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City council eliminates Ga. PD, mayor rehires officers

The council voted 3-1 during a special called meeting to eliminate the city's police department, effective immediately


By Tyler Jett
Chattanooga Times/Free Press

UPDATE: City Manager Mike Brown said Mayor Anthony Hulsey signed the veto at 2:15 p.m. today, rehiring the police department.

ORIGINAL STORY: 

VARNELL, Ga. — Saying he was "blindsided," the mayor of Varnell, Ga.'s voice broke as he addressed residents at a public forum Wednesday afternoon.

"I give you my word, however you want to take it," Anthony Hulsey said. "I'm doing everything I can to get this matter resolved. OK? I do have veto power."

In the cramped North Georgia city council room, a standing-room-only crowd applauded. "Use it!" one man shouted to the mayor. "Yes!" said a woman.

A day earlier, in a move Hulsey did not see coming, the council voted 3-1 during a special called meeting to eliminate the city's police department, effective immediately. The meeting had been called to discuss personnel — namely, police Chief Lyle Grant, whom the council suspended two weeks earlier after a controversial arrest.

Hulsey expected to reinstate Grant and return to business as usual. He typed up a news release before the meeting, announcing the chief's return.

"Here's the deal," Hulsey told the crowd a day later. "When I [veto the council's ordinance], I want to do that the right way. I do intend on using that."

By noon today, Hulsey said, he expects to sign the paperwork to officially overturn the council's vote. The police department's five full-time and six part-time officers will go back to work — for now. The council can always override the veto at its next meeting, July 25 at 7 p.m. in the city's gym.

Of the council's four members, Andrea Gordy, Jan Pourquoi and David Owens voted to disband the department. After Hulsey's public meeting, Pourquoi declined to comment and Gordy said she is on the fence about whether she still wants to eliminate the agency. Owens, however, said he intends to override the veto.

On Wednesday, Hulsey told residents to put pressure on the council at its next meetings.

"I encourage every one of you guys and gals to be there," he said. "Bring your neighbor. Bring whoever you can bring, especially if you are a city resident. Be there. Express your concerns. Ask them questions. Because in the political limelight, you guys put us in office as your voice. And we work for you. And [Tuesday], there was an injustice done."

Varnell is a tiny town of 3.4 square miles, with a population of about 1,800. After Tuesday's vote, Hulsey said he talked to Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood, who made sure a deputy is patrolling the area until Varnell police can go back to work. Chitwood told the Times Free Press on Tuesday his agency already works the area, but Hulsey said the sheriff's deputies drive through the city on their way to other parts of the county, as opposed to patrolling it.

Hulsey said the department is an asset because local officers can respond sooner to the report of a crime.

But Owens believes the city can make do without a law enforcement agency. He wants Varnell to enter an agreement with the county to provide one or two full-time deputies in the area. Gordy said Pourquoi had discussed the issue in depth with Chitwood, and Pourquoi is confident the sheriff's office will adequately protect the city.

The city's annual police budget is about $300,000, and the city's municipal court brings in about $200,000 a year in fines. Some 96 percent of the cases before the city judge are traffic violations.

Owens said the police department costs too much because of the liability it carries. In 2012, an off-duty officer killed a newspaper deliveryman in a car crash, which led to a $650,000 settlement. Two years later, another police officer crashed, leading to a $270,000 settlement.

The past two years, he said, the city's liability insurance cost increased $22,000. He believes insurance companies will drop it altogether with another crash.

"If that should occur and there is another accident, the city doesn't have the funds to pay a liability lawsuit," he said. "We're really on thin ice."

Gordy said that was an important factor in her vote to eliminate the department.

"Every day, we're like, 'What are our guys going to do?'" she said. "We're on pins and needles. 'What are they going to mess up today?' They've cost us thousands of dollars making shameful and careless mistakes."

City Attorney Terry Miller said the council legally should not have been allowed to vote to eliminate the department Tuesday. The meeting was specially called and advertised as a discussion of personnel. Technically, cutting the agency deals with personnel. But Miller said the issue was much broader than that, touching the city's budget as well as potentially its municipal court's function.

The issue is moot, though, because of Hulsey's veto.

Gordy agreed the council could have better tipped off residents before Tuesday's vote. She said she didn't come prepared for that decision. But given the fact they were already talking about Grant's employment as police chief, she felt the meeting was a good chance to review the police department as a whole.

That said, Gordy now wants to review the potential financial impact of cutting the agency, as well as what an agreement with the county would look like.

Grant was under fire for how he handled a domestic disturbance call at the home of former Councilman Sheldon Fowler. Grant said Fowler was drunk and yelled at the officers on the scene on June 13. But he said Fowler's wife, who called the police, did not want him arrested. Grant told Fowler's wife and two daughters to leave the home for an hour so Fowler would calm down and go to sleep.

Grant applied for arrest warrants against Fowler nine days later, charging him with disorderly conduct, simple assault and simple battery of a police officer, alleging Fowler had poked officers in the chest. Grant said the arrest was delayed because he wanted to meet with the mayor and other members of the council before applying for charges.

Fowler later resigned from the council.

Ashlee Godfrey, the only council member who voted against disbanding the police department Tuesday, criticized Gordy, Pourquoi and Owens for not planning all the necessary steps before cutting the agency.

"I do not believe the community has been considered in this matter," she said, reading from a prepared statement. "Because if they had, we would have done our homework as needed in advance, brought this matter to the citizens and presented the basis and results [as] to why it would be a true benefit. And none of that was done."

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©2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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