did not include that man right there in there. You did not include him.
“You gave me three applications that he beat out, but as I look through the six of them, here you go.”
Initially, Lariscy said he didn’t recollect why Lee's preferred candidate, Matthew Braxton, who served as South Carolina Department of Justice chief of police from September 2017 to July 2018, wasn’t named a finalist. Collins quickly interjected that it was likely because of his annual salary request of $70,000. Only $50,000 was budgeted for the post.
“That’s something we could have negotiated,” Lee said. “We cannot not interview someone because of price,.”
Lariscy shot back, “Actually, I think if we approve a budget for a certain amount, we do have to consider that.”
Lee criticized Zapal’s lack of fire safety credentials. The job listing was originally for a public safety director, which oversees the police and fire departments.
“He didn’t have no experience in fire and he was not qualified for a chief,” Lee said, apparently referencing that Zapal hasn’t attended Chief’s School. Georgia, however, permits a POST-certified person to act as an interim chief for a limited time or to be employed as chief without the Chief’s School education so long as the person is enrolled in the next class offered.
Lariscy said fire experience is irrelevant to the position since Guyton’s fire protection was turned over to Effingham County Fire Rescue last month.
Then Collins said, “For the third time, I’d like to recommend that we hire Mr. Zapal.”
Lariscy, who seconded Collins’ motion, was visibly perturbed after his recommendation was spurned.
“Very good. We’ll move forward then,” he said angrily," and perhaps you gentlemen will explain to the citizens of Guyton why we will be collecting taxes without providing services we agreed to provide.”
The Guyton Police Department, following a similar trajectory to its defunct fire department, is down to one officer. The department's annual budget is $238,000.
Guyton resident Tammy Stringer was baffled by the council's decision. Speaking directly to itl, she said incredulously, “We currently have one police officer, correct? And we have somebody with thirty years of experience who has applied to come to a city that has a reputation of being, honestly, a hot mess!”
Stringer said she felt uneasy recently during a 5 a.m. jog through town. She was followed by a man in a car.
“I’m equipped to take care of myself but at five o’clock in the morning the closest thing we can do is call (the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office) for help and I think it is in poor form that we have a reservation on a process rather than a reservation of a candidate that has thirty years of experience that can help take care of the citizens of our city,” she said. “So, unless their is truly a reservation of the man’s qualifications and the reservation is more on the process, then I think that is a communication issue and — Mr. Lee, if I remember correctly — you told me back when we were talking about the fire department that we should communicate better as a city. So ‘communication’ would say, ‘If you have a better candidate, why didn’t it come out before a council meeting when you knew this was going to be on the agenda tonight?”
Lee replied, “Are you saying because I didn’t aware (the mayor) of it?” Lee asked. “When he threatened a face off with me, I wanted to get him in the public. Not on Facebook.”
Several members of the audience blasted Lee’s actions, calling them “childish” and “like high school.”
“That’s the problem,” Stringer said. “It’s unfortunate that a process has compromised the safety of citizens.”
Several Guyton City Council candidates were in the attendance and Lariscy asked them to voice their opinions on the matter. He, Collins and Goldwire are not running for re-election Nov. 5.
“Even though he was interviewed for public safety director, I had no issues with him not having as much fire experience as other candidates and felt he would have brought something to Guyton for the price agreed upon,” said Deen, a mayoral candidate. “When asked about salary and why he could take less, he said, ‘I’m a pensioned officer and I just want to continue to work.’ It was my vote and I said we should bring him in.”
Post 2 candidate Andy Harville expressed support for Zapal during the meeting. Gerwig, also seeking the Post 2 seat, said Friday that he also backs Zapal.
Michael Garvin, seeking to become mayor a second time, said he didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision but added, “With it just being six (candidates), everyone probably should have had a look at it.”
Post 2 hopeful Hursula Pelote also said she needed more information before weighing in with her thoughts.
A few more citizens voiced their desire for Zapal before Lariscy made the unusual move to seek another vote on Zapal.
“We need to provide the services we agreed to provide,” he said. “We have a highly qualified candidate that is willing to serve. He may not be Mr. Braxton but Mr. Braxton wanted $70,000, according to his application.”
Collins’ fourth motion to accept Lariscy’s recommendation to hire Zapal was then rejected.
“Thank you gentlemen,” Lariscy said as several citizens got up to leave, mumbling in disgust. “Elections are coming.”