By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
SALTILLO – The Board of Aldermen has decided to join most other Mississippi municipalities in making Saltillo’s police chief an appointed rather than elected position.
But the decision didn’t come without strong opposition from the current elected police chief and his supporters.
The board voted 3-2 on Tuesday night to make the job appointed, effective with the 2013 city elections. More than 100 people attended the three-hour meeting in support of Police Chief Steve Brooks, a vocal opponent of the change.
Mayor Bill Williams, who advocated the switch to an appointed system, said it isn’t aimed at Brooks.
“We want Steve Brooks to be our chief until he’s an old man,” said Williams. “So this change is not a way to get rid of him, in fact, it’s a way for us to assure that when he does decide to retire we can get someone qualified in here to continue the great groundwork he has set as our chief.”
Brooks, chief since 2002, said he made his stance known to Williams last week when he was first told of the board’s plans by the mayor.
“I have been against the idea of the chief’s position being made an appointed one since I took this job,” said Brooks. “I do not and will not support it … I’m disappointed in the decision, but I won’t fight it.”
Williams had discussed changing the system with former board members over the past three years, but nothing came out of it. But after attending the Mississippi Municipal League conference and listening to experts on the subject, Williams said the new board members decided to do it.
Williams also said that after reviewing the history of the elected chief in Saltillo over a 25-year period before Brooks took the job, there was a lot of dissatisfaction.
Williams said appointment puts the selection and oversight of police chief into the hands of the elected Board of Aldermen, which in Saltillo is required by law to approve all city employees except for the police chief.
If a situation arises where some corrective measure is required, neither the board nor the residents have that power in an elective situation, Williams said.
Additionally, the mayor noted that the only qualification for the elected police chief is that he must live in the city. Since the police department has the largest number of employees and the largest budget from the city general fund, the board needs the authority to seek the best qualified candidate, Williams said.
Brooks contended that the issue comes down to the board not being able to control the police chief under the current system.
Of the five aldermen, Mitch Brazeal , Scott Knight and Brad Woodcock voted for the change to an appointed chief while Jewell Webb and Terry Glidewell voted against it.
“This change takes away the people’s right to elect the person they want in office serving them,” said Glidewell. “And that doesn’t sit well with me. This is just another right being taken from the people. They are doing it in Washington and now in Saltillo.”
Williams said Brooks’ job will be safe if he still wants to be police chief beyond the 2013 elections.
Brooks isn’t so sure.
“The mayor told me as long as he’s in office I have nothing to worry about, but what happens if he’s not re-elected?” said Brooks. “My job is not guaranteed and neither are the jobs of my officers now. But by the time the election comes I will have 36 years of law enforcement service under my belt and I can retire. So if I’m not wanted then, I can do that.”
There are nine municipalities within Lee County and only Saltillo and Baldwyn have elected police chiefs. Elsewhere in Northeast Mississippi, Corinth and New Albany also have elected chiefs.
According to the most recent municipal survey by Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government, of 114 cities and towns in the state responding, 101 of them, or 88 percent, have appointed police chiefs.
Ken Winter, director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, said elected police chiefs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past in Mississippi.
“There are only about 15 elected chiefs in the state,” said Winter. “It’s just something that makes more sense to make into an appointed position. If a chief is elected and is not doing a very good job then the board’s hands are tied as to what they can do about it. If appointed that chief is held accountable for his actions like any other city employee.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.