Is there dissension in the Rincon police ranks? And just who is supposed to enforce the law?
City council members are asking their city attorney to find out the answer to the first question. The second question should be easy to answer, but it appears it won’t be, given the council’s recent actions.
Rincon City Council spent more than seven hours in executive session last Monday night, finally adjourning at 3:22 a.m. after closed-door meetings with more than a dozen city employees and others, talking to each individually.
They spent another two hours in executive session Wednesday night, talking amongst themselves, before voting to fire Police Chief Michael Berry and Detective Scott Collins for “failure to follow the directives of mayor and council.”
In its extended executive session last week, Rincon City Council appears to have violated the state’s open meetings laws. In a closed personnel session, the city council may only discuss and deliberate about a personnel matter, according to Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson.
“They may not take statements or arguments from others,” Hudson wrote in an e-mail to the Herald on Wednesday afternoon. “That must be done in open meeting.”
City council members interviewed Effingham Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie — who had told council members in the open portion of the meeting of the good working relationship he had with the Rincon Police Department and its chief — and several Rincon Police officers, including Chief Berry. Council members spent less than 10 minutes talking with Chief Berry, who entered the executive session at approximately 2:35 a.m. Council members spent nearly 40 minutes afterward in discussions amongst themselves. Though no vote was taken publicly, Berry was informed he was being suspended less than an hour after his appearance in the illegal meeting conducted by city council.
Berry said he even offered his resignation, but City Manager Donald Toms refused to accept it.
Some of the officers spent nearly an hour in their individual sessions behind closed doors with council members.
Council members also appear to have been caught off-guard by the number of people who showed up to speak to them Monday night. According to sources, a letter had been circulated asking for people to show up to the council meeting in support of Chief Berry. But the letter also wound up drawing those who apparently weren’t in favor of the city’s top cop, who has been on the job less than six months.
Rather than have all those who wished to speak in there at once and perhaps wanting them to express as much candor as possible, council members took the unusual and illegal step of talking to them one on one in closed-door meetings.
But now the city must find another police chief, its fourth in two years. Berry had been hired by Toms, who has been on the job for less than a year, and the two go back to their days together working for Newport News, Va. Berry fit the criteria Toms was looking for in a chief, though critics — Berry’s hire as chief had been announced by Newport News a month before his predecessor stepped down and he came on board, an announcement Toms said was inaccurate — countered the job description was written with Berry in mind.
While there are plenty of questions, answers are in short supply, and there is no guarantee the investigation City Attorney Raymond Dickey has been directed to conduct will shed any light on why the Rincon Police Department is again without a chief.
Will the council allow the city manager to conduct the next hiring process, or will they be the driving force behind it?
To whom does the police chief answer— city council, who does not hire the police chief, or the city manager, who is responsible for his hiring?
Did council members ask the chief to have his officers not write so many traffic tickets?
Was the chief instructed not to wear his uniform when addressing the council during meetings so they wouldn’t feel intimidated?
Was the other officer fired for telling another officer that he was “a piece of (expletive)?”
Did three officers meet with the city attorney — who now has been tasked to conduct an investigation into the department’s problems — just prior to the chief’s eventual firing?
City council members were adamant about the city charter being read for clarification about who answers to whom. In holding an illegal meeting and in what the now deposed chief believes is a blatant disregard for due process, it appears the Rincon City Council should be brushing up on all facets of the law.