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Discussion of hiring a police chief turns into talk of abolishing Colonial Beach PD

At the October 24 Colonial Beach Town Council work session, what began with a discussion started by Councilman Jim Chiarello on proceeding to hire a permanent police chief, turned into a series of disagreements between council members on how, or if, they should proceed.


During the last 17 minutes of the session, after several minutes of council members talking in generalities, it became apparent that a majority of council members, if not all, have been exploring options that would result in the abolishment of the Colonial Beach Police Department (CBPD). Full responsibility for law enforcement and citizen safety in the Town of Colonial Beach would move to the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO).
Councilwoman Linda Brubaker made it a point to go on record saying that she had not publicly announced that she was either for, or against, the “merger.” Mayor Mike Ham, during a statement addressing rumors of such, stated that the question before the council should be a decision whether or not to abolish the Colonial Beach Police Department.

Among the discussions, issues of whether abolishing CBPD, or a merger with WCSO, would affect the legality of golf cart use on the public streets of Colonial Beach came into question. Councilman Gary Seeber stated at one point, that he felt one man could be appointed as police chief, resulting in meeting state requirements of having a police force in order to continue to allow golf carts.

What was overshadowed by several arguments between council members, and name calling at the outset of the meeting, was the fact that the council has been engaging in ongoing discussions to explore options that would ultimately leave the Town of Colonial Beach without its own police department.

Chiarello began the discussion by asking council members to review the 29 applications, including that of CBPD Interim Chief William Seay. Chiarello asked that the council members help to narrow down the list to the top ten applicants, then to the top five. Chiarello then suggested sending the five remaining applications to the Police Chiefs Association for background checks and screenings, scheduling interviews in November, making a decision in December, and having a new police chief on Jan. 1. “Does that sound like a good game plan to everyone?” he asked.

Opposition began with Councilman Tim Curtin, who felt the decision to hire a permanent police chief should be held off until after the council finished exploring more options. At first, Curtin’s remarks gave the impression that he felt that there was not a good selection of applicants, but as the discussions continued, Curtin’s reasons for delaying a decision became clear.

Curtin prefaced his statement asking, “How do I say this without anybody getting more upset with me?”

“We have been talking about this for a while, and some other options have surfaced in the meantime. I’m leery about putting this in high gear until we can be sure that we have explored all of our options in this area. I don’t think we have yet. I will not be voting in support of hiring anybody until I’m sure we have.”

Brubaker asked Curtin if he meant options with other police chiefs or options with other situations of our police department.

Curtin replied, “Exactly.”

Brubaker said she had concerns and voiced them to other council members. Brubaker said, “If that were to be started on, at this minute, chances of it happening are slim to none within the next legislative session.”

It did not become clear right away that the council members were discussing consolidating the Colonial Beach Police Department with the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office.

Brubaker said, “To go before the general assembly to change the charter to do something else, I think we need to first examine what we want to do. What do we want to do; do we want to have a police force for Colonial Beach; is it going to be a police force that is our police force?”

Chiarello felt that the council should make a decision now. He said that hiring a police chief is the responsible thing to do. “We can always change course,” he said. Chiarello feels that for the time being, the council doesn’t really have a choice but to proceed with hiring a full-time permanent police chief.

Chiarello said, “We advertised for a police chief and received 29 applicants. What do we do, just tell these people we changed our mind?” Chiarello continued, “I think we need to stay on course.”

Curtin confronted Chiarello, asking him, “So you are reversing your previously expressed opinion by email, that you want to move in the other direction?”

Chiarello responded, “I think the future is now. Once we have dealt with this, we can always decide later on.” Chiarello continued to urge the council to choose and vote on a new police chief.

Curtin said he felt that the town could not afford to fund a police department anymore without help.

Mayor Mike Ham cut in to say, “We can discuss this at another time.”

Councilman Gary Seeber added, “I think the meeting we are supposed to set up tonight, to discuss that issue, is where we ought to discuss the issue.” Curtin agreed.

The town council had a previous meeting scheduled with the town attorney that morning, but it had been cancelled. No reason was originally given for that meeting. After the work session, however, Mayor Mike Ham confirmed that the reason for the cancelled meeting was to discuss options for merging or abolishing the CBPD.
Seeber added, “The other thing I wanted to point out is that the [Town] charter said we have to have a police chief. The state code said we have to have a police force to have golf carts. You can pay one guy anything you want for a year, and have a police chief and a police force.”

Mayor Ham then announced that Town Attorney Andrea Erard has been working on legal opinions on the matter.
At this point in the meeting, it became clear that council members are working on a way to merge the CBPD with the WCSO. In the past, councils have entertained the idea of merging the two departments so police services are controlled by the county. In past attempts, the council has been told that several major requirements make the idea very difficult to implement.

Mayor Ham handed the floor over to Councilman Tommy Edwards, who Ham introduced as the Safety Committee Chairman. Edwards began by saying, “First of all, let me just say sometimes I wonder if I am [chairman]. Some of y’all take the bull by the horns, so to speak. First of all, let me just say that four of y’all, and it’s on record: Tim, Wanda, Jim, and Linda, y’all want to go down to the sheriff’s department down there. So my question is: why in the world do we even want to think of bringing in a gentleman to interview for this job, when the majority of y’all want to bring the sheriff’s department in?”

Edwards said that it would be an embarrassment to the chosen applicant to hire someone for the job, and six months later tell him he has to leave because the town wants to “go to Westmoreland County.” Edwards feels the council should seek the help of the International Association of Police Chiefs to help review all applicants.

Edwards told Chiarello that his list of attributes may work to choose the top five applicants, but he is more comfortable with tasking “someone who knows a lot more than we do” with the job of narrowing down the list.
Chiarello stated that merging with the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office does not seem like a possibility at this time. He stated that he has a vote in the matter. Chiarello said, “I have a right to go through these applications; I’m not an idiot, and I refuse to accept anyone calling me one.”

Chiarello clearly took offense to Edwards’ comments. Chiarello began to discuss the amount of time and effort he went through to look over the applications.

Mayor Ham pounded the gavel and stated, “First of all, nobody called you an idiot!”

A disagreement ensued between the mayor and Chiarello, but Chiarello pressed on for several minutes restating the work he has put into the matter and stated he feels the council should move forward with choosing a permanent chief of police.

Brubaker obtained the floor and stated she did not want to go on record as supporting consolidation. Brubaker said, “I think we owe it to Captain Seay to say, one way or the other. He has stepped up to the plate to fulfill the obligation we asked him to. I also want to correct Councilman Edwards; I have at no time said publicly that I am for a merger of the police department and the Sheriff’s Department. I did, however, say that I would...”

At this point, Edwards said to Brubaker that she inquired about it.

Then Mayor Ham cut in to address rumors floating around. Brubaker addressed Ham, saying that he had interrupted her, and she had the right to the floor. Ham said he would get back to her after he was finished clarifying some legal issues.

Ham said, “From a legal standpoint, let me clarify something first. There are rumors everywhere that we, certain people, maybe the whole council, maybe the whole entire town, have asked Sheriff C.O. Balderson, ‘Can he take over our police department?’ or ‘Can we merge our police department with his?’ The attorneys will tell you, C.O. Balderson will tell you, neither of those is an option. We can ask...” Interrupting, Brubaker stated, “So right now, we need to make a decision whether we want to abolish the police department. We can’t just merge it, or give it away, or say, ‘Take it.’ That’s the issue we need to come up to.” At that point, Ham turned the floor back over to Brubaker.

Brubaker explained that she has not publicly stated that she is either for or against a merger. “I don’t have enough information on it.” She did say, however, that she would welcome a dialog with the sheriff. She said she resented the fact that she is being told that she cannot have a dialog with the sheriff.

Brubaker said, “I am for doing the best we can, with the available police chief and department that we have.”
Brubaker then motioned to adjourn; Councilwoman Wanda Goforth Seconded; and all members voted in favor.

When asked how he felt about the progress, or lack thereof, in selecting a permanent police chief, Interim Police Chief Seay declined to comment, saying that he is a public servant and did not feel he should be political.

Outside the meeting room, Chief Seay said he has applied for the position, and he will continue to do the job as interim chief, as long as needed, until the council makes a decision.

It is really not clear if an official vote has been taken, identifying who would like to continue to pursue the matter. What is clear is that the council is spending a great deal of time exploring another issue that has been brought up with each new council for decades and has ultimately resulted in keeping the CBPD intact.

 

Linda Farneth

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