Marked Tree Council vote fails to reinstate police chief

Saturday, November 17, 2012
Former Marked Tree Police Chief Chester Ford, left, addresses the city council regarding his termination. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

The Marked Tree courtroom was packed with concerned citizens on Monday night as former Marked Tree Police Chief Chester Ford addressed the city council regarding his firing by the mayor last month. Though several council members wanted Ford reinstated, they failed to get the two-thirds vote required to do so.

During committee reports at the October council meeting, Ford had said that the police department was understaffed and asked to address the council about hiring another officer. Mayor Wayne Nichols told him they would discuss the matter the next day. "The Tuesday following the meeting, I was unjustly fired by the mayor," Ford said.

Ford said that the police department had cut one position months ago, another officer had to resign due to medical reasons, and that he (Ford) had asked the mayor four times prior to the council meeting about hiring another officer.

After Ford was terminated, Mayor Nichols initially said it had been a mutual agreement. "When the newspaper called, I said Chester was no longer with us and that it was a mutual agreement," Nichols said. "I probably made a mistake in trying to make a soft landing. I didn't want to embarrass anybody. I apologize."

Mayor Nichols said the firing stemmed from a discussion over the number of police officers that has been going on for a year and a half. "We've had six officers in the past," Nichols said. "There were eight when I came onboard. We (Ford and I) tried to work together the last few years, but we do not agree on the number of officers we can afford."

Before the council went into executive session, council member Shane Glenn voiced concerns about the city's personnel policy. "The mayor has the authority to fire city employees, but I think there ought to be good documentation," Glenn said. "I still think any employee has the right to address the council. I think it (Ford's termination) was handled wrong. It's not a good example that needs to be set forth." Glenn added that he felt the mayor should have discussed the matter with the council before terminating Ford. "I felt like I was misled and the people of this town were misled."

When the council came out of executive session to vote on reinstating Ford with back pay, Steve Craig, Shane Glenn, Danny Johnson, Cleo Johnson Jr. and Jerry Jones voted in favor of the reinstatement. Michael Scott and Mary Smith abstained from voting. The final position on the council is currently vacant. Shirley Moore resigned from the position last month due to health reasons and recently passed away. Her position has not yet been filled. The measure did not pass because six out of eight votes were required. City Clerk Pam Wright said she checked with the Municipal League and that they confirmed that the two-thirds vote required is based on the total number of council positions even though one is currently unfilled.

Larry Rollins, whose father, Elmer Rollins, was a police chief of Marked Tree for 30 years, had addressed the council earlier in the night to call for them to keep an open mind and reinstate Ford. After the meeting, Rollins called the firing one of the biggest travesties he's seen in Marked Tree. "This is what's hurt our city," Rollins said. "Any time it gets to where you can't support the police force, something's bad wrong. It's not right. This city's not right."

Glenn made a motion that the personnel policy be changed to read that an employee should be sent home for a few days with pay, unless it's an emergency situation, so the mayor can discuss the matter with the council before termination takes place. The motion passed 6-1 with Michael Scott voting against.

In other business, the council:

*heard from council member Jerry Jones. Jones called for the dismissal of Detective Sergeant Chris Baty. Jones read from a copy of a police report detailing how his son, Taurus Jones, was tased and arrested on Oct. 24. After going into executive session to discuss the matter, the council unanimously agreed to take no action.

*heard a proclamation recognizing Shirley Moore's work in the community and her work on the city council from 1998-2012.

*approved a judges and clerks transfer of $5,000.

*approved an ordinance waiving bids on the purchase of a tanker pumper truck for the fire department.

*Approved the firefighters income protection plan.

*approved a line of credit in the amount of $500,000 from First Delta Bank for the Awesome Products rail spur. City The loan had already been approved at a previous meeting but needed to have a detailed approval in the minutes for First Delta Bank's audit.

*approved the municipal officers accidental death and dismemberment plan.

*approved refinancing a 2007 sales tax bond. City Clerk Pam Wright said interest rates are going down and this would save the city $11,000 a year and $186,000 long term.

*approved subtracting $15,000 of the final payment to the contractor of the rail spur for Awesome Products for being 15 days past the completion date of Sept. 27.

On Wednesday, the council held a special meeting to appoint a council member to take the empty position. The council chose James Williams.

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