Story by Judith Brown
Without a single question or comment by members of Clinton City Council in open session, on Thursday council unanimously approved first reading of an ordinance to dissolve the Department of Public Safety, and soon after the vote a discussion and questions about council’s knowledge of the measures resulted in a series of angry outbursts by the city manager.
City Manager Bill Ed Cannon presented a power point of just over five minutes, and no council member commented or asked any questions when Mayor Bob McLean called for the vote.
The following day Cannon announced the hire of Phillip Russell of Union to serve as interim fire chief to investigate personnel records “and to conduct a formal internal investigation of the fire that occurred on Aug. 8, 2018,” referring to a 1 minute, 14 second video he later mentioned but did not show in open session.
The dissolution ordinance is not official until a second reading, and on Monday Cannon said he doesn’t yet have a date for that. The next regular meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday, Sep. 10.
Thursday’s special called meeting was announced last Wednesday afternoon, less than two days after council’s regular meeting Monday, Aug. 6, when council had a lengthy executive session which had included “one personnel matter from the Department of Public Safety.”
The combined DPS was formed 13 years ago by the Clinton City Council, and Robin Morse now serves as the director of the department.
Cannon’s presentation included background information on the difference duties of police and firefighters.
“It is imperative that police and fire personnel acquire the training necessary to ensure safe and proper emergency response to our citizens,” Cannon read.
Cannon used statistics provided by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Fighters for his primary points, and those included the potential for problems within combined departments such as low morale, neglect of fire programs, ineffective on-the-job experience, role conflicts which may occur, inadequate training of personnel and that “loss of a firefighting team concept sometimes occurs,” Cannon said, explaining, “which is why, in my opinion, consolidation does not work.”
Cannon also offered two slides dealing with the financial impact, comparing the cost of running two separate departments 14 years ago at $2,902,921 with 53 personnel, and this fiscal year’s DPS budget, which is $3.273,024 with 42 personnel.
When Mayor Bob McLean asked council for comments of questions, none of the members voiced any questions and they voted unanimously to pass first reading on the ordinance.
Following council’s vote and the adjournment of the meeting, which lasted about five minutes, Scott Peay, a former DPW officer for 10 years, voiced his concerns about council’s move to dissolve and divide the department with less than 28 hours notice. Several DPS staff were also in at the back of council chambers.
Since council were still in their seats and didn’t prevent him from continuing to voice his concerns, Peay asked Cannon if he had discussed the matter with director Robin Morse and others at the department to see the international fire association’s potential problems were actually the case in Clinton.
“I don’t have to,” Cannon said. “I’ve worked in four states and with three fire departments and in my opinion they (combined police and fire departments) do not work.”
Peay also mentioned the fact that the budgets don’t serve as a proper comparison because the technology required today is drastically more expensive that in 2004.
“It’s not about the budget,” McLean said, referring to passage of the ordinance.
City attorney Allen Wham suggested that even if council wasn’t required to hold a public hearing, he felt it might be beneficial to do that, and McLean verified that a public hearing was not required.
In answer to later questions about the potential difficulty of getting the measures passed, Cannon said there won’t be a problem.
“The public safety has not changed. I’m going to have a full time fire department, a full time fire chief and a full time police chief and if you want the bottom line that’s what all this is going to,” he said. “Somebody that runs the department as it should be done. And I’ve had the opportunity to see that. I’ve had the opportunity to be over those guys and at this point, unless they make me real mad, nobody’s going to lose a job but they have to decide if they want to be a police officer or a fireman – real soon – and I don’t care which, and if they can’t live with that I’m gonna run this city and I’m going to do the best job I can as a professional.”
Beyond Cannon’s presentation Thursday of the seven slides in his powerpoint, there was never any discussion of the possibility of dissolving the DPS prior to the vote in any open meeting held by Clinton City Council, and when asked later when Council heard a presentation, Cannon initially said, “No. They haven’t from me.”
He then explained he’s talked to them in other settings.
“I have talked to individual council members about my concerns and that didn’t start this week that started about three months in,” Cannon said. “You’ve got to remember I’ve served in four states. I’ve had three fires departments. In my opinion when I first looked at it probably about (the year) 2000 it didn’t work and in my opinion today it still doesn’t work.”
When asked how council might have had enough information to approve first reading on an important issue without more clarification or questions, Cannon became defensive.
“Absolutely. That’s what they’re elected for. They got the information,” Cannon said. “I’ve talked to different members of council at different times. I think by law I can talk to three at one time, can’t I, and not be a quorum?”
He became angry and used profanity before he left, and McLean said he planned to speak with Cannon about his behavior, adding that he was frustrated that council members didn’t have more comments or questions prior to the vote, and “he’s been under a lot of stress and it’s been a stressful transition.”
Cannon used Friday’s press release as an opportunity to apologize for his outburst, stating, “I apologize for the manner in which I replied. However, it was due to the passion I have to ensure the safety of our citizens and personnel.”